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Photos by Kate Gardiner
Story by Brendan Burke, Associate Director of Archaeology, St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Standing on the beach, toes in the water, your visual horizon is a tad under three nautical miles. Many people are surprised at how small a visual world that is – it just seems so much bigger. Our imagination, if we let it wander, can easily take us over the horizon to a sea of intrigue, of conflict, of mesmerizing beauty, of unbridled power, and through a land of almost complete mystery. If you look up, you will find a space where billions of us have occupied, from the seat of an airliner, a place about five miles up. Beyond that, more humans have occupied the outer atmosphere and space than have ventured into the abyssal depths of the ocean…as if we were meant to be birds. But humans, like all life forms, emerged from the seas. And so too, things still emerge from the sea.
Join me here on a tale of discovery: Of an untold story that takes place along our own First Coast.
For centuries, the projection of Florida jutted out between the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean as a great barrier to transportation. To European powers, La Florida was a flagstaff empire, without particular industrial or economic merit. St. Augustine and Pensacola, tiny, resilient outposts, comprised the principle metropoles of the colony. While St. Augustine originally had strategic importanceto Spain as it fronted her shipping routes, things changed by the 18th century as England and France encroached on Spain’s New World Empire. Resources of the Gulf, particularly the entrance to theMississippi River and its cutting, controlling swath up through North America, outweighed the value of the peninsula, and to some it was relegated to being one of the largest navigational hazards in the New World.
George Washington was among the first to consider cutting a canal in Spanish Florida, a territory outside his purview, but not his imagination. Merchants in a burgeoning United States dreamed shipping to the Gulf of Mexico without having to sail so close to Cuba and the Spanish threat. Ship captains likewise soberly considered threats raised by the bucolic Florida Keys, then more of an annoyance than an attribute. Nonetheless, shipping around Florida’s peninsula grew and, by the mid-1800s, vessels plodded around Florida’s coast like ants on the scent of an errant sugar cube.
Let’s say that we can travel back to the 1850s, to what we now call Ponte Vedra Beach. Our footprints are some of the only human tracks from Fort Clinch to Fort Lauderdale. We face the beach, behind us a thin sprawl of cattle ranches and a burgeoning citrus boom, and stare out over the Atlantic.
With the passing of each daily rhythm, we view distant sails, pacing at times, lazily down the coast during a morning zephyr, or hustling businesslike under the press of an afternoon sea breeze. Remember, this was a three-mile-perhour world for most people, so have patience…it’s worth it. Here comes a sail…let’s see who she is: two masts, the foremast shorter, shows a schooner.
Heeled with the sea breeze, her dark hull presses northward. Today, the cargo is the riches of the Gulf Coast. Lumber, sugar, and mail from New Orleans fills the hold. To the north, eager merchants await the arrival of longleaf pine, from which doors, windows, and shutters for a thousand new homes can be manufactured. Oranges and sugar await tables, bringing the sweet and savory taste of the southeast to market. Mail brings news of the recently born or deceased and of fortune and misfortune.
What we don’t see is the moment of panic, of sheer terror, when one of these merchantmen is in peril. It can happen under a cloudless, bright sky or in a howling tempest on a moonless night. The ocean is perfectly indifferent to her victims and ships have slipped beneath the waves without so much as a murmur. I have read of a privateer schooner flipping end-over-end during a great storm and being eaten by a roaring comber. In fleeting seconds, an adjacent man o’war watched her sister ship disappear. To the horror of sailors watching, the only survivor was a seaman’s cap scudding through the foam.
The Sea Gives Back what it Took
On a random Wednesday morning during the Spring Break season, I received a text from a colleague. In the middle of a meeting, I quickly glanced at the phone only to do a double-take. A picture showed a large section of wreckage on Ponte Vedra Beach. Sitting pretty as you please, this was entirely new to us and, as I passed the phone around, I said to my colleagues “Our day is about to change.” Within two hours, we assembled on the beach, equipped with tape measures, folding rules, and other tools of our trade, just north of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Reserve) entrance and were met by one of our favorite sights, a shipwreck. We quickly dubbed it the Spring Break Wreck.
