HAVERHILL - Climbing around the muddy, decaying timbers of the shipwreck at low tide feels like a Hardy Boys adventure, far removed from the McMansions just up the hill. And, sure enough, there's a Depression-era mystery surrounding the wood skeleton poking up from the tree-shaded Merrimack River shallows.
Amesbury native Graham McKay, a graduate student in maritime archeology at the University of Bristol in England, set out this summer to confirm the identity of the ship grounded forever back in 1936. Local legend and yellowed newspaper clippings say that this is what's left of the renowned Light Vessel No. 1, built in Kittery, Maine, in 1855 and stationed on the Nantucket Shoals for many years. After it was retired, the ship was given to area Sea Scouts before its dramatic end in 1936. Even the Coast Guard's official history says so, on its website at uscg.mil/history/weblightships/LV1.html.
But as often happens with cherished local lore, the facts point in another direction.
"My purpose here is to prove it is or is not the No. 1," McKay said, "and I think I am very close to proving it is not."
His report will serve as his master's thesis as well as a report for the state Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources.
The ship, whatever it is, lies a few yards from shore, headed downstream, its keel buried in the mud, one side still standing, the other fallen away into the shallows. Four trees and a healthy crop of weeds sprout from the wreckage. A scatter of shotgun shells mark it as a unique duck blind.
"Every boat that goes by stops and asks what I'm doing," McKay said, taking out his tape measure. "Most of the population doesn't recognize it as a ship. . . . It doesn't have an Evinrude in the back." No engine or propeller at all, actually, as the craft was sailed or was towed everywhere it went.
On a recent visit, there's no sign of the "very large snapping turtles" that McKay said come around, but a great blue heron stands watching as McKay and his friend, Rob Napier, clamber around the wreck. Napier, who lives in Newburyport, is an expert ship modeler whose work for institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston requires countless hours of research. Where the uninitiated see a pile of worn timber, they see maritime history.
The masts set as far apart as possible, the short overhangs of the bow and stern, and the blunt sturdiness of its construction mark the wreck as a lightship.
"This vessel was a brute," Napier said.
The wreck has been on the state's radar for perhaps a decade, said Victor Mastone, director and chief archeologist for the state board.
"Under state law, all the submerged cultural resources are the property of the Commonwealth, and this happens to be one," Mastone said. This year, McKay was looking for a thesis topic and Mastone gave him a list of sites needing research, including this one, right in his old neighborhood.
McKay guesses he has visited the wreck 30 or 40 times since June. Each visit means about 3 1/2 hours of work time spanning low tide. His fieldwork and archival research makes him pretty sure this is not the LV-1.
For example, he said, correspondence and documents say the LV-1 was 103 feet long; this wreck is about 80. He believes it is the less-renowned LV-4 or LV-9, both of which were seen around Boston waters after their retirement, in one case performing mundane service as a fuel barge.
McKay and Napier pay particular attention to the hundreds of stubby nails sticking out of the exterior planking. The heads of the nails came off when the ship's metal sheathing was torn off decades ago, but no matter; they're made of a copper alloy, which also seems to rule out the LV-1.
"The No. 1 was supposedly sheathed with galvanized iron," McKay said. "I saw the bill for 2,000 pounds of galvanized sheathing nails."
A black-and-white paint scheme visible in a couple of old photos suggests to McKay that this is the LV-9, built in Philadelphia in 1857 and used as a relief vessel. That is going to take more research, though, and he has a thesis to finish.
The details are hard to pin down, but the ship was secured by leaders of a local yacht club for the edification of Haverhill's Sea Scouts troop. "When it became so much of a nuisance for the Haverhill Scouts, they gave it to the Groveland kids," McKay said with a chuckle.
One of McKay's best sources for what happened next is Dick Berkenbush a West Newbury resident whose family recently celebrated 98 years on their farm just across the river from the wreck.
Berkenbush, 82, remembers seeing the ship towed upriver in 1935 for the Sea Scouts to moor in Haverhill. "We were told that it was the old Nantucket lightship," Berkenbush said last Sunday. He well remembers the drama of the next winter.
"What really happened was nobody really made any arrangements for what happened when the river freezes," Berkenbush said. "We had a bad winter and the ice was pretty thick, so the boat froze in the ice, and in the spring when the ice went out, so did the boat. It came floating down the river and it had to go through Groveland bridge."
He watched the drama from their farm. "They were quite concerned about it going through the bridge because, if it missed the draw span, it probably would have done some damage to the bridge, so they were thinking of dynamiting the boat." However, he said, "they opened the draw span and the boat came nice as could be through the draw span. . . . It got a few hundred yards down below the bridge, and the river starts to narrow a little bit there, and what happened was the ice pushed it up against the shore."
A plan to refloat the ship was doomed when flooding filled the hull with sand and water. "And so it sat there, and we used to row across the river and play on it.
"The excursion boat used to go down and the guy used to tell them how it was a pirate boat and they'd buried their treasure and he was the only one who knew where it was," Berkenbush said with a laugh.
The hulk was burned in World War II so someone could scavenge the metal. Its deterioration has sped up in recent years, McKay said, as recreational boating thrives on the river and the wakes from countless watercraft wash over it.
Maritime archeology is becoming "sort of a big issue now because of global warming, and everyone is concerned about sea levels rising and building coastal defenses," McKay said. The changes could damage or erase underwater resources - shipwrecks and ruins - or render them inaccessible. So there's an increased consciousness of the need to study, record, and, in some cases, protect them.
"Here's a chance to document it, to say here's what the vessel was, this is how it fit in the life of Haverhill and Groveland in the '30s," Mastone said. "It allows us to start looking at what we did before and what can we do in the future, because that's really for us as archeologists: How can the past help us today? It's sometimes hard to articulate how it helps you, but it gives us a focal point."