Historic shipwreck moved from beach to dry land of GTM Research Reserve


The historic shipwreck that washed ashore in South Ponte Vedra Beach in late March was relocated from the beach to a more protected, dry area of the GTM Research Reserve last week.

According to Chuck Meide, the director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), the wreck was moved last Thursday, April 19, and is currently situated where the hiking trails begin at the Reserve. Thanks to the help of St. Augustine-based contractors John Valdes & Associates and Construction Debris Removal, said Meide, the ship hull was transported free-of-charge via a front end loader a mile down the beach to the nearest beach access, where it was subsequently placed on a truck and delivered to the Reserve. The wreck had been located on the beach just north of the Exxon gas station on A1A in the 2500 block of the road.

“It was quite a challenge to move it,” said Meide, whose organization helped to facilitate the relocation. “Nothing is easy about this kind of process when you’re moving a very heavy object that is also very fragile.”

The LAMP archaeologist estimated the wreck weighs between 6,000-8,000 pounds and dates to the 19th century. He said it was relocated to ensure its protection from the ocean and sun, as well as from looters who had been breaking off pieces of the relic to keep as souvenirs. In addition, the relocation took place to stop people from illegally parking their cars on A1A and walking through private property to view the piece of history.

 The ship’s story      

After significant and comprehensive research, Meide’s team believes the wreck hails from between the 1830s and 1860s. The saw marks on the wreck, among other clues, led the team to this conclusion, as they indicate the use of steam-powered technology that was not prevalent in the United States until after the 1820s. The LAMP team also believes the ship was fairly new when it wrecked, due to its lack of repairs, as well as the fact that the ship’s copper sheathing was never replaced.

After studying the ship’s choice of timber, Meide said the ship was most likely built in the South, due to its alternating pattern of hard and soft woods. If the ship were built in the North, where hard woods like oak are found, it would most likely feature that timber only. Since the South is home to more soft woods, Meide hypothesized the ship designers probably had an abundance of soft wood and compensated for it by importing the strength of hard woods from the North. The LAMP team believes the ship was at least 100 feet long, and perhaps as big as 150 feet long.

According to Meide, it’s most likely that the ship was a merchant ship, since so many more of them were sailing and wrecking in local waters during that time. Meide noted the ship was quite likely participating in the “Coastal Trade,” traveling from one port to the next.

The archaeologist said it was clear to him and others in the field that this particular section of the ship has been buried under sand and water for a significant period of time. Meide said recent erosion dislodged the ship from its resting spot and forced it to come ashore.

Steps to ensure preservation         

According to Meide, the logical next step is to construct a roof over the wreck, so it’s protected from the sunlight and rain, and ultimately preserved for years to come.

The ideal scenario, Meide added, would be for the wreck to be placed back into water, or some sort of a chemical source that could replace the strength the wood once possessed before soaking in the sea for a century. He noted that option would be hard to come by, though, due to lack of funding for such a project.

Roof or no roof, water or no water, the wreck will, however, be preserved forever, thanks to the digital efforts of Dr. Lori Collins and the University of South Florida. Her team came to Ponte Vedra a few days after the relic washed ashore and captured digital models of the wreck via terrestrial laser scanning and different types of imaging technology.

“Often times, we’ll step in because we have certain types of technology that are not readily available,” said Collins, who is a research associate professor at USF and co-director of the USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections. “We partner with archaeologists who are trying to rapidly respond. A lot of times we will partner together to accomplish more.”

Collins’ technology allows the archaeological community to digitally preserve pieces of history that may be at risk of being damaged or disappearing altogether. In addition, the technology enables those involved with the shipwreck to digitally reconstruct the ship and project what it may have looked like based on dimensions. For more information on the efforts of Collins and her team, visit  https://www.facebook.com/USFDHHC/.

To support further preservation of the shipwreck, LAMP is encouraging people to donate to a fundraiser it formed around the project. Visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum Facebook page for more information.