The mystery of the Short Sands Beach shipwreck is being pieced together by state and local archaeologists and historians — a centuries old vessel with secrets that are being uncovered using 21st century archaeological tools like 3D modeling.
But there is also some historical sleuthing that has been done as well, as a former York Beach police officer shares his discovery of an 18th century York notary public’s journal in which a 1769 shipwreck on Short Sands Beach is described.
This focus comes as the skeleton was once again exposed following last week’s nor’easter, a fairly rare occurrence that has captured regional and national attention in the days since.
All of the information is being gathered by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission (MHPC) as it works to decide whether this elusive shipwreck should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. And if so, should it stay where it is or should it be excavated?
Strictly speaking, there is little that can be said with absolute certainty about the shipwreck skeleton, which is typically buried under 5 to 6 feet of sand. It appears only periodically following a strong spring storm like the one that occurred March 2. Police Chief Douglas Bracy determined as much as 8 feet of sand was removed from Short Sands Beach during that storm.
The shipwreck was uncovered for the first time in 1958, and then has appeared periodically over the years since. Most recently, it was exposed following storms in 2007 and 2013. Officially in the MHPC inventory, it is referred to as site 497-004; 497 for the town of York and 004 representing the fourth recognized historic site in the town.
In 2007, Eliot marine archaeologist Stefan Claesson was hired by the MHPC to take some samples and do some mapping work of the hull. According to Leith Smith, historic archaeologist at the commission, a fair amount was learned at the time. It was a 60-foot vessel, and about 51 feet is preserved. It was built sometime between 1750 and 1850, and was either a sloop or a schooner – depending on the number of masts it had.
“Ships of that size were often called coasters,” he said. “They were the 18-wheelers of their day. You would load it up at a port and sail quickly to another port, where you would unload and load up again and sail somewhere else. It had a fairly shallow draft, so you could get into some of the shallower wharfs — and there were hundreds if not thousands of them at the time.”
These flat-bottom boats with narrow sterns were also known as pinks and were used widely by by fishermen, said Claesson.
According to Smith, Claesson’s 2007 samples show that a variety of woods were used to build the boat: the keelson is balsam fir; the frame midships and the hull plank is yellow birch; the frame stern is beech; the stern post is red pine; and it is believed the stem is potentially white oak, although at the time the keel was too deeply buried to get a sample.
Fast forward 11 years, and Claesson is back, hired by the MHPC now to take samples that will be tested using dendrochronological methods – dating artifacts, in this case pieces of the vessel, by examining the lumber’s tree rings. These samples will then be sent to a laboratory that has amassed a huge number of samples of specific woods in their database.
“Our hope is that we might be able to compare our sample to what’s in the database,” Smith said. “Say they have 80 different samples of white oak. You take a sample from this ship and you see where it fits. In this case, you want a sample that has as many tree rings as possible. They can sometimes date it to within a year if it can fit their sequence.”
Claesson said the dendrochronology will “hopefully shed some light on this, because no one knows the history of the ship for certain. This will be the first time that this kind of work has been done.”
Claesson was at Short Sands Beach on Friday to conduct his work, which also included taking readings from a drone. Unfortunately, the storm on Thursday covered up much of the skeleton. Only the tips of the hull frame were peeking out. On Monday, the entire frame of the ship was apparent, and it was even possible to see up underneath it.
“That would have been nice to see,” said Claesson. Still, the work he did Friday will contribute to the slowly increasing database on the vessel.
His drone, for instance, hovered about 35 feet above the skeleton, zeroing in on bright yellow tags that he placed on the tips of the exposed wood. These tags act as ground reference points, said Claesson. When he downloads the information into his computer, he will be able to create a “highly accurate 3D model of the shipwreck in its current condition.”
That information will be stored so it can be measured against future archaeological work at the site, to see if the condition of the shipwreck has eroded over time, he said.
All of this information will be stored with the MHPC — along with a tantalizing historical tidbit that just recently came to Smith’s attention. Barry Higgins, a former York Beach police officer who now lives in Pennsylvania, said back in the 1980s when the shipwreck appeared, he became curious about it.
His research took him to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where he found a professional journal kept by Daniel Moulton of York, a notary public from 1749-1792. In it, Moulton lists a number of shipwrecks that occurred in York during that time, said Higgins.
“Any time there was a shipwreck, the owner had to file an ‘instrument of protection.’ That told the town where it got wrecked and what happened,” said Higgins.
Tucked among Moulton’s pages was the instrument of protection for a pinky named Industry.
“It ran aground in October or November of 1769 at Short Sands Beach in a nor’easter. The captain lost control and the boat was pushed onto the beach,” he said. “Two people were on board — the captain, who was probably the owner, and his son. They survived.”
The Industry was carrying lumber, he believes from Biddeford Pool to either Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or Newburyport, Massachusetts. “It was just a coastal vessel. It was never intended to go very far.”
Could the skeleton shipwreck be the Industry? Smith said the dendrochronology testing will hopefully go a long way toward pinpointing its age. Many of the pieces do fit, though.
“These ships were so heavy, once the tide came up they couldn’t get back out,” Higgins said. “The owners would salvage what they could, and then the townspeople would come and take timber for furniture or for their barn. There were even people who purposely tried to wreck a ship.”
With the additional information from Claesson, plus this new information from Higgins, Smith said the MHPC will see if there’s enough documentation to determine whether the skeleton is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“You have to build a case,” he said. “Does this ship represent a unique kind of ship? It has to be something special or made by a master craftsman. If we can get a date on it, that would help tremendously.”
And then the question is, what do you do with that designation if you can get it? Do you excavate and move it or do you leave it?
“A lot of it comes down to, first of all, is it worth doing? Then if it’s taken apart and conserved, you need a space where it can be reassembled,” Smith said. “It would be a long-term project that would involve quite a bit of financial backing.”
On the other hand, he said, if the skeleton were to stay put, it is in “a good preservation environment. It’s buried in the sand so very little oxygen gets to it. The salt water also helps. That’s frankly why it’s still there. That’s not a bad thing.”
Still, every time the skeleton is exposed, the question arises about what should be done with it.
And so the historical sleuthing continues, one sighting at a time.
“If it’s a pinky, it probably does require registering it. It would be a rarity,” Claesson said. “Each time it’s exposed, we get a little more information, and can build the case for eligibility. And that’s kind of a good thing. In the end, it would be getting the recognition it deserves.”
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