Like the carcass of a whale, this wooden leviathan sat on the beach as a quiet, lifeless reminder of past glory. Dark timbers, shining with sea water, formed a typical convex shell of a wooden ship’s hull. Ragged ends and broken planks spoke to the rough handling dealt by the ocean when tearing apart a vessel once the pride of a shipyard. As we began to look it over, our knees in the soft sand and eyes peering into spaces between timbers, the remains began to speak to us. Tool marks from bygone shipwrights spoke of men for who these marks may be their only remaining vestige. Roman numerals, scribed into the ship’s ribs, reminded us of the hive-like activity of a shipyard. Oddly-shaped pieces of wood, hewn from the forest by men with axes, adzes, and drawknives, emerged individually marked for their place in the ship.
Our study of this wreck slowly brought back to life the story of vessels so frequently passing by Florida’s peninsula. As I told visitors to the site, you are likely looking at “an 18-wheeler of the 19th century.” This was a traveler on the original I-95, a highway once offshore. Interest in the site increased as we documented, measured, filmed, and observed the wreckage. Dozens of questions inundated our team, and it grew clear that the public relations side of the wreck was becoming critical. At one point, a helicopter and drones were flying over the site while three media crews filmed on the beach. By the end of Friday, several thousand people had visited the site, a real challenge for traffic, local homeowners, and the law. Interest in the site was simply exploding.
So, what is the wreck? What’s the story? Was she a galleon…a warship…a pirate ship?! The answers to this lie in subtle marks, and in wood species and methods used to construct the hull. Saw-marks on planks and timbers indicated to us the first evidence of age. Telltale rounded ridges on outer hull planking spoke to the whirring blade of a steam-powered circular sawmill. Other saw-marks offered subtle clues indicating an intrinsic connection between this ship and technology that blossomed on the American industrial scene during the mid-19th century.
Fastening patterns too, tell a certain story. To protect from shipworm damage — a silent killer of saltwater wooden shipping — copper sheets were fastened over the below-water planks. Copper sheathing for merchantmen was something born out of the late 1700s and such a good idea to protect shipping investments that it gave rise to the term a ‘copper-bottomed idea.’ With time, the sheets would have to be replaced to repair underlying problems, and to replace damaged coppering. Through this process, multiple tack patterns formed rows of woodpeckerlike holes in the ship’s planking. None of this was evident: when this ship went down she carried her original copper bottom.
On the inside too, this wreck carries marks of her builders. Heavy planks spiked over the ship’s framing (ribs) protect the frames and outer planking: we call them the ‘ceiling.’ Not only does it provide armor for the interior of the cargo hold, but it forms part of the very strength and fabric of the ship, making a rigid network of interlaced wood components. Tool marks, the traces of adzes and axes, were imprinted on the wood and offered insight as to the relative youth of the ship when she came to grief.
What next? We have collected samples of wood and are in the process of identifying them for species and, possibly, age. So far, Dr. Lee Newsom, professor of anthropology at Flagler College, has identified a number of species, including one that is a head turner. Fagus grandiflora, or American beech, was used in this ship for her futtocks, the individual timber components of her frames, or ‘ribs.’ Southern yellow pine, used for her outer planking, also provides a clue. If, and this is a real if, this ship was built relatively close to the supply of her wood, that limits her origin to the Carolinas or a strip of the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi River east to Apalachicola.
So, we appear to have a southeastern vessel. What she carried we may never know. But a good guess is a little bit of everything. We here at the Lighthouse study the ‘everything’ of the past, particularly the maritime ‘everything.’ In 1999, to answer what was a growing need for a team dedicated to our seagoing past, St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum (as it was then known) formed the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program or LAMP, as it is more commonly referenced. Its founder, Kathy Fleming, Executive Director of the Museum, speaks to the value of supporting maritime archaeology in St. Augustine in referencing our city’s historic persistence. “St. Augustine endured when many other colonial settlements failed. We created LAMP to help tell us why. Wrecks like the one we have recorded on the beach in Ponte Vedra tell stories that reveal to us more about ourselves and we are thrilled that the public has become so interested in the work we do.”
Chuck Meide, a Jacksonville native, joined LAMP as Director in 2006.
Since that time, LAMP has made great strides forward as a maritime archaeological institution recognized in our local community and respected by colleagues around the world. “What I love about maritime archaeology is the challenge,” he says. “The sea and its shipwrecks do not give up their secrets easily. Finding these wrecks, even with our high-tech tools, is akin to the proverbial needle in the haystack. When we do find them, it is difficult to do good archaeology, especially in the dark, murky, waters off St. Augustine. Imagine trying to take a measurement in the dark while being tossed back and forth by the surge.”
