Hurricane Sandy did an estimated $71.4 billion in damage in the U.S. when it battered the Eastern Seaboard in 2012. Among many coastal fixtures in the warpath were New Jersey’s Barnegat Inlet jetties, built from rock almost 70 years earlier to lead ships in from the ocean.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got around to rebuilding the North Jetty last year, however, they discovered a long lost shipwreck nearly hidden in the sands under where the rock walls were built.
That became the start of a $170,000 investigation to solve the archaeological mystery of who sank there and why.
According to the resulting Army Corps report and a follow-up story published by the newspaper website NJ.com, that investigation led researchers deep into the maritime records and, ultimately, to a possible answer in Bath, Maine.
Piecing together the clues to determine a ship’s identity nearly a century after it wrecked can be tricky business.
Here’s how they did it, and how they were able to narrow it down to a probability the ship was a Bath-built schooner:
They took measurements
Once work crews realized they were dealing with a shipwreck and not just debris from the early construction of the jetty itself, archaeologists were called in to catalog the material that had been unearthed.
Using measurements of a section of the stern, NJ.com reported the investigators were able to estimate the overall size of the ship was likely between 100 and 200 feet long.
While there were plenty of vessels over history within that size range, it was still an important bit of information in determining which ships the wreck wasn’t.
They followed the wood (Part I)
Because of wooden build of the ship, they were able to place it during a certain era of shipbuilding — a time period between the late 19th century and early 20th century.
So with those bits of evidence, they were looking for a ship of a certain size, built during a certain time.
The prime candidate became the 160-foot-long schooner barge Dixie, built in 1890 in Portsmouth, Virginia, and wrecked north of Barnegat Inlet in 1893.
But further research cast doubt on the Dixie.
They followed the wood (Part II)
As NJ.com reported, the Dixie was made from oak and pine, whereas the wood discovered in this wreck was birch, tamarack and larch.
Those were woods commonly used in shipbuilding in the North.
With that important piece of the puzzle, the archaeologists now knew the ship was a certain age, a certain size and from a certain part of the country.
The maritime records left only three remaining candidates with all three qualities, and two were Bath-built.
The ships were, as described by NJ.com, “unglamorous schooner barges that regularly hauled coal and lumber up and down the Eastern Seaboard — they were so ubiquitous that they’re only listed in maritime records as schooner barges No. 20, No. 21 and No. 28.”
Nos. 20 and 28 were reportedly built in Bath in 1899, while No. 21 was built in Baltimore in 1901. All three sank in the area on Feb. 4, 1926, while lugging coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Boston.
At the time, a common practice was to connect several schooner barges in a train, of sorts, pulled along by a tugboat. The cargo chains were cost efficient and required small crews — and although details are scarce about what happened on Feb. 4, 1926, that would lead to the demise of all three vessels on the same day — the possibility that all three may have been strapped together makes the trio of wrecks seem less coincidental.
They checked newspaper archives and maritime records
The few clues in the record of the day that are available seem to add weight to the likelihood that the shipwreck under the North Jetty is one of the two Bath ships.
The New York Times reported the following day that No. 21 was broken up on a sandbar about a half mile offshore and that three crewmen were rescued.
While general maritime records led researchers to believe all three wrecked offshore, the only specific account available placed the non-Bath ship in a particular place other than where the North Jetty was ultimately built.
(Still, even if all three wrecked some distance offshore, they could have washed up into their eventual burial site, so it’s not impossible that the Baltimore-built ship was the one that ended up there, even if the odds were against it.)
Unofficial weather records easily accessible online indicate the weather on Feb. 4, 1926, was probably miserable, but not catastrophic. The temperature hovered around 30-32 degrees and about a half inch of precipitation fell, probably an ugly sleet-freezing rain mix.
That’s admittedly an incomplete picture, and the true conditions may have been worse than those seem. Still, as unpleasant as it would’ve been to stand out on the deck in that weather, it would seem like a stretch to consider it shipwrecking weather.
So what caused the wrecks of the 20 and 28? Maybe the three vessels were tied together, the conditions limited visibility, and the tugger accidentally dragged the No. 21 over a sandbar, lodging it there and somehow leading to a situation in which the 20 and 28 came free from the chain.
Perhaps the unmanned 20 and 28 then drifted away, and at least one of them washed up near the Barnegat Inlet.
But that’s all speculation. The true fate of the ships may forever remain a mystery.