Sunday, February 03, 2008


Temporary exhibit


Cape Code Times
February 03, 2008

Part of us wishes the National Seashore rangers could do more to save that shipwreck that has been drawing crowds this past week on Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.

Stray boards may float in and out with the tide, but here is the whole backbone and ribs of an old wreck, with a few planks of hull still attached with wooden pegs, settled firmly in the sand.

A storm brought her in; before that she lay offshore, unknown and anonymous. Not like the ribs of the HMS Somerset, a grand British warship wrecked by a gale off Truro in 1778 during the height of the Revolutionary War, and which the shifting sands occasionally uncover.

This latest hulk is the largest, most intact wreck to come ashore in a decade, the park historian says. The thing evokes a beached whale, dead but still a natural wonder. And it evokes that whole storied era of coastal commerce that new Cape Codders soon learn about, but won't see except in a museum. Hence the crowds.

They hiked around and took the measure of the wreck (and a smaller piece of hull planking a few hundred yards to the north). They were seen patting the thick square oak timbers and running their hands along the grain. People want to touch history, as if something from that time will infuse their own bones in a communion of human effort down through the ages. Of course, rangers try to prevent souvenirs from leaving the beach.

Viewers have a natural urge to hold on to this event, and that's what we're feeling, too: More people could enjoy it if the Seashore just scooped it up and built a shed over it. The next high tide may take her out again, or rearrange the bones further down the beach. We want to hang on to the magic.

But that's probably not prudent, engineering wise or history wise. Seashore policy is that unless flotsam has significant history, it's not dug up. There was a little archeological work done when the Somerset reappeared a couple of times last century, but that vessel had direct ties to the war and British headquarters in Boston. This vessel is much humbler. Cape wreck expert William Quinn speculates it might be a workaday coastal schooner that, in its old age, was cut down and towed as one of a string of lowly barges as late as the 1920s.

There were more than 3,500 shipwrecks in Cape waters between 1850 and 1980. Pieces often appear; the same storm that brought this wreck in took away a 9-foot-high rudder that had recently been lodged in the sand in Truro.

The park has photographed and mapped the wreck. And that may be the best that can be done, along with preventing beachcombing and salvage, a coastal tradition.

They say the Somerset's fittings and stores had to be recovered from Outer Cape homes and barns by British officials. This latest wreck has become a de facto National Seashore exhibit. Temporary as it may be, it must be left for others to see.


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