Skip to main content

Researchers: Centuries-old ship at NYC ground zero likely from Philadelphia

By Laura Ly, CNN
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
In July 2010, a pair of archeologists begin dismantling the remains of a wooden ship that was found at the World Trade Center construction site in New York. The hull of the ship has been traced back to colonial-era Philadelphia, according to researchers at the Tree Ring Research Laboratory at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. In July 2010, a pair of archeologists begin dismantling the remains of a wooden ship that was found at the World Trade Center construction site in New York. The hull of the ship has been traced back to colonial-era Philadelphia, according to researchers at the Tree Ring Research Laboratory at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.
HIDE CAPTION
Ship found at World Trade Center site
Ship found at World Trade Center site
Ship found at World Trade Center site
Ship found at World Trade Center site
Ship found at World Trade Center site
Ship found at World Trade Center site
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scientists say hull found at the WTC site likely originated from a forest in the Philadelphia area
  • Vessel likely built around 1773 and believed to have been a "Hudson River Sloop" ship
  • Scientists analyzed and compared tree-rings on wood from the ship with wood samples to determine probable age
  • Ship's hull was found by archeologists at ground zero site in July 2010

New York (CNN) -- For more than 200 years, it lay hidden beneath the ground upon which New York City's World Trade Center once stood.

Now, four years after its discovery, scientists say they've solved the mystery of the ship hull found in the wreckage of the former World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.

The hull, originally found by archeologists monitoring the site's excavation, has been traced back to colonial-era Philadelphia, according to researchers at the Tree Ring Research Laboratory at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

"An old growth forest in the Philadelphia area supplied the white oak used in the ship's frame and ... the trees were probably cut in 1773 or so -- a few years before the bloody war that established America's independence from Britain," according to a statement from the scientists. Researchers used a process known as "dendroprovenancing" to determine the hull's origins, whereby tree rings from wood samples were analyzed and referenced against several other historical tree chronologies.

2010: Ship found at ground zero

"Trees respond to climate each year and that pattern of rings created within the tree produces a signature for that species in a forest or region," said Neil Pederson, a research scientist on the study. "We took oak samples from the World Trade Center vessel and made a record of growth through time. We then compared it to independent records of white oak that we had."

Researchers looked at oak chronologies from Boston through Virginia, but their analysis found that the samples had the greatest compatibility with trees in eastern Pennsylvania, particularly in the Philadelphia area dating in the latter part of the 18th century.

Scientists also found that the same kind of oak trees used to build the ship were also likely used to build Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the study said.

The ship was found approximately 6.7 meters, or nearly 22 feet below ground, just south of where the World Trade Center towers stood before they were toppled in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. It was not detected during earlier construction.

"It's such an intense site already based on its recent history, so to be in the midst of this urban, modern, very fraught location, and then to be sitting on what was a river bottom, with clams and fish, and the smell of low tide, was really an amazing juxtaposition," said Molly McDonald, an archeologist with the environmental consulting firm AKRF, who was among those who discovered the ship's hull in the wreckage in 2010.

Archeologists typically perform basic research to determine whether a construction site could be sensitive for archeological reasons, said McDonald. She and her colleagues had been at ground zero to monitor construction for any potential finds.

"Early one morning, we were monitoring and suddenly saw this curved timber come up," she recalled. "It was clear to me that it was part of a ship, so we stopped the backhoes and starting hand digging."

The ship has been tentatively identified as a Hudson River sloop, which researchers say was designed by the Dutch to carry passengers and cargo over the river's rocky shallows.

After being in use for 20 to 30 years, the ship is believed to have sailed to lower Manhattan, where it was eventually sunk, either deliberately or by accident, and ultimately buried by trash and other fill materials purposely used to extend Manhattan's shoreline.

"Abundant fill materials such as rocks, earth, and refuse were placed behind wooden barriers or within wood structures to create new land. Earlier wharfs and abandoned merchant ships were often a component of the fill in newly constructed land," according to the study.

The majority of the ship remains are currently being stored at Texas A&M University, said Jason Conwall, spokesman for Empire State Development. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., created in the aftermath of 9/11 to help plan the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, is a subsidiary of Empire State Development, owns the ship.

"We're working on potential options for the future which could potentially include preservation of the ship, but right now, set plans are still being determined," Conwall said.

For Pederson and fellow researchers, the ship's discovery and the investigation that followed has provided data that may prove useful for further research.

"The beauty of dendrochronology is that we can actually use those same samples to understand past climate change and the ecology of forests. The response to our work has been really big, bigger than we expected," Pederson said.

"For us, we have this really rich data set from the World Trade Center ship that we can use for future work. In a way, the ship lives on."

A U-boat and its American prey haunt Gulf of Mexico

Explorer: Underwater pirates looted what he says is likely Santa Maria

After 125 years, ship rediscovered at bottom of San Francisco Bay

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Science news
updated 3:34 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Sun May 25, 2014
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
updated 11:32 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
updated 12:12 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
updated 6:43 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
updated 7:06 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
updated 8:07 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
updated 6:13 AM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
updated 5:25 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
updated 8:20 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
updated 3:10 PM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT