Flotsam Off Fire Island May Be From Famous Wreck

The SS Savannah ran aground and broke apart in 1821
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 24, 2023 11:24 AM CST
Flotsam Found Off NY May Be From Famous Shipwreck
Tony Femminella, executive director of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, and Betsy DeMaria, museum technician with Fire Island National Seashore, stand beside a section of the hull of a ship believed to be the SS Savannah, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.   (Steve Pfost/Newsday via AP)

A chunk of weather-beaten flotsam that washed up on a New York shoreline after Tropical Storm Ian last fall has piqued the interest of experts who say it is likely part of the SS Savannah, which ran aground and broke apart in 1821, two years after it became the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean partly under steam power. The roughly 13-foot square piece of wreckage was spotted in October off Fire Island, a barrier island that hugs Long Island's southern shore, and is now in the custody of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. It will work with National Park Service officials to identify the wreckage and put it on public display.

"It was pretty thrilling to find it," says Betsy DeMaria, a museum technician at the park service's Fire Island National Seashore. "We definitely are going to have some subject matter experts take a look at it and help us get a better view of what we have here." It may be difficult to identify the wreckage with 100% certainty, but park service officials said the Savannah is a top contender among Fire Island’s known shipwrecks, the AP reports. Explorers have searched for the Savannah for over two centuries but have not found anything they could definitively link to the famous ship. The wreckage, though, "very well could be" a piece of the historic shipwreck, says Ira Breskin, a senior lecturer at the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx. "It makes perfect sense."

Evidence includes the 1- to 1.3-inch wooden pegs holding the wreckage's planks together, consistent with a 100-foot vessel, park service officials said. The Savannah was 98 feet, 6 inches long. Officials said the wreckage's iron spikes suggest a ship built around 1820. The Savannah was built in 1818. The ship, outfitted with a 90-horsepower steam engine, traveled mainly under sail across the Atlantic, using steam power for 80 hours of the nearly month-long passage to Liverpool, England. It was not a financial success, in part because people were afraid to travel on the hybrid vessel, and the steam engine was removed and sold after its owners suffered losses in the Great Savannah Fire of 1820. The Savannah was transporting cargo between Savannah and New York when it ran aground off Fire Island. It later broke apart.

(Read more shipwreck stories.)

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