New Jersey construction workers installing a wall of sheet piling along the shore thought nothing of the timber materials they ran into one day in late October. That’s because since starting their 3.5 mile project in July, hitting old buried boardwalks or timber bulkheads wasn’t unusual, says Derek Serpe, project manager at EIC Associates Inc. The construction company is contracted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to make the New Jersey coast, greatly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, more resilient to future storms.
“We’d be driving sheet. The sheet would meet refusal, and we were unable to drive through it so we’d bring the excavator and then dig in and clear whatever it is,” Serpe says.
When one of their three crawler-mounted vibratory hammers met resistance while trying to drive a sheet Friday, Oct. 24, the crew, figuring they’d hit another timber bulkhead, sent for an excavator operator who cleared the spot on Saturday. Serpe describes the dug-up objects as 12-by-12-inch black timbers and a wooden pier cylinder they couldn’t identify.
“And then on Monday when we went back to work, we brought one of the NJDEP inspectors over to show them what we found and he pretty much immediately knew it was some type of old timber barge based on the construction of the piece of timber,” Serpe says. “We do a lot of work in the five boroughs of New York, so typically we are used to coming into some pretty unique things, but we’ve never come across anything like this.”
The cylinder object was a key piece of evidence in leading the NJDEP to believe the sand-covered findings could, indeed, be a shipwreck. Serpe says the cylindrical relic is believed to be a windlass, which served as a pulley for adjusting anchors.
A marine archaeologist has been called in to determine what the vessel is and how much of it is below the surface. “We actually don’t know what it is yet,” says Bob Considine, NJDEP spokesman. “But if the vessel in question is a shipwreck of historical value and is eligible for the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, it would need to go through a Section 106 review by the state Historic Preservation Office.” Run under the NJDEP, a Section 106 review simply requires consideration of historic preservation.
Shipwrecks have occurred in the area over hundreds of years, so it could be any one of a dozen vessels, says Dan Lieb, current president of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association and president of its museum. He says it’s important that a thorough investigation of those vessels and the site is done to determine if this finding is a candidate for one of them.
“The timbers show very, very clean cut,” he says. “So it’s probably more modern than ancient ... It’s very, very difficult right now to date it. But I’m going to take a stab and say that it is between the early and middle 1800s in its construction. It may have wrecked anywhere from the early 1800s to the late 1800s.”
Lieb says shipwrecks are only discovered about once every three to five years off the Jersey coast, and that’s when they’re actually being searched for by sport divers, historians or archaeologists. “Stumbled upon? I would say probably once every eight years. Once every eight years on average I’d say a wreck is stumbled upon."
In the meantime, Serpe and his seven crews have had to completely halt work in the spot they found the timbers. They had to establish a 200-foot buffer zone around the finding, which, Serpe says, takes up approximately 500 feet near the most southern end of the project. “It’s been very interesting because, of course, uncovering history’s interesting. But it’s also a significant bump and glitch in us completing the work.”
How the small section of the 3.5 mile area will be handled is yet to be determined. “Whether it be we continue on with our work or we build a giant cofferdam and actually do an archeological dig to remove this thing through the ground, we don’t know at this point what the next steps are going to be,” Serpe says.
The good news is that the crew is in the finishing stages of the project right now — about 90 percent complete — and work is being carried on everywhere but the small section where the vessel is located.
Work on this $23.8 million project began in July. It includes 45-foot-high sections of marine-grade sheet piling being driven into the beach and it extends approximately 18,450 linear feet from Mantoloking to the southern end of coastal Brick Township. After the steel sheets are driven into the sand they are covered with an epoxy-coated steel cap. The sheet piling was initially slated to be completed in fall 2014. “I would suggest that the project will still be near completion by the end of this month, even if excavation is required in this small section,” Considine says.
Serpe says the experience means a lot to him because he grew up in the area and he knows a lot of people that were impacted by hurricane Sandy and lost their homes. “This is my first project as the lead project manager … Interesting one to be on.”
Valerie King is associate editor of National Driller.