When Sands Give Up Maritime Treasures

Published: February 4, 2001

GLIMPSES of Long Island's history abound in the old shops, houses, museums and plaques that dot the region. But there is plenty of history buried under the water and sand, and it only takes a strong storm to uncover more of the past.

Like in November, when a northeaster scoured the East End beaches and uncovered the remains of two shipwrecks on the beach at Shagwong Point in Montauk.

''It happens about once a year,'' said Larry Penny, explaining the frequency of old ships found on the beach in the Town of East Hampton, where he is natural resources director.

Mr. Penny's aide, Tim Howell, was one of the first on the scene of the two wrecks, about 500 yards apart. The sites are nothing more than two piles of old timbers, one set held together with metal fasteners, the other with large wooden pegs, an indication of antiquity.

No identifications were made in either case, Mr. Penny said. But for a dedicated wreck hunter or beachcomber, a eureka moment can happen at any time.

Divers and fishermen are familiar with many of the wrecks offshore, but there are also dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wrecks buried under the beach sand, which shifts from year to year because of erosion and drifts. Some are only a few feet below the beach joggers and volleyball players, although Mr. Penny and Mr. Howell estimate that other wrecks, especially those from the 17th and 18th centuries, could be buried under as much as 300 feet of sand.

Mr. Penny said his interest in what lies beneath was sparked after Hurricane Bob and the infamous ''Halloween storm'' of 1991, when he and a Montauk resident, Walter Galcik, found pieces of what they believed was H.M.S. Culloden washed up at, yes, Culloden Point. The Culloden, a British man-of-war that ran aground in a storm in 1781, is one of the most famous wrecks off the coast of Montauk and is also a site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Saying they are concerned about plundering treasure hunters, Mr. Penny and Mr. Howell are close-mouthed about the exact locations of the wreck sites they know about. ''We want to keep what we find on the East End,'' Mr. Penny said. ''It's a part of our history.''

But Mr. Penny has a plan. ''Most of the hardware we have found is still in Walter's back yard,'' he said. ''We'd love to start a shipwreck museum out in Montauk, because so many of the boats ran aground there.''

How many? Estimates run into the hundreds.

''British warships, Prohibition rumrunners which you can still find whiskey on, passenger ships, German U-boats, schooners, tugboats -- you name it, it's out there,'' said Daniel Berg of East Rockaway, a wreck diver and author of ''Wreck Valley: A Record of Shipwrecks Off Long Island's South Shore and New Jersey.''

Some of the wrecks are threatened by development. Henry Moeller of Hampton Bays, a retired professor of marine archaeology at Dowling College, said he was saddened by the news that concrete riprap was being placed around the rock jetty in Sag Harbor, saying the project would cover up at least five wrecks on the bottom of the harbor.

''The Army Corps of Engineers purposefully chooses someone from another state to come in and do the survey,'' he said. ''They take a cursory look around, tell the government there's nothing there, and then they start to dredge. The historical society in Sag Harbor will make a big to-do out of the preservation of houses and so on, but the history under the water will be lost forever.''

Mr. Moeller, who is also president of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, admits to having been a ''pirate'' in the early days of his diving. But one day in the 1960's, he said: ''I was on a dive, and put my hand in a cabinet, and out came a shoe. Suddenly I realized that those pieces that are mundane and trivial to us are pieces of history.''

Since then, Mr. Moeller has left everything as he has found it, and has given up digging and suction devices. He uses electronic equipment, most notably a sidescan sonar, to locate objects on the ocean floor.

Mr. Moeller's discoveries include a 100-foot section of what he believes is part of the Lexington, a steamboat that burned off Eaton's Neck, near Northport, in 1840. Only four of its 143 passengers and crew survived.

Mr. Moeller believes strongly that what is found at ocean's bottom should remain there. Mr. Berg takes a different approach.

''The archaeologists are dictating to leave all historical artifacts in situ -- take pictures, but don't touch,'' Mr. Berg said. ''It sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately Mother Nature -- especially in saltwater environments and in anything less than about 300 feet deep -- affects everything detrimentally. You can't imagine what happens to the ocean floor with every storm that comes by. It's unbelievable.''

Mike McMeekin, proprietor of Treasures Unlimited in East Patchogue, knows the violence to which onshore or shallow-water wrecks are subjected.

''A few years back,'' he said, ''a massive storm hit, and just a little east of Jones Beach, at Tobay Beach, a ship was uncovered. It was half in and half out of the water. You could see the bow and the ribs and part of the keel. Then, a month later, only six inches of the ribs were sticking out of the sand. A year later another storm hit and ripped the boat right off the bottom. The boat had been on the east side of the concession stand, but the storm flung it around to the west side, and set it there upside down and high and dry. Then eventually it filled in with sand again, and it's still there somewhere, under the beach.''

Mr. Berg favors salvaging items of historical interest before nature completes the process of obliteration that began on the day of the wreck.

''A porthole from the Oregon doesn't mean a lot to an archaeologist,'' he said, referring to one of the region's most popular dive wrecks, a Cunard liner that sank in 1886 off Fire Island. ''They have blueprints of the ship, they know where the portholes were. In fact, every porthole was numbered. But it means a lot to me -- it's a glimpse of history that I'd love to see in a maritime museum, so that children and non-divers can appreciate the diversity of maritime history.''

But for artifacts that have been sitting on the ocean floor, preservation can be tricky. Articles must be brought to the surface carefully, as the air can cause as much damage to some materials as the water can. ''Brass and glass are easy,'' he said. ''Wood is more difficult.''

A lot of research can go into examining artifacts for clues to the identity of an unknown wreck. Even the wood can tell the story of where a ship was made -- a microscopic look in a lab can identify the timber used, which can usually lead to a country, if not a specific boat yard.

One of Mr. Berg's most exciting moments came off Fire Island, when he and a crew attempted to identify what was known to all the fishermen as simply ''the Fire Island lightship,'' because of the wreck's proximity to the old Fire Island lightship station. On an expedition with a dive boat, the Wahoo, Mr. Berg's party brought a capstan cover to the surface. (A capstan is used to raise anchor.) On the cover, they could clearly see the word ''Madagascar.''

''But there were no records of any ship named that,'' Mr. Berg said. After a few frustrated attempts, he finally hit pay dirt. ''Through steamship historical societies, we were able to determine that the Madagascar had changed names, and was actually the Kenosha -- a 243-foot wood-hulled freighter built in 1894. The boat changed names in 1907 and sank in 1909.''

Mr. McMeekin said he and his colleagues have found Native American artifacts, Colonial coins and even Spanish pieces of eight on Long Island's beaches. But no one's getting rich from local booty.

''Sure, it would be great to find treasure,'' Mr. Berg said with a laugh. ''But we're not talking about Spanish galleons here. There's not a lot of gold and silver out there.''

But Mr. Moeller begged to differ. ''Yes, there is gold out there,'' he said with a twinkle in his eye. A photograph in his studio showed every pirate's dream bounty; a lockbox opened and encrusted coins festooning the bottom.

Mr. Moeller said the picture was taken off Long Island. But he wouldn't say where.