Scuttled 18th century ship discovered under Hotel Indigo construction

Scuttled 18th century ship discovered under Hotel Indigo construction

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

In early November last year, the construction of the Hotel Indigo yielded a fascinating discovery: some of the timbers that made up a warehouse built by notable city resident John Carlyle were unearthed. Two months later, workers found another piece of Alexandria’s history: the remains of the hull of a ship that officials believe could be around 70 feet in length.

The ship was scuttled at some point between 1775 and 1798 as part of the landfill process to extend the waterfront into the deep channel of the Potomac River, which helped fulfill Alexandria’s ambitions of being an international port as it allowed larger ships to dock.

When the discovery was first made, it was believed that the ship was 50 feet long. But further investigation by naval archaeologists revealed that it was even longer, as there is a point near the middle of the ship where the futtocks, or ribs on the lower part of the ship’s frame, are equal in number going toward both the port and stern.

Carr Properties, which is building the luxury hotel at 220 S. Union St., commissioned Thunderbird Archaeology, a division of Wetland Studies, Inc., to carry out the archaeological survey. John Mullen, principal archaeologist at Thunderbird, said the investigation was almost complete when they discovered the structure.

“It was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, there it is,’” he told NBC Nightly News in a report broadcast on January 9.

Like the warehouse that was previously discovered nearby and sent to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Leonard, Md. for preservation, the hull of the ship was in such good condition because it was on a waterlogged site in which there is a lack of oxygen. The timbers have since been removed from this preservation-conducive environment, so experts had to work fast to prevent them from degrading too much.

The boat was unveiled to the public at a viewing on January 5, as Mayor Allison Silberberg in what was her first full day on the job after being installed the previous evening, spoke of her excitement at the discovery.

“This is incredible, and people have been coming and people continue to come this morning,” she said. “Historic preservation is a core value of our community and this is a great example of our attention to detail. Clearly, it’s a core value in our hearts, and we will continue to do everything we can to make sure that this is preserved, so I’m very excited about it. It’s a great find.”

At the viewing, there were suggestions that this vessel was either French or Dutch in origin, given the way that it was constructed and held together using wood, raising questions about whether it was involved in some form in the Revolutionary War against the British.

While city archaeologist Francine Bromberg had no further details on the origin of the ship or its uses before being scuttled, she said that its sheer size was a good indicator that it could have been used as a cargo or military ship.

“The ship itself was very sturdily built, so that indicates that it carried a heavy cargo,” she said. “A military use can’t be ruled out, but we don’t know that for sure. It could have been carrying other types of heavy cargo.”

Further tests will confirm the true origins of the ship, which has been deconstructed and stored in 20-foot water tanks. There has also been a process of 3-D laser imaging to try to digitally reconstruct the ship and understand how it was made. A few artifacts have been discovered in nearby privies, including pottery and glassware, and the fact that the ship is so well preserved in a historically busy area has officials very excited.

“Just the fact that we have this 18th century ship that’s so sturdily built buried on the waterfront of Alexandria is something that really gives the residents here and the visitors to Alexandria tangible evidence of our maritime past,” Bromberg said. “It’s resonated remarkably throughout the community and I think it brings people together, as history often does. I’m thrilled with the discovery and excited that we’re able to lift this piece of history and preserve it and understand it.”

When the 1755 warehouse was discovered nearby, Bromberg spoke of her desire to see it commemorated in some way in the new development, which will include the hotel as well as apartments, condos, restaurants and retail space. With this new discovery, there are likely more opportunities for such commemoration.

“It’s hoped that the conserved sections can be interpreted on the waterfront, perhaps in several of the buildings,” she said at the time. “My dream personally is to see at least parts of it, if not more than parts of it, as much as can be, incorporated into the waterfront design on the exterior as the waterfront trails are developed and the whole waterfront along Alexandria is connected to see at least parts of it displayed in a location close to where it was found.”