The remains of one of the most famous vessels in history may have washed up last fall at Fire Island National Seashore.
A 13-foot-by-13-foot section of ribs and planking from what appears to be an early 19th century sailing vessel came ashore during Tropical Storm Ian in October. And the National Park Service and Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society believe it could be a fragment of the Savannah, which in 1819 became the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean aided by steam power.
“There’s nothing we can really do to affirmatively decide that it is the Savannah without any real clear markings,” park service museum technician Elizabeth DeMaria said. “But what we’ve been able to do is really rule out just about all of the other known shipwrecks. We do know, of course, that there are lots of other shipwrecks that we don’t have record of. The Savannah is the one that we have substantial information on and we have not been able to rule it out.” The size and diameter of the wooden trenails, round pegs used to attach planking to the ribs, iron bolts and the planking matches a vessel with specifications similar to the Savannah, which was about 100 feet long. “They all line up with what we would expect to see with the construction and materials of the Savannah,” she said.
“Green staining is evident on the hull, particularly around holes for iron nails and spikes,” the park service said in a press release. “Such staining, called verdigris, was likely caused by a chemical reaction between iron and copper. Early 19th ship hulls, such as this, were commonly “whited” with a mix of tallow and copper sulfate. Less commonly, ships were sheathed in copper, often after having been previously whited. These techniques were both strategies to protect the ship from damage by tornedos, also known as shipworms.”
The vessel was wrecked on a sandbar off Fire Island on November 5, 1821 when it was bound from its namesake Georgia city to New York. The Savannah was constructed in 1818 at the Crocket and Fickett shipyard at Corlear’s Hook on the East River in Manhattan just under the Williamsburg Bridge. The vessel was purchased by William Scarbrough and Robert Isaacs of the Savannah Steamship Company during construction and launched on August 22, 1818.
Though built as a sailing packet ship, it was equipped with a one-cylinder 90-horsepower auxiliary steam engine and paddlewheels. During an 1819 voyage from Savannah to Washington, D.C., and Liverpool, England, with stops in other European ports documented in the ship’s logbook in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History, the Savannah ran under steam power alone for almost 90 hours of the crossing that took 29 days and 11 hours. The feat was commemorated by a U.S. postage stamp in 1944. It would take nearly three decades for another American steamship to cross the Atlantic.
Losses suffered in a major 1820 fire in Savannah forced the sale of the vessel. The new owners removed the steam engine to reduce the cost of operation. The Savannah was then used as a coastal packet until it ran aground on a sandbar opposite Fire Place near the Old Inlet on November 23, 1821, according to contemporary accounts.
The weather on the trip north had been very bad, and Captain N.H. Holdridge was forced to navigate by dead reckoning. The ship, carrying 250 tons of cotton and at least three passengers, was farther north than Holdridge estimated. By the time he heard the sound of breakers at 3 a.m., it was too late to reverse course. Savannah plowed into a sandbar just east of where Bellport would later be established on the other side of the bay.
Holdridge tried to get help by having two seamen row him to shore in a small boat through the surf. They made it to the beach, where several residents were waiting. One of them was enlisted to go to New York City to seek salvage help. When the captain tried to return to Savannah, the boat capsized in the surf. Holdridge nearly drowned before being saved by his two crew members and fishermen on the beach. The captain eventually made it back to his vessel and sent the passengers—two men and a boy from Savannah—and crew ashore when the storm abated. Some of the cargo was salvaged. But a week of pounding by the waves split open the hull, and Savannah could not be saved.
DeMaria said, “It was first seen by our law enforcement staff still pretty much covered with sand just at the edge of the dunes before Tropical Storm Ian. We were notified on Oct. 21 by law enforcement ranger Claire Formanski after Tropical Storm Ian had fully exposed it. At that point it was located about 2.7 miles east of the Old Inlet in a wilderness area of the park roughly opposite Bellport. It only took a few days for it move farther down the coast to east of Field 5 at Robert Moses State Park because we had a lot of stormy weather. It was becoming a hazard to boats” so Formanski pulled it further up on the beach towards the dunes. DeMaria and another park service museum technician, Kue Lor, examined it on Nov. 4.
It’s unlikely that dendrochronology using a core sample to date the wood would be employed because it would damage the wood and only give a general span of when the wood was cut, DeMaria said.
At this point, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society has assumed custodianship of the wreckage and will pursue any further identification efforts and determine how to mount it for public viewing and interpret it, she said.
There are no plans to treat or conserve the wood to preserve it. DeMaria said the park service philosophy in these cases is to “let nature take its course. Primarily the goal is going to be to protect it from strong winds and let it age the way it would” naturally.
Rangers subsequently recovered other pieces of wreckage including copper sheeting that would have been used to keep shipworms and other marine borers from making holes in the hull. They have been moved to the museum in the keepers’ quarters at the lighthouse.
Tony Femminella, executive director of the preservation society, said, “we want to design a cradle and display it” near the Lens Building containing the original first-order Fresnel lens that had been atop the lighthouse. “We are going to stand it up so it will be visible from both sides,” he said.
He said the preservation society staff and volunteers are going through their voluminous documents and books on shipwrecks. “We can’t rule out that it’s the Savannah,” he said. “It looks like it’s a boat that was under 100 feet and the spikes look to be circa 1820 and the trenails are smaller about an inch to 1.3 inches.”
Rain washing over the wreckage will help leach out the salt that could deteriorate the wood, he said.
When the park service contacted the preservation society board about turning over the wreckage, he said, “Everybody almost jumped through the phone because we were so excited to get it. We have a couple of pieces up in the shipwreck room but we have no idea which ships they came from. Just to have a story that it’s possibly the Savannah is exciting.”
Hineman, Brinley. “Shipwreck from 1800s,” Newsday, January 30, 2023, A8.