Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Shipwreck at Oak Island to soon get final resting place


Star News
By Si Cantwell
June 18, 2005

On Oct. 13, 1893, the three-masted schooner Mary E. Morris was sailing off Brunswick County, carrying phosphorus from Charleston, S.C., to its home port of Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, a hurricane came ashore that day at Myrtle Beach, S.C., and swept north toward Raleigh. It washed away wharves in Wilmington damaged a few weeks earlier by the Great Hurricane of 1893, which struck in late August.

The Morris sank in the October storm a few miles south of Southport. The good news is all hands made it safely ashore.

And that might have been the end of the story had not the ship’s remains turned up on Oak Island. Old-timers remember the ship’s skeleton periodically emerging from the sand in the vicinity of 13th Place West and then disappearing again.

Archaeologists from the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch at Fort Fisher surveyed the wreckage in 1979, 1984, 1990 and 1997. It was in one piece then, the oak floor timbers sticking out from the keel like ribs.

Then came Hurricane Dennis. Folks around here don’t remember Dennis as being all that destructive as it moved by on Aug. 29, 1999, but its waves picked up the Morris and bashed it into four walkways along the dunes.

“It broke in two pieces, and both of them started banging down the beach,” said Nathan Henry, an underwater archaeologist who surveyed the wreckage afterward.

A crane company pulled the wreckage off the beach, cutting it into sections and moving it to the town’s athletic fields before Hurricane Floyd struck on Sept. 16, 1999.

Thanks to the town’s visionaries and Chris W. Rogers, the Morris will soon be on the move again. It will be relocated to a grassy median in Barbee Boulevard beside the J.V. Barbee Library, 8200 Oak Island Drive.

Mr. Rogers started working on the project as an intern for the town of Oak Island, earning credits toward his Master of Public Administration degree at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is wrapping up the project as a consultant to the town.

On Wednesday, Mr. Rogers met with Jamie Ezzell, division manager for Edwards Crane, and Gene Kudgus, the town’s public works director, to go over the details. They looked over the 15-ton skeleton, which lies in four major sections with some bits and pieces scattered around.

A pedestal will be prepared at the library site, and an informational display will include a rendering done by Wilmington artist Kim Camlin.

Mr. Rogers said the town has budgeted $9,000 for the project, but additional funds are available if needed.

Mr. Ezzell said the trickiest part will be flipping it over. It lies with the keel side up, but Mr. Rogers wants it to be right side up when the pieces are displayed end-to-end at the new site. Mr. Ezzell said his company occasionally flips new yachts at area boatyards, and he had some ideas on how to accomplish it while minimizing the chances of damaging the 111-year-old wreck.

Identifying the wreck wasn’t easy. In 1999, archaeologists thought it might be the Wustrow, a German brig lost in the August 1893 storm.

But that ship was only 106-feet long, while the Morris was more than 130 feet long. Mr. Henry compared the pieces of the wreck to specifications mandated for vessels insured by Lloyd’s of London to determine its size, about 400 tons. Then he looked for ships of that size and description lost off Brunswick shores. The Mary E. Morris, which was insured by Lloyd’s of London, fit the bill.

The ship will be moved on a weekday sometime after the Fourth of July, and Mr. Ezzell said Oak Island Drive wouldn’t be closed more than a few minutes as his four trucks drive to the library site.

UNCW’s 4-year-old Master of Public Administration program is placing qualified people in positions throughout the area, said Tom Barth, a political science professor who directs the MPA program.

But I believe Mr. Rogers is the first of them to move a shipwreck.


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