19th c. fishing boat recovered from downtown St. Augustine

State construction crews in St. Augustine, Florida, have discovered a 19th century shipwreck during road work near the Bridge of Lions. The well-preserved boat was found nearly intact on October 5th by Florida Department of Transportation (FDoT) personnel working on a drainage improvement project in downtown St. Augustine.

Before construction began, archaeological contractors were employed to oversee the work due to St. Augustine’s historic status as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States with a Native American history that long predates that. Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH) archaeologists excavated the ship, revealing a single-masted, shallow-draft vessel that was originally about 28 feet long, 19 feet of it surviving. It was likely a fishing boat used to collect fish and shellfish in shallow coastal waters.

Archaeologists believe the ship may have been built and operated by its owners, perhaps a family. When it was at the end of its fishing career, it was abandoned in the shallows of the bay. Buried by sediments on the shoreline, the ship was rapidly encapsulated by mud which preserved the wood. Also preserved were artifacts like parts of an oil lamp, coins and a pair of leather shoes that are shaped for a left and right foot, a design that only came into use in the mid-1800s.

As soon as it was exposed, the fragile wooden ship was at risk of rapid deterioration. The team kept the timbers wet to keep them from drying out during the process of fully excavating the boat. The wreck was meticulously documented, measured and mapped by hand, before the boat was extracted plank by plank. The salt water had corroded the iron nails that kept the planks together which made it easier for archaeologists to dismantle the hull in a systematic “reverse construction.”

The planks will now be stabilized in wet storage. The ultimate goal is to put it on display in a local museum.