Helping to find possible remains of SS Savannah
It was a cool, fall day. The air had a crisp chill, but the sun was beating down onto my face. I knew to dress warm, since I was going to be on a boat with adventurer Thomas Schultz at 10 a.m., heading out to explore the marshy land off the coast of the Great South Bay. The goal was to set off and seek out the remains of an old shipwreck.
Schultz, an active member of the Bellport community, ended up on the dunes of what is known as the Old Inlet in Bellport Bay a few years after Superstorm Sandy struck Long Island. The inlet that was closed in the late 1800s reopened in 2012, when the storm devastated most of the east coast, along with the South Shore and the beaches we call home. Although Sandy’s winds and waves caused damage and heartache for thousands of people, she did uncover small pieces of history that could excite any boat lover or history buff.
In 2014, Schultz, a self-proclaimed “amateur archaeologist,” took the boat he parked at the marina and ventured 2 1/2 miles away to a Fire Island inlet where he believed the remains of an old ship were laid to rest.
Through extensive research and interviews with experts, Schultz came to believe that a ship known as the SS Savannah crashed in the Old Inlet (formerly known as Smith’s Inlet) in 1821. Most of her parts were saved, but artifacts that he found on his escapades proved that underneath the mounds of sand, remnants of the ship were buried and were now starting to unearth.
“It was during a nor’easter approaching Smith’s Inlet that the Savannah found herself struggling off shore,” he said. “But she failed to get herself into the inlet and fell onto an outer bar opposite it.”
He said that after reading anything he could find about the ship, she eventually came off the bar where she rested and came up on the primary beach where the ship was eventually salvaged. Although most of the ship’s main parts were saved, smaller pieces and remnants are possibly being found over 200 years later.
I met Schultz at the dock and dressed myself in oversized waders that were much too big for my small frame, but I was ready and determined to be part of his adventure. I put on my gloves and climbed into his boat as he started it up. The waves crashed against the vehicle as he excitedly told me about what could be under the dunes.
The SS Savannah was built in 1818 and began sailing as one of the first hybrid ships. Part sidewheel steamer and part sailing vessel, she was recognized as the first steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1819. However, her technology was expensive and not fully appreciated at the time, and she soon was revamped into a full sailing ship. On Nov. 5, 1821, the Savannah became a wreck off the coast of Fire Island, many of her parts being found with the help of those stationed in a camp closeby, who gathered to collect her remains.
For 16 years, Schultz hypothesized that historians should be looking inland rather than underwater, as experts — including the late Frank Braynard (the leading expert of the Savannah) — originally thought. Before Braynard passed in 2007, he confirmed to Schultz that his theory was “very reliable,” but, unfortunately, he would never see what the local would eventually find after the storm reopened the inlet, where the Savannah perhaps took shelter during her last moments.
“There have been several major storms that have changed the shape of the shoreline here,” he explained as we walked through the sea grass and hills of sand. “I’m confident that areas that were not exposed are now exposed.” He believes that from what history has indicated and because of Mother Nature, he may be finding pieces of history underneath the land.
“The theory I am working with is that we know the SS Savannah came to rest on the beach back in the early 1800s,” he continued. “We know she was salvaged. We also know that parts remained on the beach … It is very possible that those parts are now being exposed because of the erosion in the Bellport Inlet.” According to Schultz, the erosion was Mother Nature’s way of helping to be an archaeologist, but the truth is, if it is not uncovered fully within the next decade, any other pieces of the ship could be lost to the sea forever.
As we carefully marched through the wetlands, tiptoeing around debris including garbage and docks that were washed away from backyards after Sandy, Schultz found something amazing that he knew could be important. Buried in the marsh, a long piece of old wood was laying rotted in the wet sand. “This is amazing,” he whispered under his breath as he knelt down next to it and viewed what could possibly be another piece of the Savannah.
Two years ago, Schultz came across pieces of an old ship that he reported to the Fire Island National Seashore (a division of the U.S. National Park Service). After a survey conducted by the park service, it was concluded that what was deciphered to be part of an old ship’s keel dated back to the early- to mid-1800s — exactly the time the Savannah was said to have sunken there. An old deadeye, an item used in the standing and running rigging of traditional sailing ships, was also found in the sand.
But this long piece of wood had evidence that it was not something that washed up on shore within the last five years. “Based on my initial observation and based on the coloring, it’s a piece of white oak that has been weathered,” Schultz said. “I am not sure how old it is, but it is certainly not something from Home Depot in the last couple of decades.”
He believed this new discovery could be part of what was found back in 2014.
“It could possibly be part of the keel section that I believe we discovered a few years ago,” he said excitedly. “The keel of the ship would have been left in the sands after the salvage operation ended.”
This day’s escapade was just more proof for the National Seashore that this historical treasure might very well be buried in the Old Inlet in Bellport. “I will certainly let the National Seashore know that that there is a possible artifact of an old shipwreck in this area,” he said, as he took photos of the piece of wood.
It has not been proven that these small pieces are actually part of the SS Savannah, but Schultz is looking for help as he connects the dots. “We cannot rule out the Savannah,” he said, “but I also recognize that it could be parts of another ship from that time period.” He hopes that someone will come forward with the knowledge, education or technology that he does not have and help identify these artifacts, so it can be determined if this unidentified ship is, in fact, an important piece of history.
Paul F. Johnston, curator of maritime history at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., said that although he sees no evidence supporting Schultz’s indication of what could be the Savannah, he believes it could be possible. “Shipwrecks, or their bits and pieces, are often found on shorelines, where storms or even low tides can expose them,” he said. So considering the timing and location of the pieces of ship, there is a chance Schultz came across this ship’s possible remains.
Whether or not Schultz has found the SS Savannah, or any other boat that was lost during that time period, the Fire Island National Seashore is aware of the historical debris that could lie underneath the sands.
Elizabeth Rogers, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, said that although there are no plans to excavate the area to uncover more of what could be buried there, it is protected. “The wreck resides in a federally designated wilderness,” she said. “Natural forces will cover and uncover the ship over time.”
But Schultz is convinced that his interest in maritime history and his love for finding buried treasure will have a positive historical impact, especially if more people can become involved in searching out the complete truth behind these pieces of wreckage.
“I am just thrilled to share this possible find with the world,” he said. “I hope that one day we can definitely prove that this is the Savannah.”
If this mystery is eventually solved, he believes it will help us understand our surroundings much more. “I think if you know where you came from, if you know the past and you know the history around you, you can better see the future,” he said.
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