Flashback Friday: Searching the Harbor for Sunken History

By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor

The Port of New York & New Jersey has been preparing for decades for the day bigger ships could pass beneath the newly raised Bayonne Bridge. The Bayonne, a marvel of civil engineering, was raised to 215 feet above the Kill van Kull to allow mega-ships to clear the span. The shipping lanes in the New York harbor also were deepened to 50 feet to accommodate the newest class of big ships.

Yet, as so often happens when the Port Authority undertakes massive projects to retool and rebuild its marine infrastructure for critical future needs, amazing artifacts tend to surface.

For example, during the recently completed harbor deepening program, marine archaeologists discovered the existence of one of the last and largest graveyards of wooden ships anywhere in the country. The skeletal remains of six derelict ships from era of wooden shipbuilding were discovered along the shores and partially submerged in the waters between Staten Island and New Jersey.

Marine archaeologists contracted by the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) conducted underwater investigations, recording the existence of several vessels determined to be historically significant – including a fishing trawler named the Fish Hawk, the four-masted schooner Paul E. Thurlow, two floating dry docks and a tugboat.


Workers dismantle the skeletal remains of two old seafaring vessels


To the casual passer-by, these artifacts don’t appear to be much more than piles of rotting timbers. But they’re actually forensic evidence of the technologies and innovations that powered ships in recent centuries.

The vessels likely were abandoned when they became technologically obsolete because of advances in shipping practices. According to Lynn Rakos, ACE archaeologist, some of the vessels likely were brought to these locations as salvage parts for historical restorations. All of the remains have been entrusted to ACE for protection and preservation under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987.

“The dredging project could potentially have damaged these historic shipwrecks that are located along the edges of the channel,” said Rakos. “They are still there along the quieter stretches of shoreline because money has not yet been appropriated to remove them.”


A diving team prepares for the harbor search for sunken maritime history.

During excavations for construction of the World Trade Center site, scientists uncovered the remains of an ancient sailing ship in a pit that today is the Vehicle Security Center. That ship was the skeleton of a Hudson River sloop, designed to carry passengers and cargo over shallow, rocky water.   The white oak used in the ship’s construction was cut around 1773 or so – a few years before the war that established America’s independence from Britain.

Years earlier, as excavation began for the construction of the Twin Towers, a trove of artifacts from the 16th and 17th century was unearthed on the bottom of the Hudson River: anchors, cannons, cannon balls, ships’ wheels, even a section of the French ocean liner, the Normandie, which capsized after a fire in 1942.

“During the 18th and 19th centuries, sailing vessels of all sizes and shapes entered and exited the port of New York, including the famous clipper ships, deep-water sailing ships and large, multi-masted schooners, the largest sailing vessels of their time,” said Rakos. “The area also included schooner barges, pilot boats, lighters, fishing boats and other types of small craft. “

A few of these artifacts were on display in the main lobby of One World Trade Center, but most of them were stored in the basement of the Twin Towers, where they were lost on 9/11.

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