Despite these difficulties, LAMP has made some first-class discoveries. In 2009 the team discovered the Storm Wreck, completely buried about a mile off St. Augustine. Six years of excavation produced thousands of artifacts, from the ship’s bell and cannons to loaded muskets and the personal effects of passengers, including shoe buckles, buttons, padlocks, spoons, and even a fake watch. These artifacts, along with research conducted in archives in London and Scotland, have identified the Storm Wreck as a member of a refugee fleet that was evacuating Loyalists from Charleston, South Carolina at the end of the American Revolution. This ship, along with fifteen other vessels in the hapless fleet, wrecked while trying to enter the St. Augustine Inlet in December 1782.
Another great discovery was made in 2015, during St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary celebration. “I never thought we’d find another one as exciting as the Storm Wreck,” Meide recalls. “And then we found the Anniversary Wreck.” Named in honor of the city’s birthday commemoration, Anniversary Wreck appears to be a merchant ship that was carrying cargo for St. Augustine’s markets when she wrecked on the infamous sand bar guarding the inlet sometime between 1760 and 1800. “We have found more than two dozen cast iron cauldrons, which were hot commodities here in St. Augustine,” Meide says, “along with pewter plates, barrels probably loaded with iron hardware, brass shoe buckles, a lot of pottery, and pieces of cut stone.” Excavations on this shipwreck will continue this summer, and promise further insight into the material goods desired by St. Augustine’s consumer society in the second half of the 18th century.
Since its founding, LAMP has discovered more than a dozen shipwrecks. We have joined hands with visiting students and with our own community to resurface shipwrecked artifacts — teasing out our forgotten stories in the process. Through publication, education, interpretation, exhibition, and outreach, we preach the past. Both shipwrecked artifacts and oral histories of our maritime community reside within our collections as we strive to preserve the chorus of boatbuilding, fishing, and maritime lifeways here on the First Coast. Today, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, recently accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and a long-time Smithsonian Affiliate, celebrates our past and daily commits to our future by sharing these stories with our community and visitors. If you haven’t been to the Lighthouse lately, you should come see all of the changes we’ve made. The Keepers’ House features a major exhibit, “Wrecked!” which focuses on the archaeology of the Storm Wreck. The 1930s garage has been fully restored and now houses a WWII-themed café called the Tin Pickle. The 1941 Coast Guard barracks is currently undergoing restoration to its original WWII look. And our brand new building, the Maritime Archaeology and Education Center, is open to the public. It houses new exhibits and state of the art laboratory facilities with an X-ray room and fully stocked diving locker.
Back on the beach, the Spring Break Wreck is conspicuously missing. It had taken a beating from the waves at high tides and also, lamentably, from beachgoers eager to steal a piece of history by breaking off chunks for souvenirs. With a third of its timbers missing by just the morning after its appearance on the beach, moving the wreck to a safer location became a priority. In the weeks after its discovery and documentation, Meide acted as a coordinator between the Florida Division of Historical Resources in Tallahassee, technically the owner of the wreckage, officials at the GTM Reserve, and local contractors John Valdes & Associates, Inc., and Construction Debris Removal, Inc., who were willing to move it at no expense to taxpayers. Moving something so massive and yet so fragile is a great challenge, and the first attempt failed when the heavy machinery couldn’t make it down the beach to the wreck site. But on April 19th, after hours of careful strapping and test lifts, a front-end-loader gently picked up and carried this ponderous prize a mile down the beach to a waiting truck, which then moved it the last few blocks to its final destination: the trailhead in the GTM Reserve. Here it can be viewed by the public and easily monitored by scientists. The next steps will involve erecting some kind of shelter to protect the wreck from direct sunlight and rain, and further study and interpretation by Lighthouse archaeologists. There, maybe our Spring Break visitor will give up some more of her secrets as we continue to investigate her story.
St. Augustine’s history is now a proud 453 years old. Friends know that I often use the analogy that if each year were a page in our history book, we would have many missing, burned, stolen, edited, bloodied, and lost pages. The duty of historians and archaeologists is to research archives and the material culture of our past to reestablish those lost stories. This is what we do. We add to the story those connections to our ancestors who weren’t able to read or write; to leave their own mark on humanity. Archaeology is a powerful tool that connects us to our own ancestors, democratizes our past, and will continue to help us solve the mystery of the Spring Break Wreck.
Join us on Facebook, where we are initiating a crowd-funding campaign to preserve and interpret the story of this unique archaeological treasure.