A January storm has spit up onto a beach at Cape Cod National Seashore what a similar storm might have taken to the bottom a century ago -- the hull of a 19th century schooner that once plied the Atlantic.
The wreck that washed up on Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet on January 28th has drawn the attention not just of the public but of historians, archaeologists, and others interested in this visual piece of Cape Cod maritime history.
Over the past several weeks the National Park Service has coordinated the activities of researchers who are helping the seashore learn more about the wreck. Archaeologists from the Park Service, the University of Connecticut, and the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeology have documented the wreck through photographs and measured drawings.
A researcher from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is carbon dating a piece of wood in an attempt to determine the age of the vessel. Another Woods Hole researcher will use LiDAR to provide a three-dimensional image of the wreck.
Preliminary findings indicate that the wreckage is from the lower hull of a mid- to late-19th century schooner. Schooners were the delivery vehicles of their day, transporting coal, lumber, and other supplies along the coastline. An estimated 200 of the more than 3,000 documented shipwrecks off Cape Cod between the 1600s and modern times were schooners.
“This research will help us fully understand the boat and its maritime context,” said seashore Superintendent George Price.
Many individuals have suggested that the seashore excavate the wreck and display it at a seashore visitor center, or permit a maritime institution to acquire it for preservation and exhibition, or allow local historical societies to take pieces of the wreck to display in their museums. Seashore officials do not share those thoughts at this time.
“The integrity of this vessel is best preserved exactly where it is,” said Superintendent Price. “If this were an intact ship with a significant, unique history in danger of being destroyed, our options might be different.”
Recently, the seashore restored and placed on display an intact mid-19th century hay barge that likely is the last boat of its kind in New England.
“In the case of the wreck,” Price said, “NPS management policies indicate that the best option is to leave it in place, provided we can count on the goodwill of the public to not damage it before it is claimed again by the sea. If despite our best efforts people damage or destroy the wreck, we will need to consider other options.”
Rangers continue to monitor activities at the wreck. Law enforcement patrols are ongoing, and several citations with fines or mandatory court appearances have been issued to people damaging and stealing parts of the wreck, which is protected under federal law.
Interpretive rangers are on-site at the wreck periodically providing information to visitors. Persons visiting the wreck should be cognizant of the tides to avoid being trapped by an incoming tide. Also, the clay cliffs in the vicinity are unstable. Large sections can fall unpredictably, and for this reason visitors are urged to not climb up the cliffs.
“People seeing the wreck for the first time who share their reactions with us are almost universal in their responses,” said Superintendent Price. “The scene is mystical. They feel connected to Cape Cod’s past. Assuming the wreck is pulled into the sea, we hope it will be washed ashore again in the future to inspire and educate a new group of people.”