Brown's Ferry Vessel Model Unveiled in Georgetown
By Drew Ruddy
The South Carolina Maritime Museum in Georgetown, S.C. hosted the unveiling of its new model of the Brown’s Ferry Vessel on July 31, 2015. Present for the occasion were Edward Scott, marine architect and designer of the model, and William Brady, its builder. The actual vessel has been on exhibit in the Georgetown Rice Museum since the 1990’s.
The first SCUBA dives at the Brown’s Ferry site occurred in the fall of 1971 when dive instructor, Jim Maranville scheduled a monthly dive club outing. The Scuba Charleston dive club was an energetic group of enthusiasts of that era who played a significant role in initiating divers to the concept of South Carolina dark water diving. Ironically, on the day of this club dive, no one present had any idea of the historic significance of the site. It was chosen for its easy access to the water via the boat landing and its comfortable park like picnic grounds. Multiple divers entered and exited the water that day crossing over the mound of bricks at the base of the landing without any realization of the archaeological treasure which lay buried beneath them. To the surprise of all, diver Jack Williamson surfaced with an intact Renishware mug and an 18th century mallet bottle.
Diver Jack Williamson and the Renishware mug. (Photos courtest Drew Ruddy)
Over the next couple of years, various divers visited the site with apparently no recognition of the presence of the vessel which was buried beneath the mud and brick pile. On Feb. 24, 1974, Hampton Shuping was diving with friends and came across the remnants of the vessel’s frames protruding inches above the mudline. Interested and intrigued by the possibilities, he and his partners began to dig in the area by hand. “The first thing that I uncovered was the Davis Quadrant”. Not knowing what it was and being very conservation and archaeologically minded, he reburied the wooden instrument. As they continued to investigate, they found 18th century mallet bottles, a slipware cup and a broken delft bowl. In cooperation with the directives of the newly instituted Hobby Licensing Program, Mr Shuping reported the finds to the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Artifacts recovered from vessel site. (SCIAA Photos)
Dr. Newell Wright of Coastal Carolina University visited the site with Mr. Shuping in October, 1975 and they began to take a more serious look at the vessel’s structural features. The following month, Alan Albright, South Carolina’s first underwater archaeologist joined them for a dive on the site. It was becoming more and more evident that a significant portion of the hull existed although much of it was buried under a cargo of about ten thousand 18th century bricks. By this time, another diver had recovered the Davis Quadrant which was identified as such by Alan Albright. The quadrant, a navigational instrument which was a forerunner to the sextant, was a remarkable find and was in very good condition.
Davis Quadrant from site of the vessel. (SCIAA photo)
In light of the significant artifacts which were being recovered and the apparent condition of the vessel which had remained buried for over two hundred years in the fresh tannic water of the Black River, the Institute decided to go for recovery of the entire wreck in the summer of 1976. The project which took about 6 weeks to accomplish was done on a shoestring budget. The archaeological professionals consisted of Alan Albright, Newell Wright and Ralph Wilbanks of the SCIAA underwater division which had only been in existence for a little over a year. All other divers were volunteers. Equipment and industrial support was provided by the International Paper Company and other local businesses. The hull of the Brown’s Ferry Vessel came to the surface on August 28, 1976 under watchful eyes of an estimated 8,000 spectators. According to Ralph Wilbanks, “it was said that this was the largest assemblage of people for a non-sporting event in Georgetown County history”.
In light of the significant artifacts which were being recovered and the apparent condition of the vessel which had remained buried for over two hundred years in the fresh tanic water of the Black River, the Institute decided to go for recovery of the entire wreck in the summer of 1976. The project which took about 6 weeks to accomplish was done on a shoestring budget. The archaeological professionals consisted of Alan Albright, Newell Wright and Ralph Wilbanks of the SCIAA underwater division which had only been in existence for a little over a year. All other divers were volunteers. Equipment and industrial support was provided by the International Paper Company and other local businesses. The hull of the Brown’s Ferry Vessel came to the surface on August 28, 1976 under watchful eyes of an estimated 8,000 spectators. According to Ralph Wilbanks, “it was said that this was the largest assemblage of people for a non-sporting event in Georgetown County history”.
Brown's Ferry Vessel lifted from the Black River. (SCIAA photo)The vessel was trucked to Fort Jackson in Columbia and kept wet under a sprinkler system for several months. During this timeframe, world renownd ship reconstructionist, Dick Steffy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology came to South Carolina to measure and study the vessel lines. He built a study model which hypothesized the look of the hull and rigging. Based on his work at the time, Dick surmised that the vessel was double ended and the model depicts a pointed stern.
Dick Steffy shows the Brown’s Ferry Vessel model to Hamoton Shuping in 1978 upon presenting it to the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. (Photo provided by Hampton Shuping)
From 1977 to 1983, the vessel was submerged in a farm pond outside of Columbia. Upon completion of the conservation facility which was constructed at the University of South Carolina, the vessel underwent a several year process of immersion in polyethylene glycol.
The Brown’s Ferry Vessel enters into polyethylene glycol treatment under the watchful eyes of archaeologist, Alan Albright and conservator, Kate Singley. (SCIAA photo)
The dawn of the decade of the 1990’s saw the completion of the submerged treatment process. A new opportunity for study of the hull construction was afforded as the vessel was exposed to the open air. Fred Hocker from the Texas A&M nautical archaeology program came to South Carolina to reexamine the nuances of the colonial shipwrights design. During the recovery operation, compound frames had been brought to the surface but were not attached to the structure of the vessel. With careful investigation and in collaboration with Dick Steffy, Hocker surmised that the vessel probably had a squared stern.
The vessel was trucked back to Georgetown in July, 1992. Contractors removed the roof of the Kaminski Building on Front Street and a crane hoisted the vessel to it’s new home on the third floor. SCIAA staff under the direction of State Archaeologist, Dr. Jonathan Leader reconstructed the vessel and the final display was prepared showing the compound frames in place indicating the square stern construct.
SCIAA staff under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Leader restore the Brown’s Ferry Vessel for final display. (SCIAA photo)
Over four decades have passed since diver, Hampton Shuping recognized the few symmetric frames protruding from the mud slope in the dark waters of the Black river. The subsequent years have witnessed a remarkable story of a recovery by a fledgling underwater archaeological program on an almost nonexistent budget; South Carolina’s dedication to preservation by building and operating a conservation facility specifically for the purpose of preserving this nautical treasure; study and contributions by some of the world’s leading authorities on ancient ship construction and design; and the removal and replacement of a Georgetown roof to provide a permanent home for the Brown’s Ferry Vessel.
The Brown’s Ferry Vessel is hoisted to the third floor display location in the Kaminski Building, July 1992. Photo courtesy (Hampton Shuping)
In his study published in 1979, Dick Steffy concludes:
“In my opinion, it is the most important single nautical discovery in the United States to date. In the first place, it establishes primary evidence for American shipbuilding nearly fifty years earlier than previous discoveries. More importantly, this was a merchant hull, built without anxiety, bureaucracy, and inefficiency often associated with vessels of war. As such, it defines everyday technology in a competitive atmosphere. Additionally, this was a local type – important to any maritime scholar – representing a period and area in which far too little maritime information has been forthcoming.”