World Trade Center Mystery Ship Berths in Maryland

Something good has come out from under the World Trade Center. Near the site of so many grim finds, excavators working on the new trade center unearthed a treasure — an ancient wooden ship buried beneath modern lower Manhattan. Its remains were discovered about 20 feet under street level, in an area that had not been dug out for the original World Trade Center.

This old ship has tales to tell. But before it can give up any of its secrets, it must be preserved. And fast, because when wood that has been submerged is exposed to fresh air, it deteriorates almost immediately.

Thus comes this story to Chesapeake Country. The honor of preserving the ship has been awarded to Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park in St. Leonard. It is a very big deal for the state facility.

MAC Lab’s head conservator, Nichole Doub, jumped on board the minute she heard of the discovery.

“We can do this, I thought,” Doub says. “I contacted AKRF, the New York environmental consulting firm hired to document the find. They told me to submit a proposal by the end of the day.”

She did, and MAC Lab landed the job of conserving the historical vessel.

So far, the few bits known about the ship have been garnered from its burial site. Late 18th century maps show the site is close to where two old Hudson River wharfs — Lindsey’s Wharf and Lake’s Wharf — once stood. Some of the ship’s beams appear to be deliberately sawed off, meaning the ship may have been used as landfill as lower Manhattan was expanded. The rest of the vessel’s story remains a mystery.

Out of the Muck

“Our conservation lab was designed with the treatment of shipwrecks in mind,” says MAC Lab director Patricia Samford. “Our conservators have a great deal of experience with recovering and conserving waterlogged timbers such as those found at the World Trade Center site. We are much honored to be working on this internationally spotlighted project.”

Doub went to New York to assist with the extraction of the ship and preparations for its journey south to Calvert County.

MAC Lab staff hose down large pieces of the ship.

The work was done quickly — in just five days — but exactingly.

“Each and every timber was individually recorded as it was removed from the site,” explains Doub. “Then each timber was individually wrapped in foam and then in waterproof plastic so it will stay damp. If the timbers dry out, they will shrink, warp, and crack, just like green wood.”

The damp-wrapped timbers were loaded into containers and on to trucks for delivery to the MAC Lab on Monday, August 2, where their arrival created a media frenzy for the usually quiet, off-the-beaten-track laboratory.

News helicopters buzzed overhead. Reporters clamored for interviews with Samford, Doub and their colleagues as cameras rolled.

“This is the biggest news story we’ve ever been part of,” says Nancy Shippen, MAC Lab conservator. “It is all very exciting.”

History One Piece at a Time

At the lab, hundreds of pieces of the ship were unwrapped. The smaller pieces, some just inches long, were placed in fresh water where conservators, curators, interns and volunteers used toothbrushes to gently scrub away centuries-old Hudson River muck. The larger pieces were spread out on tarps, where lawn hoses replaced toothbrushes.

After its cleaning, researchers will work to discover the ship’s history. Experts from Columbia University’s dendrochronology lab will date the ship with the same growth ring techniques used to date trees. Other experts will examine the timbers for woodworms. These insects are geographically specific and can help trace the ship’s origin and path. Still other experts will take core samples to identify the species of wood, providing more details on the ship’s construction.

Only then can the conservation on the waterlogged wood begin.

“We will start by replacing the water with Polyethylene glycol, or PEG, which will stabilize the wood and maintain its structure,” conservator Shippen explains. “After the wood is saturated with PEG, the pieces will be put in a freeze-dryer to control the drying process.”

The entire conservation process will take several years, depending on the density and condition of each piece.

When the conservators’ work is done, the old ship will be returned to its home in New York. But until then, its safekeeping is entrusted to Southern Maryland.

The lab opens for free tours Aug. 30 at 3pm. Private group tours can be scheduled for a small fee: 410-586-8562; [email protected].