Last updated: May 15, 2017
Episode 05 - 19th Century Sailing Vessel Wreck
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TranscriptHi! I'm Chris Beers and I'm a Park Ranger here at Biscayne National Park, the largest marine park in the National Park Service. The eastern waters of the park contain untold numbers of ships that have been lost upon the shallow patches of coral reef. Six of these shipwrecks have been carefully selected to be part of the only underwater maritime heritage trail in the National Park Service. Before we explore a ship whose identity is still shrouded in mystery, let's take a closer look to see how it ended up here in the first place. Biscayne National Park is comprised of mangrove shorelines, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the northern portion of the Florida Keys, and the northern section of the Florida coral reef. From pirates to homesteaders, people have long relied on the valuable natural resources found in these waters. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase helped to connect the different regions of the United States. By obtaining the port of New Orleans, Americans now had access to the Mississippi River. In turn, the Mississippi River provided access to the Great American West. Ships travelling to or from New Orleans had to pass around the southern tip of Florida in order to gain access to the Gulf Stream. This path led them directly through present-day Biscayne National Park. The histories of these ships are as varied as the flags that they flew. There are tales of war ships, slave ships, sailing ships, and of steam ships. While many of these ships arrived safely at their destinations, some were not able to successfully navigate the dangerous waters of the perilous Florida coral reef and the neighboring Gulf Stream. These ships carried a wide variety of cargo. Human cargo, wines, silks, china, pianos, and ice have all been listed as cargo on vessels passing through these waters. Once a ship unloaded her cargo at her destination, she would often sit much higher in the water. This was obviously not very stable. If there was no new cargo to take the place of the unloaded cargo, or if the cargo was relatively light, rounded rocks and stones would often be used as weights known as ballast to lower and stabilize the ship in the water. One of the shipwrecks on the Maritime Heritage Trail is simply called the 19th-century wooden sailing vessel. Upon first glance, there is very little left behind as a clue to the ship's name or identity except for a pile of these ballast stones. The shifting environment of an offshore reef, as well as tiny organisms such as ship worms, quickly destroyed the exposed, wooden components of this ship's remains. Yet the elements left the ballast stones untouched. Underneath these durable stones, much of the ship's lower hull is protected in anaerobic mud and concealed deep in this natural preservative, archaeologists may one day find tiny fragments of history locked in the buried remains of a seemingly nameless shipwreck. Items like broken glass, pottery, ship's hardware, sailors' personal items, toolmarks on the timbers themselves, and even the remains of insects or stowaway vermin are all evidence that can be stitched together to tell the ship's story: where it had been, what was it carrying, and where was it headed. The site lies in about 10 feet of water making it ideal for first time snorkelers. As you swim in the crystal clear waters, observe the gently rounded ballast stones. Note how no marine growth has overtaken the stones despite nearly two centuries lying on the ocean's floor. Look closer and see how the fish have taken over these rocks once used to weigh the ship down. Examine the recesses and see an abundance of marine life. Permanent mooring balls have been installed to ensure that visitors to the site can safely enjoy the wreck and the surrounding reef. You can help protect discoveries that may help unlock this ship's secrets by remembering that this site, like all of the archeological sites in Biscayne National Park, is part of our shared heritage. Remember to take only pictures and leave only bubbles. Dive into history and discover the stories behind the shipwrecks of Biscayne's Maritime Heritage Trail.
Dive Into History: Shipwrecks of Biscayne National Park. A 5-minutes podcast on the 19th Century Sailing Vessel shipwreck. Hosted by Chris Beers. This video is open-captioned.