Remains of 18th century ship removed from NY’s World Trade Center site

The remains of a 32-foot section of a unique 18th century wooden ocean-going ship were removed on Friday from a construction site at the World Trade Center (WTC). The remnants, believed to be one of the ships “that built New York,” are headed for forensic examination at an archaeological museum in the U.S. state of Maryland. “They are probably on their way now,” Elizabeth Meade, speaking on behalf of AKRF, an environmental consultancy hired by authorities in New York City, told the Xinhua news agency. “Each piece was wrapped by conservators and they were placed in two large industrial containers. Some pieces were in better condition than others.”

She explained each piece was “kept wet” before it was mapped and tagged prior to packaging. The vessel’s remnants were discovered on July 13 by construction workers digging a foundation at the old WTC site, where the office towers and a memorial to the more than 2,700 people killed in the attacks in the collapse of the Twin Towers will be built. One expert believes the remains are important because they are of a work-a-day vessel of which there were so many at the time they were undocumented. The vessel was found in a part of lower Manhattan, where New York City was founded by the Dutch in the 17th Century in land reclaimed from the East and Hudson rivers.

In addition to the planking and timbers of the vessel, Meade said several “personal artifacts” also were uncovered. They included the bowl of a well-smoked white clay pipe, wooden and metal buttons, a spoon and “what is thought might be musket balls, shoe leather and animal bones.”

Professor Warren Riess of the Darling Marine Center of the University of Maine on Thursday briefed the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), which along with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), are in charge of the site. AKRF was hired by the LMDC. Riess said construction of the vessel was “very clever … very non-standard. You are not going to find anything like this in a book.”

“When the Dutch came, they began filling this area,” Riess told the LMDC board as he gestured to the East River side of Manhattan’ s tip, explaining they began filling in mud flats and very shallow water so they could get to their ships and boats from the land. He said, later, when the English came they started going around the southernmost tip into the Hudson River. It was on that side, on what was Washington Street, where the remnants were found. “Occasionally … they actually used a ship for one of the quays,” the professor said. But this one was heading the wrong way. “It is sticking out into the (Hudson) river,” he said. “So, was it part of a slip quay, or was it part of a derelict, brought in, dismantled to get good wood from it, left it there, just filled in over it, eventually? At this point, we don’t know. I think the latter.”

Riess said that was his first impression, which he was sticking with. “This would have been a typical ship for about that size at the time,” he said, adding it could have had a single mast or double masts, “But more than likely it could have been a brigantine or a schooner trading to — this was a merchant ship — trading to the Boston area, (Canada’s) Nova Scotia, maybe down to the West Indies, (and to the U.S. state of) Virginia. “New York at that time was producing a lot of food in the hinterlands, grain, vegetables, also shipping live animals from Connecticut down to Barbados which was the largest English port in the Caribbean at the time and bringing back from there molasses, sugar, whatever and wood products from New England,” the professor continued in his briefing.

But why did the ship end up where it was found?

“I don’t know,” he said. “The top looks like it was taken off. We just have the bottom timbers and so that was my idea about maybe being brought in. The bottom timbers look pretty worm-eaten (by) ship worms that make the outer planking sort of spongy. OK. Water comes in. It’s no good any more. Is it worth fixing? They decided no (and) took off the top.”

The ship will be studied at The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at The Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in St. Leonard, Maryland, near Washington, D.C..

The last time such a significant archeological find in New York was made was of an 18th-century cargo ship found in 1982, also in lower Manhattan. “The significance of this site to me as an archeologist and a historian is great,” Riess said. “This is a kind of a ship that is kind of one of a kind.” He said while there were records of war ships and those belonging to “kings and queens and some of the larger merchant ships,” nobody bothered recording them at the time. “They were just too mundane.”

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