Preservation Issues

Conservancy Staff Examines 18th Century Ship at Ground Zero

Conservancy President Peg Breen and archaeologist Michael Pappalardo from consulting firm AKRF, Inc. examine the uncovered 18th century ship at Ground Zero.

Close up of the 18th century ship.

Peg Breen and Michael Pappalardo climb down the 30-foot ladders to view the uncovered ship.

Peg Breen and Conservancy intern Karen Mathiasen at Ground Zero.

Old timber also from the landfill.

View from the site near where the ship was discovered.

Karen Mathiasen surveys the area.

Archaeologist Michael Pappalardo from consulting firm AKRF

Conservancy staffers got a first-hand look at an extraordinary discovery at the Ground Zero construction site—the hull of what is presumed to be an 18th century ship uncovered there this month. This find reveals new information in the stories of New York’s nautical history and the physical development of lower Manhattan. The ship is believed to have been a private, ocean-going vessel used for landfill when the Manhattan shoreline was extended in the late 1700s.

Surrounded by the buzz of new building at the former World Trade Center site, archaeologist Michael Pappalardo from consulting firm AKRF, Inc. led staff down 30-foot ladders to the muddy construction site near 140 Liberty Street. Since the July 13 discovery AKRF has been working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to protect the hull from deterioration brought on by exposure to the elements; bring in experts on archaeology and ship conservation; devise a short-term emergency mitigation plan; and consider the long-range plans for the artifact.

“This project has been quite literally the most exciting and challenging research effort of my professional career,” Pappalardo said. “This find was totally unexpected and we’ve had to rush to deal effectively with the many logistical and physical issues that have come up.”

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation invited the Conservancy’s visit and comments because the Conservancy is an official consulting party to work at the World Trade Center under Section 106 of the Federal National Historic Preservation Act.

Ground Zero was determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places due to the extraordinary nature of the 9/11 events. As a consulting party the Conservancy advocated to save the Survivors Staircase, the last remaining above-ground element of the World Trade Center and later advised on what other items from the Trade Center should be documented or saved. Steps and treads of the Staircase will be prominently displayed at the Memorial Museum.

Conservancy intern Karen Mathiasen was first down the rather daunting ladder. Karen studied the importance of shipwrecks as a cultural resource and the history of lower Manhattan’s expanding shoreline while obtaining her Master’s degree in historic preservation at Pratt.

“It’s rare enough to see an archaeological site in Manhattan,” she said. “I never thought I’d get to see cribworks in the same mud they’ve been in for more than 200 years.”

Experts believe the ship remnant may provide valuable information about 18th century shipbuilding and about the physical and economic development of Manhattan. An AKRF report notes that there is little information about early, non-military ships but that these ships were critical as New York evolved into America’s preeminent trading center. The report also notes that historic maps indicate that the original shoreline in this area was located several blocks in-land from today’s shoreline, near modern Greenwich Street. Evidence of landfilling west of Washington Street was first seen on maps dating to the late 1790s while the entire site was filled in by the 1830s. Based on this evidence, experts believe the newly-discovered remnant dates to the late 18th or early 19th century.

Exposure to hot summer weather and sunlight quickly triggered deterioration of the artifact, so AKRF placed the remains under geotech fabric within 24 hours of the discovery. This week, experts began mapping, photographing, labeling and dismantling the remnant. The pieces will be moisture-wrapped and eventually transported to a special conservation laboratory in Maryland.

The Port Authority and LMDC are also looking for a long-term location for the reassembled hull. They anticipate that other portions of the ship may be discovered when a temporary wall at the site is taken down. Construction of that wall inadvertently cut the ship.

Since the ship’s unexpected discovery, the Port and LMDC have recognized its importance and moved quickly to develop a plan to ensure the stability of this remarkable find. The LMDC is providing progress of the emergency mitigation on its website:

Click here to read the New York Times story and view a spherical panorama of the World Trade Center Ship Excavation by Drew Fulton.