19th century shipwreck discovered on Seaport District construction site

boat
–Courtesy of Joe Bagley

Construction workers in the Seaport District stumbled onto an unusual find in recent days — the remains of a shipwreck, buried beneath the ground.

Boston’s archeologist, Joe Bagley, said so far he and his colleagues, who were called to the scene, have determined, based on the ship’s nails, that the vessel is from the mid-to-late 19th century. The area where the ship was found used to be called Dorchester Flats and was made up of mudflats, he said. It was filled in 1880 to create more buildable land, so the shipwreck must have occurred before then.

“It’s not terribly old, but it’s part of the maritime history of Boston either way,” he said.

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Bagley said there is no requirement that would have stopped the company, Skanska, from continuing work on the site at 121 Seaport Boulevard. But the construction company contacted the Public Archeology Laboratory, a private organization, for advice on how to proceed and ended up contacting state and local officials about the discovery.

Beginning Tuesday at 3 p.m., five archeologists, including Bagley, have been on site, racing to document the find as quickly as possible before construction resumes. The ship is too large and too fragile to preserve and remove.

shipwreck
—Courtesy of Joe Bagley

“We were extremely fortunate that they saw the importance of the shipwreck,” Bagley said. “We’re very happy to have the opportunity to document it.”

Whether the ship was left in place after running aground, deliberately sunk, or broke loose and crashed into the shallows hasn’t been determined yet, he said. The archeologists have determined there was a fire aboard the ship. But whether it was set to make the wreckage smaller or was ablaze while the vessel was sinking is not known.

It’s incredibly rare to find a shipwreck in an area that’s been filled in, according to Bagley. A partial wreck was discovered during the Big Dig, he said, and there are known wrecks underwater in Boston Harbor.

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“We have essentially the entire blueprint of the ship,” he said of the Seaport discovery.

shipwreck
—Courtesy of Joe Bagley

It’s not the whole ship — just the very bottom of the boat. But still, Bagley said they’ve discovered dozens of barrels inside the approximately 50-foot-long vessel containing lime. The barrels of lime   may have been brought down from Maine for use in mixing concrete and paper making in Boston, he said.

Bagley and his colleagues are taking and recording as much data about the ship as possible before Friday, when construction will resume and the ship will be concreted-in or removed. The hope is that portions of it can be preserved and incorporated into the building, along with a 3D image of the ship.

Next steps include exposing the hull, taking a cross section through the inside of the boat, and exposing some of the barrels to see how they were laid out. The goal, Bagley said, is to expose as much as possible, and focus on the areas that are still intact to ensure questions like what type of boat is was, what it was carrying, and when it went down, can be answered.

“It’s going to be a little bit challenging to finish in time,” he said.

Much of the research and analyzing of the wreck will likely occur afterwards in a lab due to the race against the clock.

Bagley commended Skanska for understanding the significance of the wreck to the people and city of Boston and delaying their project to allow the ship to be documented.

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“They should be praised from the top of every rooftop in Boston,” he said.

shipwreck
—Courtesy of Joe Bagley

 

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