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“Wrecking” On the Beaches

For a century and a half, wreckers worked with impunity along Long Island’s South Shore beaches from Coney Island to Montauk Point. Men like Talmadge Smith and Thomas Jones lured ships onto the sand bars at night or found other vessels that ran aground and made off with whatever was aboard. Today the coast is littered with known and unknown sunken near- shore wrecks. This creates an opportunity for anyone interested in nautical history who is not a diver. For many years I have haunted our beaches, especially when it’s cold, wintery and isolated. The way I like it!

Our coast is relatively shallow, and the sand moves about forming dangerous sandbars. This coast also rests along the shipping lanes into New York Harbor. Whether these vessels were traveling from around the world, were coastal sloops from New England or delivering Long Island farm products, many met with harrowing storms that could break up even the biggest sailing ships like the Louis V. Place, Bristol, Mexico and so many more that split apart scattering everything, the hull, deck, masts, sails, cargo, money, jewels and lives into the stormy waves. Over the years these were dispersed, worn down, eaten by sea worms. What remains over long periods of time makes its way to shore. The trick is to be knowledgeable enough to know what you are looking at when you stumble across it. A coin is obvious, but ship remains are another game.
My first find was one evening 45 years ago while surf fishing Jones at West End Beach, directly in front of the “T” Wreck. I was standing in my waders and my headlamp caught a silver flash rolling about in the suds. When I realized it wasn’t a baitfish, I bent down and picked up a well worn but solid silver spoon. That find piqued my interest in the possibilities of “Wrecking” our constantly changing, storm tossed shores.
I have found many coins, many worn flat and unidentifiable, accept by shape, type of mintage (silver, copper, and no-I’ve never found a gold piece!) There are places however where Spanish silver reales turn up on a fairly regular basis. At the time I have written this, I have never used my metal detector on the beach. That may soon change but to date, I have used it upland near early settler’s homes, fields and woodlands.
What interests me is the historical context of a find. I remember a windy, 21-degree hike with my teenage daughter and son near the Fire Island Lighthouse. In the bitter cold waves, I spotted a giant white “Rock” and realized it was a piece of chalk that was the cargo of the ship Hougomont which was wrecked there in the early part of the 20th century. Though damaged, the ship was salvaged only to sink in the 1930’s. We waded, pulled the chalk ashore and carried it back to the truck as our clothes iced and stuck to our skin. I let it dry out and donated it to the National Seashore where it is archived at the William Floyd Manor in Mastic. Later as the VP of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, laws were passed preventing the use of metal detectors or removing any historical artifacts found within the boundaries of the National Sea Shore. If you find something along its ocean and bay shores, report it to the park rangers and they will forward it to the archives.
Studying sailing ships and their construction you begin to notice that a huge piece of oak seagulls are sitting on is not a recent beam from a collapsed dock that floated out the inlet. It is part of a sunken wooden ship. Look close at any hardware sticking out. Are they hand wrought by a blacksmith? Are the heads rosettes (earlier) or flatter (later period)? Are they wrought iron, generally rust color or copper, generally greenish, or bronze? Are smaller nails also made by a smithy? Are the heads made by hand or machine made as the early Industrial Revolution took place? The size of each object determines what its uses are. There is tons of info online.
Many of the timbers found have oak dowel fasteners still in them. If a storm throws a remnant piece of a wreck up with dowels in them, if it is allowed to thoroughly dry, these dowels are often easy to remove. You will find the same with the metal fasteners but not as often. You will find many different spikes and nails bent in angles and contortions. These are called “Clinched” spikes and nails. Clinching was an early method of securing wood in position regardless if the timbers swell or dry. I have found many of these spikes, bolts and nails just tossed on the beach and left by a high storm tide.
Not to be ignored when exploring is greenish wide, thin, flat, copper sheeting. If you are lucky to find any, most likely it is from a copper sheathed hull which was used to prevent worms and undergrowth on wooden hulls. The guarantee of what you have is if it has square holes from hand cut nails used to fasten it to a hull. Yankee ships adapted this in the late 1700s. The Cutty Sark and most Yankee boats had copper clad hulls. However, copper was very expensive, and it was replaced by Muntz metal, patented by George Fredrick Muntz in 1832. It is formalized of 60% copper, 40% zinc with a tad of copper. It was made in sheets applied to the hull with cut nails (probably brass). Most sailing ships changed to Muntz metal. It came in different thicknesses according to the size of the ship. By 1842 Muntz’s British patent had run out. He had made a fortune in ten years and now everyone jumped in. I am lucky to have found part of a sheet on the beach with the Muntz name, patent # and thickness still embossed and with the obvious square nail holes. So, what is my historical assumption about this piece of history? It is from an unknown lost ship that met its fate off Jones Beach 190 years ago.
There are other finds out there. I’ve found what I believe is part of an intact oak deck and a portion of a large wood mast hoop that a sail would be fastened to move the sails up and down. There would be many on each mast according to the sizes of the sails. It is enhanced with beautiful copper studs. The other consideration is that it may come from the rounded top of a heavy sea trunk or the stay of a barrel. The investigation continues as I only found it recently.
I also find many old collectible bottles on the beaches as well. They become more impressive as the longer they have been at the bottom of the sea, the more frosted they become if they are exposed and not buried deep in the seafloor. These bottles found by the bay and on the surfside. My favorites are a liquor bottle from the 1920s Prohibition Era engraved with McCoy on it. Mr. McCoy would park his ship outside of Fire and Jones Inlets and the rum runners would arrive to offload the best liquors hence the term “The Real McCoy’.
The other bottle is the tiniest hand-blown bottle I have ever come across. It is a 19th Century perfume bottle. It is a piece of artwork as far as I’m concerned. I imagine it was a possession of a little girl coming to America, the refuge of immigrants from the tyranny in other lands. She met her fate holding her mother’s hand as their ship disappeared beneath the waves. She never got to read these inspiring words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore!”
Words by Emma Lazarus from her poem “The New Colossus, 1884.

Story and Photos C. 2021 by Mark C. Nuccio all
You can reach Mark- Mark@designedge.netrights reserved

Thanks to Ethan Finneran for helping to detail Muntz Metal