And so we come to a fork in the road. I could lie and tell you that I planned for the content of today’s post. I could. But I won’t. Truth be told, I came up bone dry this time around, despite thinking about it considerably. I himmed and I hawed – and then himmed a bit more, because I like himming – but nothing . Zip. Nada. That happens from time to time. I think the French would say something here along the lines of “C’est la vie”. But all is not lost because, like it or not, we’re taking another trip down memory lane. Don’t worry, I’ll take the whiskey (you don’t have to drink it, but I most certainly will).
Away we go!
What do you get when you mix an island, more than a century of intensive shipbuilding, and coastlines heavily plied by all manner of vessels? The high potential for shipwrecks, and these shores are quite “littorally” riddled with them (get it?). Seriously though, they’re pretty well everywhere around here, so much so that the province has a reputation as a graveyard. And it was just such a one (well, part of one) that happened to wash up on a beach in French River nine years ago.
*Cue wistful music and dissolve*
It was June 2007. As I recall, I’d just polished off my final exams and at long last was permitted to pull my head from the books and come up for air. The whole summer now lay before me, mine for the taking, when in the vein of Sherlock Holmes mystery there was an unexpected knock at the door. (Or was it a phone call? An email? Facebook message? I can’t remember). Anyway, it was Jason from the Artifactory, and he had a question: Would I like to help dig up a shipwreck?
For the better part of a month, the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation had been toiling away off and on at the beach in French River, attempting to extricate a 10-metre long, 700-kilogram “fragment” of a ship from the shifting sands. I’d been living under an academic rock, and so had missed the story when it first broke in April. No one quite new from whence it came, but the locals who found the wreck suspected it had materialized following the erosion of a nearby breakwater during the winter. Realizing its potential siginificance, and to prevent it from drifting away, they had anchored it to the shore. But the wreck still sat within the tidal zone, and so would be covered with each ebb and flow of the tide, making excavation efforts difficult. It had basically become a Groundhog Day scenario.
Would I like to help dig up a shipwreck? Not a question I was expecting. Not a question anyone expects. I hadn’t been around the Artifactory that much the past little while, what with school and all, and had fallen out of the loop. I’d actually been hoping to hear from them about whether or not the government’s student employment funding I’d applied for had come through, and had been waiting patiently for an answer. This wasn’t it; however, it seemed a damned fine proposition nonetheless. Who doesn’t love a good day at the beach?
Now before we proceed any further, allow me to qualify something. At the time, I was basically a scrawny, bookworm of a highschooler, more accustomed to sitting in libraries and much less so to manual labour. Much less so. I was not in the least equiped to be engaging in such an activity. And yet, here was an opportunity to get up close and personal with Island history and dammit, I wasn’t about to let physical ineptitude get in the way. So I didn’t. And I paid dearly for it.
The sun was positively shining that Monday as we set out from Charlottetown. A rag-tag crew had been assembled, and whether it was five or six of us I can’t quite recall. Anyway, it comprised Jason, and everyone’s favourite historian-on-radio, Boyde Beck, representing the Heritage Foundation. And then there were a couple of individuals tapped for their carpentry skills. And then there was me. Even nine years later, my role remains a mystery.
We drove all the way to the end of the Cape Road in French River, which empties out into a tiny red dirt parking lot, and proceeded from there on foot. The site of the wreck was a few minutes walk along the beach, and as we trudged along with equipment in hand, we must have seemed a strange lot to those we passed along the way. But no one stared too hard.
As we rounded a bend, there it was in all its glory: a portion of some sort of vessel, of wooden-peg construction, covered once more by sand. Be still my beating heart. After marvelling at it for a moment, it was down to business. I was handed a shovel, and instructed to work my way along one side of the wreck. The goal was to dig down beneath it so that it could be propped up a bit and a frame built around it. It all sounded easy enough.
And so I dug. And I dug. And I dug some more.The sun rose higher, and grew hotter. My muscles began to ache. My hands began to display the tell-tale signs of blistering. I was out of my element, and knew I’d be lucky if I survived to lunch (I did). I couldn’t help but notice that no one else seemed to be having this problem. Figures.
After what seemed like an eternity, the gods smiled down upon me and I was taken off shovelling duty. I thought my attempt had been half respectable and if I could have mustered the required strength, would have given myself a pat on the back. Instead, I found myself tasked with cutting pre-measured pieces of two-by-four. I’m not sure why this was deemed a good idea, but the mistake became obvious after it took me a solid 15 minutes to cut through one measly plank with a handsaw. Not the level of production needed, and definitely not my wheelhouse. Shovelling had proven slightly more my speed, and so that’s where I found myself once again. I was very much beginning to feel like a malnourished Hercules performing his Labours, albeit far less successfully.
The slog (agony) continued into late afternoon, and by day’s end, I was an ungodly sweaty mess, had nearly put a nail through my shoe, incurred a vicious sunburn, and was the not-so-proud owner of easily the worst blisters I’ve ever had. So bad were they that I was on my knees, hands submerged in salt water to help ease the pain, all the while thinking that a book would never have done this to me. Never.
But in spite of my lacklustre performance, we (they) finally succeeded in completing the frame, and a few days later a towing company was called out to hoist it up off the beach and haul it away to Green Park Shipbuilding Museum, where it was plunked down just outside the front doors and where, last I heard, it remains. I don’t suppose there’s much left of it now.
Anyway, speculation abounded about the identity of the vessel, and so far as I know it was an issue that was never satisfactorily resolved. Some believed it to be that of the Elizabeth, which went down off New London Bay in 1775; others fancied that it was an ill-fated ship gone down in the Yankee Gale in 1851. Looking back on it now, I’d have to say that it resembled something from the latter part of the 19th century. But frankly, I don’t think there was ever enough to begin with to say one way or the other. There was talk of sending samples off for analysis to see if that might help narrow down a date range, but to my knowledge that never came to pass; if it did, it proved inconclusive.
As a service to you, I went digging (yes, pun intended), and after a mere few seconds of searching thanks to Google, came up with this CBC article from back in the day. What an age we live in, huh?
Now the irony of this story is that, despite my propensity for masochism at the time, I would eventually go on to work in archaeology for the province – but that’s for another post (or two). See you on Friday!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – I eventually embarked on a journey to become more physically fit. It sort of worked, and I’m no longer as scrawny. But I’m still a die-hard bookworm. There’s no cure for that. And I don’t care.
P.P.S. – In case you’re wondering, yes – Wednesday has become the new Tuesday.