Mystery wreckage found: 200-year-old ship’s knee found in CT River

ESSEX – A “ship’s knee” found in the mud of the Connecticut River may have come from the wreck of an American ship that was run aground by the British Navy some 200 years ago, marine historians say.

And, the discovery of this mystery relic may help the Connecticut River Museum with their quest to get their property designated a national historic battle site and to get the state to name Essex (more specifically, the peninsula where the town is located), a state historic battle site.

While this discovery was made in June, the artifact has only been on display at the Connecticut River Museum the past two weeks.

At the museum, the old ship’s knee is kept in a tank of fresh water that is changed every two weeks to leech the salt water out, in an effort to preserve the aged wood, according to Jerry Roberts, director of the museum. Once the 200-year-old ship’s knee was taken out of the water and exposed to the air, salt would only damage the wood, crystallizing on its surface, turning the wood sponge-like, he adds.

“The salt water is very dangerous to the wood,” he says.

A second piece of wood was found in the same location last week leading museum officials to believe there is more to be found.

“It is probably the heavy spring freshet that has uncovered parts of the wreck which has been buried in the river bottom for nearly 200 years,” says Roberts.

The historical object was discovered this past summer while the state Department of Environmental Protection was dragging nets for sturgeon research on the Connecticut River just south of Essex.

Apparently, Tom Savoy and his team from the DEEP caught more than a big fish. In their nets, along with a snagged log and other debris, was the old ship’s knee, a large wooden L-bracket used to fasten deck beams to the ribs of wooden ships.

Recognizing the potential significance of the discovery, they brought it to the Connecticut River Museum where museum staffers quickly took steps to identify and properly preserve it.
It was immediately re-submerged in the mud off the docks near the museum to stabilize the very old artifact, says Roberts.

“We wrapped it up in plastic and we re-sank it in the mud,” he says. “You want to put it in the mud, back where we found it.” When removing objects from ship wrecks the utmost care must be taken, he says, adding, “If you bring things up, they will fall to pieces.”

A team of experts, including state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Director of Conservation Christopher Sabick, and archaeologist John Pfeiffer were called in to help determine the history of the wooden piece. Pfeiffer, who was the primary investigator of the shipwreck discovered at the mouth of the river in Old Saybrook, has tentatively identified the knee as being made in America prior to the 1820s due to its hand-carved wooden trunnels (pegs) and lack of metal fasteners.

“This is really something special,” marveled Pfeiffer. “This could be an important find.”

Based on the age and location of the artifact as well as the presence of faint charring, it is possible that the knee is from one of the two American privateers that the British attempted to take down river after their raid on Essex in 1814 in which 27 ships were destroyed. The British burned the Young Anaconda and the Eagle after running them aground in shallow waters.

The next step is to find more debris from the wreck and see what else lies along the river bottom, Roberts says. They hope to get the state DEEP to do a side sonar scan, which Roberts describes as “basically a camera system using radar,” of the area where the nets were dragged.

“It will bounce back a pretty accurate image.” The scan will “show us the difference between a piece of tree or a piece of an old ship. It might take us a few weeks to find the location,” Roberts says.

Roberts also says the museum will do research to see what ship wrecks from that time period around the War of 1812 and the 1814 British Raid, were salvaged.

“It just shows that history is not dead, the books have not all been written,” Roberts says of the two finds.

“Last year we were given a British sword that was found in the river, and now this. We are planning to see what else is down there. It’s kind of amazing that we are finding these things now, as we approach the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the 1814 British Raid.”

Recently the Museum received a $20,000 grant from the state Historic Preservation Office to conduct further research into the battle as a prelude to attaining National Park Service battle site designation.

The knee is viewable at the Connecticut River Museum located at 67 Main Street in Essex. The Museum is also home to a permanent Burning of the Fleet exhibit which includes other 1814 British raid artifacts, a 14-foot long mural, paintings, dioramas and audio clips.

Susan Daniels from the Connecticut River Museum contributed material to this story.

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