A massive cyclone approached the east coast of the U.S. in early March 2018. One of the places it hit hard was the coastal town of York in Maine. Locals woke up on the morning of Saturday, March 5, to investigate the damage wreaked by this powerful meteorological manifestation. And what they found on the city’s beach astonished them all.
It was an early spring nor’easter that had battered the east coast that weekend, a weather pattern all too familiar for the residents that live in that region. In fact, this particular nor’easter hit the east coast all the way from the north to the south, not forgetting to batter everywhere in between.
The storm saw snowfalls of up to two feet in some areas and flood surges worsened by high tides. And York was one of the cities hit by the flooding. Along the east coast, there were nine fatalities, with trees felled by the powerful winds killing five of them.
As many as 1.9 million homes suffered power outages. The New England states had their fair share of the damage, with winds blowing up to 97 mph at Wellfleet in Massachusetts and waves reported as breaking at more than the height of a two-floor house.
On that Saturday morning, it was actually officers from the York Police Department who made an extraordinary find on the city’s Short Sands Beach. Officers posted on the department’s Facebook page. “The pictures below are of the old ship that is buried at Short Sands Beach,” they wrote. “Every once in a while after a storm the ocean moves enough sand for it to be seen. Thought you might like to see it.”
And the pictures were indeed fascinating. What they showed were the skeletal remains of an old shipwreck lying exposed on the beach. It was the force of the storm that had revealed the wreck that had previously been buried in the sands.
But it was far from the first time that these ghostly remains had been revealed to the good folks of York. One expert on the history of York, Sharon Cummins, told CNN that the earliest year in living memory that the wreck had been spotted was 1958.
When it had been revealed on Short Sands Beach back then, some had wondered if it might be the wreck of a type of vessel called a “pink.” These were sailing ships, quite small and equipped with a square-rig system of sails. These vessels had slim sterns and flat bottoms.
After its brief 1958 appearance, the wreck soon disappeared again beneath the shifting sands. And then this same wreck had made another ghostly appearance in 1980, again uncovered by a spring nor’easter, only to be swallowed up once more by the ever-changing topography of Short Bay Sands.
On that 1980 appearance, the ship’s remains were surveyed and recorded by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and given the status of an archaeological site. At that time, Warren Riess, a marine archaeologist, theorized that the vessel might have been a sloop from around the time of the Revolutionary War. A sloop is a single-masted ship.
The mysterious ship was revealed to the world yet again in 2007 and again in 2013. It seems that this historic shipwreck is determined to reveal itself at irregular intervals. But its 2018 appearance was certainly the first time officers from York Police Department had photographed it and posted the pictures on Facebook.
After the 2018 emergence, Maine Historic Preservation Commission archaeologist Leith Smith told CNN that this ship may indeed have been a pink, confirming speculation after the 1958 sighting. It could have been a commercial vessel trading along the New England coast some time between 1750 and 1850.
Describing the likely purpose of the ship, Smith said, “It was the 18-wheeler of the day.” And he went on to theorize about its likely fate. “It was probably driven on shore by a storm and pushed so far on the sand that they couldn’t refloat it again,” Smith said.
And Smith went as far as to offer a possible identity for the shipwreck. The most recent research, he told CNN, indicates that this might be the wreck of a vessel called The Industry. Smith said that after the ship had been washed ashore and wrecked, its owners would have done their best to save its cargo.
What’s more, the citizens of York might even have benefited from the wreck, Smith said. Once the owners had salvaged what they could from the stricken vessel, the locals would probably have done a bit of salvaging themselves, taking timbers and anything else that could be reused.
The remains of the vessel measure 51 feet long and 14 feet across. If Smith is right and this is The Industry, the ship dates from 1769. Smith reckoned that the wreck, whatever her true identity, would likely remain in sight for about a month before tidal action reburied it beneath the sand. Before that happened, researchers planned to survey the vessel from the air using a drone.
Locals were thrilled by the appearance of the old shipwreck. One, Becca Dugas, spoke to CNN. She said that she’d heard tales about this enigmatic vessel that periodically emerged on Short Sands Beach. “Locals were there all morning with cameras,” Dugas said.
In fact, storms uncover wrecks at other locations on the New England coast from time to time. When the 2013 storm exposed the York vessel, another shipwreck emerged just up the coast at another Maine seaside town, Kennebunk, at Gooch’s Beach. And just like the York ship, locals in Kennebunk remembered seeing it occasionally over the years.
That Kennebunk wreck is reckoned to be either the Columbia, sunk in 1818, or the Merchant, which foundered in 1820. Both were commercial vessels, and Columbia was returning from Puerto Rico laden with molasses and sugar. The Merchant was on her way back from a voyage to Cuba.
When fierce nor’easter storms hit America’s eastern seaboard, they can bring tremendous destruction and even loss of life to communities up and down the coast. But they can also reveal intriguing traces of U.S. maritime history stretching back across the centuries.