Shipwreck reveals precious few of its mysteries

Ben Loveless, left, with Graham McKay from Lowell’s Boat Shop and Victor T. Mastone, director and chief archaeologist for Massachusetts, check out the remains of the ship that washed up on Salisbury Beach.BRYAN EATON/Staff photo

SALISBURY — Archaeology is meticulous work, filled with digging and examining, drawing and measuring, researching, testing and speculating, hoping to piece together theories to learn as much as possible from mysteries presented by the past. 

And that’s exactly what was going on yesterday morning as state and local experts examined the shipwreck remains that washed up this week on Salisbury Beach.  

Low tide yesterday morning gave state Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources director and chief archaeologist Victor Mastone a chance to get up close to the large-sized artifacts that were once part of an old wooden ship. They were discovered on Salisbury Beach Tuesday evening, but by the time Mastone visited on Wednesday afternoon, high tide had hidden the remains under feet of water, giving him only The Daily News’ photos to examine.

Yesterday that all changed. For hours, with the help of local boat-builders Graham McKay and Ben Loveless of Amesbury’s Lowell’s Boat Shop, Mastone got a better handle on factors that could lead to knowing the origins of the shipwrecked remains. 

Although there are smaller segments of the wreck washed up on the beach, the two biggest are both part of the side of a hull. Their curve and planking indicate they’re from the stern of what was most likely a schooner that sailed in local waters perhaps in the 19th century, Mastone said. Schooners were the “tractor-trailers of cargo ships in the 19th century,” picking up and delivering goods, he said, like lumber and general merchandise throughout the region.


The two large artifacts, now broken apart, would fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle if put back together. If reunited, they’d be about 65 feet long, Mastone said, and an educated guess could be made that together it once stretched along about half the side of a ship. 

The planking — outer skin — is made of oak, he said. Upon inspection, visible indicators led him to speculate it could have been constructed originally in the post-Civil War period of ship building, from 1865 to 1875.

There are other signs, however, that at least this portion of the ship underwent repairs later in its life, around the turn of the century, he said.

“There’s chain plate on the side section,” Mastone said. “Chain plate was where the rigging may have been attached.”

Also seen along the long fragments are lumps of black concretion, Mastone said, which indicate there was exposed metal on the side of the ship. Concretion is formed when metal reacts chemically with the minerals in seawater, creating a compact mass. 

Along most of the segment, long, round wooden pegs or dowels, known as treenails or trunnels, can be seen driven as fasteners through the planking to hold it to the futtocks, timbers forming the inner, more curved portion of the frame of the wooden hull. Metal spikes can also be seen, Mastone said, which also gives him clues to age and nature.   

The relatively pristine nature of the hull — which still has some black caulking in place — tells Mastone that it was buried under the sand along the sea floor, sealing it from oxygen and marine life that would deteriorate the wood. But although most of the exterior is barnacle free, McKay found a few newly attached barnacles underneath the planking, indicating it could have been exposed to marine life recently. 

“This probably has been buried in the sand, then came loose some time in the past few months over this winter,” Mastone said. “It floated up for a while then was washed up here.”

There are lots of unknowns to research and consider, Mastone said, and no one’s willing to speculate on where or exactly when it was built, where it went down or what caused it to sink.  

However, both Mastone and McKay were emphatic that these artifacts are not part of one of Salisbury’s most famous shipwrecks, the Jennie M. Carter, which went down after a fierce spring blizzard on April 13, 1894, with all hands lost, and whose skeleton can still sometimes been seen off the shore of the Beach Center at low tide.

Armchair history

Dozens of ships were lost during this region’s  seafaring history, and according to Michael Mroz, executive director of the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, the recent remains of a shipwrecked wooden hull on Salisbury Beach confirms the treacherous nature of sailing in local waters.

“The crescent of coastline that stretches from Boar’s Head in Hampton to Halibut Point on the tip of Cape Ann has been renowned for catching ships,” Mroz said.  

Given some of the evidence found by Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources director and chief archaeologist Victor Mastone yesterday, he had some “educated guesses” that the hull may have come from a wreck off the seacoast of Salisbury, Seabrook or even Hampton. 

Mastone speculated the ship in question was most likely a schooner, and guesses it might be in the 130-foot range, although it could be smaller or larger. He thinks it might have been built originally in the post-Civil War period, from 1865 to 1875, then undergone repairs around the turn of the century, from about 1890s to the early 1900s.  

Using those parameters, local historian Carolyn Sargent’s book, “Salisbury History,” offers a few possibilities. 

They include the ill-fated Jennie Carter, although Mastone rejects the notion, since its shipwrecked spine is still ensconced in the sands of Salisbury’s shore. According to Sargent, the Jennie Carter was a 130-foot, three-masted schooner, built in Maryland in 1874 and sunk off the coast of Salisbury in 1894. 

The 133-foot-long, 32-foot-wide, 286-ton schooner Florida out of Portland, Maine, built in Belfast in 1872, according to Sargent, was wrecked on Salisbury Beach on Feb. 9, 1896. The dimensions and time frame fall within Mastone’s speculations. 

The Florida headed “broadside into the breakers,” according to observers who sent up the alarm to the Life Saving Station on Plum Island.

“The last sign of life on the Florida was approximately eight o’clock when a flash of light was seen and a sound like a gun shot was heard,” Sargent wrote. “The ship had broken up and wreckage strewn along the beach for more than a mile. All on board were lost.”

On July 6, 1904, the steamer Marble Bird fell victim to the shifting sands of Breaking Ledge, which is less than a mile off Salisbury Beach, according to Sargent. Grounded, no attempts to free the ship from the sand were successful, but all movable parts were removed. Sargent’s account does not discuss when this steamer was built.

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