Saturday, February 11, 2006

 

Ship mystery Sherlocked here

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The Capital Times
By Doug Moe
February 07, 2006


THE MOST famous mystery that the Madison-based U.S. Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory ever helped solve will likely always be the 1932 kidnapping of the infant son of famed pilot Charles Lindbergh.

But recently, Alex Wiedenhoeft, botanist with the lab's Center for Wood Anatomy, helped the city of San Francisco identify a newly discovered, nearly 200-year-old whaling ship that will be the centerpiece of the San Francisco History Museum, scheduled to open in 2008.

In the Lindbergh case, a ladder was discovered outside the family home and the head of the New Jersey state police, Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the famous general, sent splinters from the ladder to FPL in Madison. A. Scott Berg's Lindbergh biography detailed how a lab scientist, Arthur Koehler - "a studious man," in Berg's description - was able to ascertain which mill in the United States had produced the wood. Koehler eventually testified in the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and Berg noted: "Technical though Koehler's testimony was, the jury, gallery and even the prisoner sat spellbound."

In the recent case, Wiedenhoeft first heard about the San Francisco discovery when he received an e-mail last November from an archaeological consultant. Wiedenhoeft makes as many as 2,500 wood identifications a year, but the San Francisco case was more interesting than most.

It began in late summer when a construction crew working in the South of Market neighborhood "found the timbers of what appeared to be an old ship while excavating the foundations for two high-rise towers near Folsom Street," according to an account over the weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Maritime archaeologist James Allan was contacted. Allan knew that a ship-dismantling yard had existed in that location in San Francisco in the 1850s. The task was to identify which ship had been uncovered. Allan sought out old newspapers, ship logs, and sent a small sample of the wood to Wiedenhoeft in Madison.

"They asked for anything and everything I could tell them about it," Wiedenhoeft was saying Monday. He examined it under a microscope and was able to identify three kinds of oak and one kind of pine.

With that and other information, it was determined that the ship was a small sailing ship, built on the east coast of the United States around 1820. Through a process of elimination, James Allan and his team were able to deduce that the ship was the Candace, built in Boston in 1818, a whaler that had many voyages before being damaged by ice and barely making it safely to harbor in San Francisco in 1855.

Wiedenhoeft said he has identified wood from a number of shipwrecks, but the San Francisco case was unusual in that the ship was not on the bottom of the sea but rather buried underground. According to the Chronicle, "the bones of dozens of old ships lie under the streets of downtown San Francisco - most of them abandoned after the Gold Rush of 1849." The Chronicle concluded: "The Candace is the first one to be preserved intact." ...


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