In Chelsea, hunt is on for remains of lost Revolutionary War ship

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / July 20, 2009
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Somewhere along an industrial stretch of river pocked with rotting piers and towering salt piles north of Boston lies the answer to one of the great riddles of the Revolutionary War.

Where is the final resting place of the British schooner, HMS Diana?

The river, known as Chelsea Creek, separates Chelsea from East Boston. Today, the river is plied by oil tankers and is home to a landscape dotted with the city’s iconic three-deckers.

But more than 200 years ago, the creek was the site of one of the earliest and least-remembered engagements of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Chelsea Creek, the first naval engagement of the American Revolution.

For two days in May 1775, British redcoats and members of the Continental Army battled up and down the waterway. The British were trying to reach farmers who would still trade food and livestock. The Colonial forces were trying to deny them those resources.

As the fighting raged, the British sailed the schooner up the river to provide reinforcement. For a while it worked.

Then the tide turned, literally, and the Diana went aground in the mud despite efforts to free it.

An unknown number of British soldiers died in the fighting. The rest fled, leaving the ship behind.

Continental Army forces took what they could and torched the rest.

That might have been the end of the story, except the mystery of the Diana never completely faded, even as stories of far more famous skirmishes - including the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill - stole the historical limelight.

Now, Massachusetts has received a $48,300 grant from the National Park Service to preserve the site where the Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought.

State researchers will use the money to pull together all they know about the battle, fill in what blanks they can, and then try to match that narrative to the existing landscape.

And maybe dig up the remnants of the Diana along the way.

“It’s a relatively unknown or unrecognized battle so we want to give it more definition,’’ said Victor Mastone, director and chief archaeologist at the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources.

Mastone said there have been occasional reports of the Diana remnants being discovered over the years, but each time the wreck turned out to be another, unrelated ship.

Although the main goal of the grant is to help preserve an important battleground, including any remaining buildings or land forms from the time, Mastone said he is still “interested in finding the Diana in the long run.’’

He’s not alone. George Ostler is a retired firefighter and amateur historian who has long been fascinated with the battle in his hometown of Chelsea.

Ostler said the battle never received the recognition it deserves, a wrong he hopes could be righted in part from the renewed interest in pinpointing the locations of the fighting.

“It was right after Lexington and Concord, but it was before Bunker Hill,’’ said Ostler, 88. “It was maybe not the greatest, but it was a leading battle in the Revolutionary War in our fight for our independence.’’

Lexington Common boasts its iconic Minuteman Statue and a 221-foot-high monument soars over Breed’s Hill (the actual location of the Battle of Bunker Hill), and someday, Ostler said, the Battle of Chelsea Creek might also get its due.

And even though HMS Diana was set ablaze, Mastone said there’s a chance some portion of the ship survived and remains buried along the river banks.

“Even though areas are heavily dredged and urbanized, the landscape can stay pretty much the same,’’ he said. “And they can give up something recognizable.’’