Researchers Finally Uncover History Behind Shipwreck Found At Ground Zero Of New York’s World Trade Center

By: Olawale Ogunjimi | Last updated: Nov 14, 2023

9-11 remains an event that will go down in history as one that shook the foundations of American democracy. It was a day of loss, tears, rallying unity, and self-abandonment.

In 2010, while the site that once housed the Twin Towers was being evacuated, to pave way for a 9-11 memorial, excavators made a surprising discovery – remains of a ship!

An Unexpected Object Beneath the Grounds of the World Trade Center

During the earth-moving process of preparing the site for the 9-11 memorial, archaeologists were present to casually monitor and observe the proceedings. 

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Source: Ground Zero/Flickr

It was a July afternoon in 2010 when a particular piece of curved timber caught the light. The earth movers called the attention of the archaeologists to this piece, and they began careful earth removal to unveil still-hidden parts of the object. 

It’s A Ship!

Further careful unearthing revealed the timber and other wood pieces were part of a buried ship hull. 

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Source: Ground Zero Ship/Flickr

The archaeologists were able to evacuate the remains of the ship and moved them to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. Further research revealed that the discovered ship is from 18th Century pre-colonial Philadelphia. 

“Dendroprovenancing” Is One Long Word!

Researchers were able to identify the tree from which the ship’s wood was carved. They were even able to peg the felling of the tree to 1773.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before you start wondering how possible it is to determine the age and source of a log of wood. Well, it is quite possible through a process called “dendroprovenancing.” This process involves analyzing rings of the tree trunk and comparing them to reference rings from a historical catalog.

How Tree Rings Can Tell Time

Trees change the pattern of the rings around their trunk every year. When the years are good and the trees grow healthily, their rings will be wide. However, they become narrow in bad years.

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Source: Collab Media/ Unsplash

Besides using this knowledge to understand how the climate in a particular area changes over time, scientists also use it to determine the date of wooden artifacts. All they have to do is compare it to the sequences of other sample tree rings.

Same White Oak for The Wooden Vessel and Philadelphia Independence Hall

With the help of dendroprovenancing, researchers determined the chronological profile of the wood from the discovered ship. Then they matched the ship’s wood with several other samples from Virginia, Boston, and other states.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

They were able to get perfect matches from 18th-century white oaks from eastern Pennsylvania. Indeed, the researchers believe the wood used in constructing the Pennsylvania Independence Hall in 1776 and the Ground Zero ship is from the same time and locality.

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What Types of Wood Was the Ship Made Of?

We’ve already established that the ship was made from white oak. However, it was also made from other types of wood including spruce, pine, and hickory. The type of wood used to build a ship is important because it determines its durability. 

Source: Polina Chistyakova/ Pexels

Also, some types of wood are more suitable for specific parts than others. For example, even though pine isn’t as rot-resistant as we’d like, it’s lightweight and easily worked. So, it’s typically used for planking.

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How Did A Ship End Up in Downtown Manhattan?

The twin towers of the World Trade Center were under construction between 1966 and 1975. Despite the volume of earth moving and piling involved in the twin tower’s construction, the ship wreckage was undiscovered.

Source: Let Me Know/YouTube

However, fast forward to 2010, and the remains of the ship were found 6.7m below the ground. It is quite an unlikely find, which probably indicates that present-day Lower Manhattan was reclaimed from the sea.

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The Ship's Short Lifespan

According to Edward Cook, a Columbia University tree ring scientist in New York, the ship probably didn’t work for more than one or two decades. He gave some reasons why its lifespan was that short.

Source: Let Me Know/ YouTube

In his words, “If ships [in the Philadelphia area] were easy to make or build because of the abundance of timber [in the late 1700s], then perhaps there wasn’t a lot of time put into building a strong vessel.” He also speculates that shipworm infestation was another factor that contributed to its unimpressive lifespan.

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An Educated Leap of Faith

Martin Bridge, from the University College London, is an expert in wooden artifact dating. According to him, 1773 was also the year the wood used to build the ship was harvested.

Source: Markus Spiske/ Unsplash

“You can make an educated leap of faith that the timber was used as soon as it was cut down and that there wasn’t any seasoning involved,” he said. Seasoning of wood helps to reduce its tendency to break or snap. Could this be another reason why it didn’t last long in operation?

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From A Freight Vessel to Land Filling Barrier

Though constructed in Pennsylvania, researchers believe the ship was a freight vessel that frequented the Hudson River. And after being in active service for about two decades, sailed to Lower Manhattan and sunk, probably by accident.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, the researchers also suggested that the buried ship could have been left at the shore during the landfilling effort in Lower Manhattan. For such projects, all available wooden structures must have been used as wedges and dykes.

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What to Do With the Ship Remains

After the brief hiatus at Columbia University, most of the excavated ship was moved to Texas A&M University for storage. As of today, the remains belong to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the body overseeing Empire State reconstruction.

Source: Ship Excavation/Wikimedia Commons

Several benefits could be gleaned from these seemingly useless chunks of wood that have spent about 200 years buried underground.

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The Significance of Preservation

Texas A&M University has gained a reputation for its excellent preservation of shipwreck artifacts. The decision to preserve a significant part of its remains is such a necessary one because it helps to add to the richness of the country’s maritime history.     

Source: tamu/Instagram

Ship preservation processes typically involve treating the wood with a good amount of preservative fluids to stop the wood from disintegrating or shrinking when exposed to air.

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The Discovery Could Help With Climate Change Studies

According to Jason Conwall, a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., consultations are ongoing with experts about the best use of the ship remains. However, from all indications, the ship will likely get preserved and used in future research.

Source: Vegetation/Pxhere

For example, researchers are certain that information about the trend of climate change and forest ecology can be deduced from wood.

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Our Tears and Labors are Not In Vain

Neil Pederson, one of the research scientists that worked on the ship’s chronological history, was glad for all the relevant data they could source. 

Source: Emergency Response/Flickr

The data has proven relevant for telling the history of Ground Zero and Lower Manhattan. But it doesn’t stop there. There are several research potentials for the data from the World Trade Center vessel, now and in the future.

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