Object #5: 18th-Century Ship Excavated from WTC Site in 2010

Monday, March 12, 2012 - 12:44 PM

(Photo Provided by AKRF courtesy of LMDC)

This object is an example of New York’s past colliding with its present.

“We’ve never seen a boat like this before,” Warren Reiss a maritime historian and archeologist at the University of Maine explained. “There are a number of things about how this vessel was built that we are still scratching our heads about.” Reiss was the principal investigator of a ship the New York Times dubbed the “S.S. World Trade Center.”  “We don’t even know if it had one mast or two,” Reiss said. (continue reading)

We do know that it was around 55-feet long, flat bottomed and constructed in the 1770s near Philadelphia. A few tantalizing clues about the ship and its purpose were found in the remains: a very small cannon ball and a tiny button belonging to a British infantry unit that was stationed in New York during the revolution. “Whether that means [the vessel] was carrying British soldiers or that this button just happened to be in someone’s pocket—we don’t know,” Reiss said. It’s very likely the ship was involved in trade, but the “in what” or “with whom” are anyone’s guess.

After the American Revolution, New York was transformed from a mid-sized Atlantic city into the sprawling metropolis we know and love today. The port of New York played a key role in that change. “The city was developed with these types of trading vessels,” Reiss said. “It was the backbone of commerce.” In the centuries since, Lower Manhattan swapped piers and shipping warehouses for financial firms and condos. The fact that a trading ship was found underneath the new World Trade Center is just a glaring example of that transformation.

The ship itself is estimated to have sunk in 13 feet of water in an area that was eventually claimed by landfill. While this vessel is only one of four that have been discovered in Manhattan, Reiss estimates that there are at least 30 or 40 more underneath the island.

Currently, this particular ship is being preserved and studied in the conservation lab at Texas A&M University.


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Comments [2]

Pearl Duncan from Tribeca, New York

The first draft of my well-documented book about the identity of the mystery ship, her owner and sea adventures is finished, and my agent and I will keep the secret until the book is published. In the summer of 2010, I researched the ship, and after wading through volumes of materials, a few weeks after the discovery of the ship’s first half, I knew her identity. I was familiar with New York's colonial history. It helped to have spent many years researching our Colonial New York ancestors, so I knew where to look.

Previously, I had researched two centuries of New York's colonial history, having found an ancestor who was a royal governor from 1710 to 1720, and another ancestor who was hospitalized in 1801 at the first hospital downtown in the city.

Having done extensive genealogical research, I know how lucky it is to find any records, but researching the mysterious merchant cargo ship was the most fun. Her story is very dramatic. Readers will enjoy the book. I have already gotten so much from doing this kind of research. Queen Elizabeth II and one of her royal courts granted me my ancestors' coat of arms in 2005.

And recently, like a lot of other Americans I have been glued to the television watching "Downton Abbey," because the British folks upstairs reminded me so much of some ancestors I uncovered, but none of their stories about Americans and British are as exciting as that of this mysterious New York ship.

Mar. 16 2012 05:04 AM

Remember this story well. It was such an exciting story...right in the middle of summer. Followed it for quite awhile. Glad to see others agree that it was important enough to be in the top ten!

Mar. 12 2012 07:56 PM

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