St. Augustine — St. Augustine vacationers and coastal homeowners are never surprised to find strange artifacts on the beach. Combine the expansiveness of the coast with the shape of its inlet, and of course the weather, it’s no wonder items from all over the world have landed upon its shores.
Last November, a couple walking along Crescent Beach after Tropical Storm Eta noticed what they thought was rebar poking through the sand. Upon closer inspection, they discovered a metal spike attached to “very old wood.”
They contacted LAMP, the research arm of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.
Director Chuck Meide and his team of maritime archeologists immediately conducted pit tests on the slice of wood and its copper fasteners that dated back to the 19th century. The timber, now oxidized from its bolts, suggested that it was a piece of a vessel – most likely the hull – that carried a heavy load of cargo.
Referencing the St. Augustine Lighthouse logs, Meide noted that a merchant ship – the Caroline Eddy – had indeed set sail from Fernandina Beach and was destroyed by a storm nine miles south of it’s point of origin.
LAMP then sent the wood samples for analysis to see if they came from Maine – where the Caroline Eddy was built – and indeed they did.
Meide’s team also found iron bolts and fasteners, tree nails (wooden fasteners) and bronze spikes that were used on the ship’s external copper sheeting. Evidence, he says, that proves the Caroline Eddy is the “best candidate.”
“Records show that the Caroline Eddy was built in 1862 – in Maine – as a supply ship for the U.S. Army during the Civil War,” he said. “The vessel was robustly built to transport cannons, ammunitions and supplies. Rigged as a brig or brigantine, it became a merchant ship after the war and sailed as far away as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean from Philadelphia and New York.”
The ship had set sail heading North on August 27th, 1880, under Capt. George W. Warren with a crew of seven sailors and a cargo of Florida Pine, when according to Meide, they ran “smack dab into a hurricane.”
“One monstrous wave racked the ship from bow to stern and ripped off the forward deckhouse and the sky-light of the deck house,” he said. “Water poured into the hold. It also ripped the steering wheel. The helm was gone. The men had no way to steer or propel the ship. The Caroline Eddy was completely crippled.”
Adding insult to injury, what records describe as a mountain-like wave, also tore the life boats from the ship. The Captain and his crew lay at the mercy of the storm.
According to Meide, Captain Warren was going to plunge himself into the sea and “go down with his ship.” His crew was gone and he knew he couldn’t save the ship by himself. Luckily, he heard screaming from the rigging where the crew was clutching for dear life.
The ship had not sunk because of its buoyant cargo of Florida pine.
“The ship was tossed to a fro, driven mercilessly by relentless wind,” continued Meade. “The buoyancy of the cargo mostly likely saved them. They hung on for 48 hours when they saw land – assumed it was Florida – and attempted to steer the ship aground.”
Meide explained when a crew member almost drowned, they forfeited the idea and simply clutched to the rigging. The vessel finally sideswiped a sandbar close to the Matanzas inlet. Those who could swim, did. The others built a make shift raft that landed safely on shore with the help of those already on shore who swum back out to steer the raft over the breakers.
A St. Augustine resort hotel granted the crew food and shelter.
The following day, in an attempt to “salvage what was left of its value,” the ship’s cargo was sold in St. Augustine and the wreck was sold for “scrap salvage rights.”
Meide said that many news article of the time corroborate what he describes as a truly great story, especially since everyone survived.
Now, the maritime archeologists prepare to have mother nature once again preserve the ship.
Since the discovery, Meide’s team of maritime archeologists and volunteers – “of all kinds” – worked feverishly to excavate what they could by hand. An excavator machine was not allowed in order to not disturb the natural habitat of turtle nesting season.
Meide added that not only would it cost millions to excavate the entire wreck, it would destroy its fragile fragments. The pieces would crack and crumble within days.
So the LAMP team took photos and measurements to create a digital three-dimensional computer model.
Last week, they completed their work before St. Johns County begins its Dune Replenishment project, one that will replace tons of sand on this eroded stretch of shoreline.
So the bones of the Caroline Eddy, preserved for over a century under a blanket of sand, and exposed by storm erosion, will be covered once again. Mother nature buried it and mother nature will forever preserve it.
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