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No, It’s Not the Savannah!

“Pieces of wreck washed up on the shore near The Fire Island Lighthouse cannot be from the famed wreck of the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic!”
Most of you know about the first steamboat to cross the Atlantic in 1819. I won’t dawdle on it too much here as there have been quite a few various articles on the subject over the years, but here’s a little outline for those just becoming aware of the subject.
The Savannah was built in 1818, was approximately 100 ft. long and her steam engine drove 16’ paddlewheels on her sides. She crossed the ocean to Europe using steam engines. The Savannah was also fully rigged as a sailing vessel and spent much of the time on the way back under sail. She was considered a marvel of engineering in her day. In every port visitors streamed aboard her including royalty from Denmark and Sweden. The Czar of Russia strolled her decks in St. Petersburg. Steam-powered trains were 30 years in the future, so you can understand why she was such a marvel and got tons of positive press. But when she returned to America, her owner ran into financial problems, sold the engine, removed her side wheels, and operated her as a sailing cotton transport until she foundered off Fire Island and sank. All hands were saved. (Only hands, feet weren’t).

The allure of finding her remnants has driven imaginations. All the years I was VP of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, it was a recurring point of discussion. There were many theories amongst maritime historians of where the wreck could be. Was it under the waves or beneath one of the mammoth dunes somewhere within the National Seashore? There was never an attempt to find it, but the Savannah aficionados still dreamed. “Oh! To find the remains of such an iconic ship.” The fervor was like a little Titanic mystery. I almost heaved when it was suggested that maybe there was a blue diamond jewel and a love story connected to its disappearance. “Get real people! By the time the Savannah sunk, it was a cotton transport! No beautiful women aboard, only some filthy seamen, soggy cotton, and no musical score. Honestly, I don’t know how I hold my limited patience sometimes”!
In October of 2022, a strong tropical storm slammed into Long Island exposing a 13 x 13 ft section of a shipwreck. Subsequent smaller parts were found westward. At the Fire Island Lighthouse where these pieces currently repose, National Parks maritime experts revealed the main piece generally fit the period of the Savannah, and though not one expert would say for certain that it was a holy relic of the Savannah, in all likelihood it was! The National Parks Service stated it this way. Quote – “Of known wrecks, the steamboat Savannah has risen to the top as a contender”! There is only one problem, or maybe two or three. The first problem is that this fine piece of wreck is definitely NOT the Savannah. The next two are the major reasons why it is not and they both involve sheathing on the hull section.
Firstly, The National Seashore experts noted a “Whitening” of the hull which that period was applied to protect against shipworms (Tornado worms). This was the popular hull treatment during this era. ‘Whitening” involves painting on layers of tallow, an oil, and verdigris, which is a copper powder, that is mixed as a paint thereby forming a barrier against the tornado worms until time wears it off and the ship must be dry docked and recoated. This process is noted as the hull treatment for the Savannah in multiple texts on the subject. In noting that the Savannah had this coating, the Park Service experts are correct, however, this presents a bigger issue concerning this alleged Savannah specimen. The specimen hull was clearly covered by sheets of “Muntz Metal” (a Combo of 60% copper, and 40% zinc, with traces of iron). This material was formulated and patented by Fredrick Muntz in England in 1832 and became prominent in sheathing wooden hulls to prevent infestations of shipworms and was used from 1839 on. I covered Muntz metal in my 2021 essay “Wrecking the Beaches” in Boating World. The presence of Muntz metal presents a major question as to whether this piece of wreck is part of the Savannah. Actually, it does more than that, it negates the possibility.
Secondly, this sheathing is attached with consistently made and proportioned nails that were not in existence until 1839 and after. The telltale proof is the consistent, identically manufactured nails, with thin flat heads, sized approx. 5/16’ in diameter all the shanks are centered. At the time of Savannah’s building and short sailing career, all the nails would have had irregularly shaped and thicker heads. This is not the case here. The nails used on this piece of wreck were from 1839 onward, making this another validation for the case of this not being the Savannah.
If this is not the Savannah, then which wreck would it be? I don’t think we will ever know the number of wrecks around Long Island that came to tragic ends from the early 1600s to recent history. It is surmised to number in the thousands. Some have been identified and others anonymously recorded but what about those that disappeared in storms or had another mishap that caused their demise without anyone knowing, the only possible indication at the time was some flotsam washed up on a beach. Remember, once the shores of Long Island were barely inhabited and lonely places. A ship and crew could disappear beneath the waves without anyone knowing. The ship would be lost to history and the crew lost to loved ones at home.
I am saddened by the prospect that it is not Savannah. I have always dreamed of it being found in my lifetime and my time is running down. Yet, there is an upside to this piece of wreck. Currently, the largest piece of this wreck is on display on the lighthouse grounds. It is propped up and fastened to a well-built stationary gurney. Several more pieces are in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters. This piece of wreck provides an opportunity for visitors and school children to see how a 19th-century ship was built. Whichever ship this was strengthens the living history of the Fire Island Lighthouse which is always open to the public all year and is a beautiful place to visit.

Copyright 2023 By Mark C. Nuccio, all rights reserved
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