Sonar study of Hudson points to shipwrecks

200 possible sites have been identified along 140 miles of river

January 16, 2003|By Kirk Johnson | Kirk Johnson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NYACK, N.Y. - Scientists mapping the bottom of the Hudson River with sonar say they have found nearly every ship that ever foundered in the river over the past 400 years or more. Not just some of them, or most of them, but - astonishingly - all of them, except for a few that may have been disturbed by dredging.

The ghostly images provide a record of collisions and carelessness and storm-tossed fate - most of it previously unrecorded and utterly unknown - from the days of sail and steam through the diesel tugs and tankers on the river today. Altogether, more than 200 possible wrecks, spread over 140 miles from the southern tip of Manhattan to Troy, have been identified.

But don't ask where the wrecks are. It's a state secret.

The sonar maps are the unexpected byproduct of a state-financed project to map the river's bottom for habitat and pollution-abatement studies, and because of the thoroughness of the research mandate - every square foot of river deeper than 6 feet was scanned - scientists feel confident that they missed almost nothing.

But the sonar maps do not just locate the wrecks. They pinpoint them with the accuracy that only satellites and global-positioning technology can achieve. And that level of precision, say state officials who have stamped the maps "confidential" and barred their publication, is precisely the problem. Centuries of maritime history, they say, would be up for grabs by salvagers and collectors before the state - which claims ownership over everything on the river's bottom - could even know what was at risk.

Assessment begins

"We don't want to ring the dinner bell for people who have ulterior motives and don't behave responsibly," said Mark L. Peckham, a historic preservation coordinator at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which led a team in December to begin assessing the first of the sites. State officials allowed a reporter to accompany the research team on the condition that specific depths of the wrecks and other clues about their locations not be published.

"These are important resources for understanding New York's history and we really need to do the responsible thing," Peckham said.

Some of the images are definitely hull-shaped; others are are simply vague rectangular or oval lumps, entombed by decades or centuries of mud. Of the handful that have been tested so far for metallic content using a towed magnetometer, some have indicated the likely presence of an engine; others - perhaps the oldest of the old - show almost no metal.

"This is like going into your grandmother's attic, which you thought was full of junk, and finding it's actually a museum," said Dr. Robin E. Bell, a senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has led the mapping team.

Archaeologists say that while many of the wrecks probably have little historic significance - several overturned barges, for example, have already been identified by their distinctive outline - the likelihood is high that the river will yield at least a few long-held secrets.

What appears to be a largely intact 19th-century sailing sloop - something that historians and sailors have hungered after for years and never found - has been located in Haverstraw Bay, about 35 miles north of Manhattan, for instance, and the suspected remains of a half-dozen Revolutionary War vessels scuttled in 1777 have been tentatively identified farther north.

The surveys have also turned up more mysterious structures, including a series of submerged walls more than 900 feet long that scientists say are clearly of human construction. They say the walls are probably at least 3,000 years old, because that was the last time the river's water levels were low enough to have allowed construction on dry land.

"I think there are going to be really significant findings," said Warren Riess, a research associate professor of history and marine sciences at the University of Maine who has been asked by the state to help assess the sites. "A lot will be uninteresting too, but that's OK; that's science."

Because the Hudson was never much of a pirates' nest or a conduit to gold and silver mining country, historians and maritime experts do not expect any lost chests of doubloons. The ships of the Hudson were the working stiffs of their day, and even after New York became the nation's busiest port in the mid-1800s, the river's cargo was predominantly still the stuff of workaday capitalism: coal, furs, wood and iron. Many of the boats that sank were never even recorded, except perhaps on some merchant's ledger sheet. But some experts say that that humble portrait of ordinary life is perhaps the real potential value of the data.

In 1870, for example, a severe storm in Haverstraw Bay sent as many as 10 boats to the bottom. Their cargo? Tons and tons of bricks. Peckham said he thinks, based on old newspaper accounts, that the sunken sloop may be from that lost fleet.

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