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Building crew in Seaport unearths shipwreck

A work crew makes a stunning discovery

A 19th-century shipwreck was found at a construction site in the Seaport.
A 19th-century shipwreck was found at a construction site in the Seaport.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Seaport District is no stranger to boats or, during the current development boom, construction sites.

Last week, the two coincided when a mid-to-late 19th-century shipwreck was unearthed at a project in the flourishing waterfront neighborhood.

“Nothing like this has been found in Boston, in filled-in ground, before,” City of Boston archeologist Joe Bagley said Thursday. “This is incredibly rare and incredibly amazing.”

Skanska, the company building the project at 121 Seaport Boulevard, has temporarily stopped construction so that experts can examine the ship’s remains and learn more about its origins.

Charley Leatherbee, an executive with the company, said in a statement that during excavation, crews discovered “something unusual” in the ground.


“We immediately halted our excavation operations in the area of the site and alerted the city archeologist and Massachusetts Historical Commission,” Leatherbee said. “We are working closely with both organizations to determine exactly what this structure is and if it has historical significance so we can work with the city to take care of it in the most respectful manner.”

Bagley said the ship is roughly 50 feet long and could be older than the date when it ran aground or sank.

Based on remnants of barrels of lime found in the boat’s bottom, Bagley believes the vessel may have traveled from Maine to Boston before meeting its demise.

“Obviously, it didn’t make it,” he said. “But it came close.”

Lime was commonly used for papermaking, masonry, and construction during the 19th century.

Jamie Kingman Rice, director of library services at the Maine Historical Society, said her theory, without having additional information, is that the vessel arrived in Boston from the Rockland-Thomaston area, which had a prolific shipping industry and lime trade during that time.

Bagley has been posting photos of the ship to the city archeology department’s Facebook and Twitter accounts this week, keeping followers abreast of the dig. The public can follow along using the hashtag #SeaportShipwreck on social media.


One image included a lid from a lime barrel labeled “Rockland,” which fits both his and the Maine group’s theories.

“That barrel top is the smoking gun for where we think this ship may have came from,” Bagley said. It may have also been what caused the ship to sink. Bagley said lime, when it comes into contact with water, can cause a fire.

“That’s probably what happened to this boat,” he said. “Every part of the wood, especially in the back, has been scorched thoroughly.”

Archeologists were excavating by hand and inspecting the ship’s bow. The team dug up an intact 19th-century fork, found next to a stack of dishes.

Bagley said it’s exceedingly rare to discover cargo still inside an abandoned vessel, adding to the excitement of the dig.

“Most people will go out to shipwrecks shortly after they happen, to see what they can take from it,” he said.

Bagley said he was appreciative of Skanska’s cooperation, noting that the company had no obligation to contact anyone about the ship’s remains.

“The fact that they took the financial impact of stalling work in order for archeologists to come in and document this — frankly, we need more developers like them,” Bagley said.

Because of Skanska’s construction schedule, the study of the shipwreck is expected to continue only through Friday, putting pressure on Bagley and workers digging there to get the job done fast.


Bagley said they can’t remove the ship in that time because it’s so large, so they’ll document the site by taking photos and scanning the entire site. From the scans, workers will create a 3-D rendering of the remains to share with the public.

The ship from a distant past is a marked contrast from the plans for a 17-story, 400,000-square-foot office building that will rise at the site.

“The building features multiple outdoor spaces, including rooftop terraces and a pedestrian-only retail promenade, a fitness center, below-grade parking with bicycle storage, waterfront access, and two floors of retail,” Skanska says on its website.

And now, maybe a few seafaring ghosts.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.