Sleuth says there is ship history in Delaware River

Persistent effort brings Pa. archaeologists to site of his finds

July 28, 2002|By Dan Hardy | Dan Hardy,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Here's what most people see when they visit Market Square Memorial Park in Marcus Hook, a tiny patch of green squeezed between two huge refineries:

Jumbo tankers and cargo vessels plying the Delaware River. Washed-up plastic bottles. And lots and lots of marine debris - thick mooring rope, rusted cable, driftwood.

But when John McNally, an unemployed electrician and amateur marine archaeologist from nearby Wallingford, looks out at the river, he sees something altogether different:

Marauding pirates. Fierce Revolutionary War maritime battles. And centuries-old shipwrecks just waiting to surrender their secrets.

Now, it turns out, McNally might actually be on to something. After years of hearing his pleas to examine dozens of pieces of wood he believes are part of centuries-old wrecks, two archaeologists from the state Historical and Museum Commission's Historical Preservation Department came to the park recently to see what McNally had found.

And while it is too early to tell whether his discoveries are of historic significance, some look like hand-hewn parts of sailing ships, said archaeologist Kurt W. Carr. Carr said he would consult marine archaeologists and determine whether the river near the park, in southwest Delaware County, should be examined more closely. "If there's anything there, we have a duty to protect it," he said.

Not thoroughly explored

There is plenty of reason to believe that there are historically valuable maritime artifacts off Marcus Hook. In a recent interview, Donald G. Shomette, a marine archaeologist who is carrying out a shipwreck inventory of U.S. Navy and foreign military vessels lost on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, said that much of the river had not been thoroughly explored.

"The Delaware, though dredged and despoiled, still has incredibly great potential in terms of its archaeological value," he said.

Philadelphia, Shomette explained, was the largest Colonial seaport. And after the British capture of Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, the naval campaign on the Delaware River played a key role in the desperate rebel effort to block the resupply of British forces and delay their advance against Gen. George Washington's troops.

During that time, Chester, just upriver from Marcus Hook, was used as a Royal Navy anchorage. The Continental and Pennsylvania navies also had dozens of ships in their Delaware River fleets.

The battle for the Delaware finally ended after weeks of fighting, with the British taking Fort Mifflin, at the foot of the Schuylkill near the present-day Philadelphia International Airport not far from Marcus Hook. Even after that, Shomette said, the Americans sank a number of British vessels in a raid near Marcus Hook.

All in all, the 1777 battles "saw extensive losses on the river" and might have resulted in some ships going down near Marcus Hook, especially since the Colonials scuttled some craft rather than see them captured, Shomette said.

While it is hard to come to a conclusion about findings such as McNally's, he said, "I think that it's important that they look further into this. Who knows, the fellow may have made a major find. Nobody pays attention to the common man, but a lot of significant sites have been found by lay people."

McNally, 38, began his shipwreck quest about five years ago when, seeking a peaceful place to go during family troubles, he sought out the park. He saw a large rounded shaft of wood bobbing along the riverbank, pulled it out, and thought to himself, "Wow! That stuff looks old." Since then, he has revisited the park dozens of times, often at night with a flashlight.

McNally has had several scrapes with the law, including theft convictions; he says his misdeeds are now behind him. He also lost his driver's license because he lacked car insurance, so he walks or takes the bus from his home to Marcus Hook.

He has pulled out dozens of pieces he thinks are from old sailing ships. Some of them he lugged home.

In a poem, "My Ship Wreck Has Come In," McNally writes of pirates, clashing sabers, death and destruction.

Blackbeard's visits

The pirates he referred to were the followers of the notorious Edward Teach (or Thatch), also known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard, who terrorized shipping on the East Coast and Caribbean in the early 1700s, visited Marcus Hook more than once, according to historical accounts, stopping at a house on Market Street to see a woman known only as Margaret.

McNally's finds include a piece of wood roughly carved with the letters H and M and maybe an S ("you have to use your imagination to pick up that part," McNally said) and an 18-foot-long plank that Carr, the commission archeologist, said appears to be from a ship's deck.

Not long after he started pulling out the wood, McNally started calling the Historical and Museum Commission. An investigator who was sent out several years ago found nothing of significance, Carr said. But McNally would not take no for an answer.

"He kept calling and calling and calling," Carr said. "So we decided to come and see what was there."

After examining some of the wooden pieces McNally has found, Carr and a colleague, James T. Herbstritt, also of the commission, were convinced that several were from old sailing ships, though Carr said most were tree trunks or wood of much more recent origin.

A state-funded survey of shipwrecks does show that there is a sailing-ship wreck off Marcus Hook, Carr said. "That's all we know about it."

McNally's haul, combined with the survey listing, may just be enough to get the commission to explore the area further by boat and see whether more investigation is warranted, he said. "I think it's pretty exciting."

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