Researchers eager to study WTC ship

Vessel’s remains were taken to Md. research center

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post / August 15, 2010

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ST. LEONARD, Md. — Once, this was a stout ship, with oak floor timbers fastened with iron nails, built with saw and the calloused hands of shipwrights now long dead.

Two centuries ago, it was a simple coaster, hauling goods around the eastern capes, armed against pirates, and ending its days at a wharf in New York City. As the years went by, it sank into the harbor mud, entombed beneath what would become the World Trade Center site.

Earlier this month, two trucks bearing the ship’s unearthed skeleton pulled into a Maryland science complex in St. Leonard, where scores of eager archeologists and curators waited as though for the bones of a dinosaur.

There, over the next few hours, workers in lab coats and T-shirts unloaded the pieces one at a time, arrayed most of them on tarps, and with hose and sponge, toothbrush, and bare hands scrubbed away the muck of 200 years.

Over the next few weeks, scientists hope to discover when the ship was built, where it traveled, how big it was, and more about a bygone world in which it sailed.

The ship was discovered on July 12 when its ribs were spotted poking out of the muck as workers were excavating the World Trade Center site. The pieces were catalogued and removed by a team that included staff from Maryland’s state archeological conservation laboratory, which specializes in such work.

It is not clear how the ship got buried beneath the twin towers. It could have been used as fill when the Manhattan shoreline was expanded into the Hudson River about 1800. Sections of San Francisco are built on fill partly made of old ships, said Betty Seifert, a curator at the laboratory.

Or the vessel might have sunk at its wharf and been forgotten. Ships “get old, they get tired, they get tied in and left and abandoned,’’ Seifert said.

And it is not clear what kind of ship it is. “Never seen anything exactly like this,’’ said Warren Riess, professor of maritime history and archeology at the University of Maine and the lead investigator.

“I’m thinking still that it’s about the right size and construction to be what would have been called a coaster,’’ he said as he watched timbers being unloaded. “A ship that went down the coast from New York to maybe Maryland, Virginia, Barbados, Boston . . . carrying everyday cargo.’’

The vessel was probably about 6o or 70 feet long and about 18 feet wide. It probably had one or two masts, was a sloop or a brig, and sailed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, he said. The square iron nails in the wood, rather than wooden pegs, indicate a later vintage, Riess said. “Almost the whole thing is tied together with big iron nails.’’

Tree scientists are being called in to see whether they can figure out where its wood came from and how old it is. Other scientists might be able to trace where the vessel had been by studying shells left by ship worms.

“It’s a mystery,’’ Riess said. “It’s like a detective story.’’

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