Road Workers Uncover a Historic Discovery Under One of the Busiest Streets in Florida

By: Carissa Moore | Last updated: Nov 02, 2023

A construction crew in Florida made an unexpected discovery while digging under a busy street.

Workers from the Florida Department of Transportation were excavating a roadway in downtown St. Augustine as part of an effort to improve the area’s drainage. While they were digging, they struck something unfamiliar. Upon further discovery, it became clear that a 19th-century boat was firmly embedded in the dirt, where water once flowed freely hundreds of years ago

Incredibly, the Boat Was Still in One Piece

The astounding vessel was unearthed more than 8 feet below the ground and it was surprisingly still intact.

An aerial view of excavation crews digging up a 19th-century boat

Source: news4jax/Instagram

The wooden boat measured about 28 feet long and had a flat bottom and a single mast. It was located beneath State Road A1A in St. Augustine. The area is known as the “oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin.” Researchers are confident that the sunken boat dates back to the late 1800s.

The Boat Was Impeccably Preserved

Mud and water covered the boat and completely buried it over time.

Workers carefully dig through 8 feet of dirt to unearth 19th-century boat

Source: news4jax/Instagram

The Department of Transportation’s District 2 secretary, Greg Evans, spoke of the unusual findings in a statement. “We believe the vessel may have sunk unexpectedly and, over time, was silted in,” he said. “That is why it was preserved so well – it was encapsulated in soil and mud, so there was no air contact for it to decay. It’s truly an incredible find.”

The Boat Was in Good Hands

The boat was found near the Bridge of Lions, not too far from St. Augustine’s current waterfront.

Dozens of crew members work together to carefully exhume a 19th-century boat buried beneath Florida’s busy streets

Source: news4jax/Instagram

Once Department of Transportation (DOT) workers knew that something was amiss, they called in archaeologists from Southeastern Archaeological Research, also known as SEARCH, Inc. The organization consists of dedicated “archaeologists, architectural historians, conservators and other experts” who worked meticulously to remove and research the buried vessel.

The Hull of the Boat Was Uncovered First

It took some time to remove the boat from the dirt, and the team “painstakingly” dug up the vessel one board at a time. Fortunately, they were able to finish the excavation process just before heavy rainfall hit St. Augustine.

Two men gently remove parts of the historic boat board by board

Source: news4jax/Instagram

Sam Turner, who serves as a maritime archaeological expert for SEARCH, was on the scene when construction workers realized the extent of what was buried beneath the surface. Turner instructed the operator to stop digging when a portion of water-soaked wood was exposed through the dirt. From there, Turner wiped the wood with a towel to reveal something magical. Almost instantly, Turner knew that he was looking at a boat’s hull.

Lots of Work Needed to Be Done

James Delgado, the senior vice president for SEARCH, was excited by the discovery of a giant piece of history under Florida’s busy roadways.

Wooden parts of the board are removed from the dirt and mud

Source: news4jax/Instagram

According to Delgado, the team handled the operation with care, saying, “Detailed hand mapping and measurement was done, but the main focus was measurable, three-dimensional photo-modeling of all major construction features as well as measured photomosaics of the hull throughout the careful excavation and disassembly of the vessel.”


Was the Boat Just Left at Sea?

Delgado said that the boat had been largely left intact, despite spending so many years underground.

A 19th-century fishing boat on display

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Certain pieces were noticeably missing, including the boat’s stern, which he believes was likely “consumed by marine organisms long ago.” The SEARCH team thinks that the boat had been intentionally abandoned in the late 1800s because it was beyond repair, claiming that the vessel was probably “near the end of its working life.”


Other Objects Were Found Inside the Boat

As construction workers embarked on the $42 million excavation project for the city of St. Augustine, they never could have imagined they would make a historic discovery.

A pile of several ancient coins

Source: Coin World

The boat is special on its own, but it also had a few items found along with it. Though the boat had probably been abandoned, whoever ditched it also left behind some interesting treasures. The boat contained a few coins dating back to 1969, an oil-fired lamp, a coconut shell, and a pair of leather shoes.


It Was Likely a Simple Fishing Vessel

After further examination of the boat, Delgado believes that it was built by locals who owned and sailed it.

Archaeologists unearth an intact fishing boat


The boat lacked professional craftsmanship but it was built well enough to be used for “fishing, oystering, or carrying goods from place to place.” The boat has been put to good use, with Delgado confirming, “It had been hard-worked and sailed.” The boat’s remains were taken to a wet-storage unit at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum to protect it from any further damage.


Where Will the Boat’s Next Adventure Be?

Archaeologists are looking forward to learning more about the boat as well as the history behind it.

Work crews in Florida try to remove trapped 19th century boat from the ground


Archaeologist Ian Pawn hopes to proudly put the boat on display somewhere in St. Augustine. “We’d like to share it in some sort of way,” he said. “We want to work very closely with the city of St. Augustine and some specialty archaeologists as well, so we can find it a good home and a place to share it.”


The Boat Represents the Working Class in the 19th-Century

In his 40 years as an archaeologist, Delgado continues to be amazed by his findings.

A depiction of fisherman from the 19th-century on fishing boat

Source: Print Collector/Getty Images

When it comes to the 19th-century boat, Delgado insists that “It was more than just the vessel itself. It was this reminder of everyday people.” He elaborated by adding, “What it speaks to is the reality of life for so many people, then as well as now. You get up, you go to work, and you make a living to put food on the table. You work hard,” he said.


Researchers Are Still Mystified By the Discovery

Evans is thankful for the boat being engulfed in dirt and mud because that’s what preserved it for so many years.

Crews examine the wooden structure of the 19th-century boat


“There was no air contact for it to decay. It’s truly an incredible find,” he said. Delgado agreed as he described the rush he got when he first took a look at the vintage boat. “The first moment of seeing [the] little bit to seeing it systematically exposed as we worked through the different layers was, as always, fascinating because you’re the first eyes to see this,” he said.