Mark O’Donoghue and his partner are walking across the sands of a local beach when they spot something sticking out of the ground. What could it be? Understandably curious, the couple investigate the area – before realizing that they’ve uncovered an old maritime relic. And their find is about to set off a fascinating chain of events.
But where was O’Donoghue when he made this discovery? Well, as a resident of St. Augustine, Florida, he was strolling the shore of Crescent Beach in November 2020. It’s a lovely strip of sand, though he and his wife got more than they bargained for when they saw objects protruding from the surface.
O’Donoghue spotted prongs made of metal and wood, before identifying a bit of timber as well. After that, he and his wife eventually went back to their home. Yet the discovery stuck in O’Donoghue’s mind. What had they just uncovered?
O’Donoghue wanted to have another look at the area, so he rocked up to Crescent Beach again the following day. But not even he could’ve predicted the sight that awaited him. Incredibly, the objects were now further out of the sand – just hours on from the initial discovery.
Buried objects don’t just rise from the depths without some form of assistance. So you’re probably wondering what caused this to happen. Well, it’s believed that Hurricane Eta might’ve played a significant role in the re-emergence, as it hit the north of Florida in November 2020.
The storm – which started out as a hurricane – also affected places like Central America and Cuba before hitting Florida. It actually battered the state on two separate occasions, as the weather system briefly passed over the Gulf of Mexico and came back. Talk about bad luck! So, how were the conditions?
The tropical storm led to flooding in St. Augustine and caused bigger tides than usual. So if we take that on board, O’Donoghue’s finding on Crescent Beach might not be that surprising. Yet other factors could’ve contributed to it, too.
You see, Eta isn’t the only storm to have hit Florida in recent years. Hurricane Matthew made landfall back in 2016, while Hurricane Irma followed some 12 months later. It was a horrible run for the Sunshine State, and it’s thought that the local beaches have suffered as a result.
The hurricanes played a large role in eroding the beaches, and this led to a major knock-on effect. Chuck Meide – who works with the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program – told The New York Times in 2020 that “nor’easter” storms could now cause more damage. But why is that? Well, flooding becomes a bigger problem if the shores are lower than before.
To give you a better idea of the alterations, Meide provided a rather striking example to the newspaper. He noted that Crescent Beach’s dunes measured roughly 12 feet in height back in 2005. But 15 years on it had eroded to sea level. That’s an eye-opening change, wouldn’t you agree?
Then again, the erosion isn’t just down to the hurricanes that have hit Florida in the past. Climate change has been attributed to the issue as well. In fact, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided some more shocking figures in a document from the summer of 2016.
The EPA claimed that Florida’s temperature has increased by 1℉ over the last 100 years. Due to that, the sea levels in the area increase by roughly an inch every ten years. And it only gets worse. Sandy shores like Crescent Beach apparently may cease to exist altogether in the future.
The current trajectory could lead to even higher sea levels in Florida, according to the EPA. Specifically, they might grow by up to 4 feet over the next century. So more erosion and flooding will be on the cards should that happen. It’s a pretty worrying situation, right?
But let’s return to Hurricane Eta and its role in O’Donoghue’s discovery. A professor of ocean engineering at the University of North Florida called Don Resio certainly believed that the rough conditions uncovered the buried objects. In fact, he told The New York Times that it was “the perfect storm for erosion.”
Plus, 2020’s fall tides have been a lot larger in general, according to Katie Nguyen. She plies her trade as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, Florida. Nguyen informed the newspaper, “The result has been several rounds of erosion-causing events along the northeast Florida Atlantic coast.”
So what did the erosion actually unveil on Crescent Beach? Well, O’Donoghue was convinced that he’d found remnants of an old ship, which led him to contact St. Augustine’s Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). To explain more, the Florida resident spoke to the Action News Jax website in November 2020.
O’Donoghue said, “I just saw some timbers that were uncovered by erosion on the sand on the beach. [On] Sunday, more of it was exposed, so then I went ahead and contacted Chuck Meide at LAMP. And he sent somebody out, and right away I sent him pictures and he said, ‘Yeah! That’s a shipwreck.’”
Meide and his colleagues then got to work fairly quickly. They turned up to view the wreckage themselves just a day after O’Donoghue had been back to the beach for a second time. At that stage, the group then analyzed the timber and metal in the sand – snapping photographs as they progressed.
You see, LAMP exists for situations just like this one. The program refers to itself as the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s “research arm” on its Facebook page. So individuals like Meide are always on the look-out for local finds – as well as other discoveries outside the community. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Going back to the wreckage, Meide and company initially struggled to pinpoint its precise age. But they still had a rough idea of the period and suggested that the boat was from the 19th century. Meide, meanwhile, went into a bit more detail in a press release on the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s website.
Meide said, “Everything we’ve seen on [the ship] so far fits the hypothesis [that it’s from the 19th century]; wooden planking, wood timbers, iron fasteners. They look quite similar to other ships from the 1800s that we have seen.” And he reiterated those thoughts while speaking to Action News Jax as well.
“It’s most likely that a ship that we find on our coast was probably a merchant ship,” Meide explained. “So, it was probably a cargo ship – carrying goods – again in the 1800s. Think of [it] like a Walmart semi-truck. A ship that was carrying a bunch of… could be hardware, could be flour, could be all kinds of different commodities.”
From what the group could tell, the ship had been constructed in one of three places – America, the United Kingdom or Canada. How did they come to that conclusion, though? It was apparently all down to the measurements. You see, the wood was outlined in inches and feet.
Yet this analysis was delicately poised due to the conditions on Crescent Beach. Thanks to the tide, Meide and his team got to look at buried timbers measuring up to 20 feet. Just 24 hours before that, they’d only had five feet to work with. Then, by the end of November 2020, the wreck disappeared under the shore again.
Mind you, Meide and his colleagues had an idea in place to see the true scale of the ship. As per The New York Times, he intended to construct a 3D image of it from the information they’d gathered. In his opinion, that was the next best thing to viewing the real McCoy.
Meide told the newspaper, “We’ll never see the wreck all open at the same time here on the beach. But we will on our computer screen.” With that being said, did the LAMP team have any suggestions as to which ship they’d been analyzing? In the end, the details pointed them in one direction.
“It’s built solid enough to be a lumber vessel,” Meide revealed. “[It] has the right fastenings to be a ship from the 1800s and the right timbers for a ship of the 1800s. The Caroline Eddy is our prime suspect.” So what do we know about that boat? Well, it was first constructed back in 1862 and played a role in the Civil War.
After that, the Caroline Eddy was bought by a trader, which matches up with some of Meide’s previous comments. But what happened from there? And how did it end up on the Florida beach? To shed a bit more light, the Fort Matanzas National Monument Facebook page shared a fascinating piece of information.
The social media post read, “In late August 1880 the Caroline Eddy left Fernandina bound for New York with a cargo of lumber. She sailed into a hurricane, was driven south and went ashore near Matanzas. Her crew survived after clinging to the rigging for two days and a night.” Sounds intense!
Following the wreck, the ship’s captain recounted part of his experience to The Memphis Daily Appeal newspaper. George W. Warren said, “It was a sea like a mountain. It was a pretty big-sized sea – a bigger one than I care to see again.” But while it’s an incredible story, we can’t forget one thing.
The evidence suggested that the wreckage is that of the Caroline Eddy. But Meide and company still needed solid proof. You see, beyond the measurements and materials, there wasn’t any cargo that could be used to confirm its identity. Then again, there were other avenues to explore in solving the mystery.
For instance, the LAMP group fired off some of the wreck to take part in an isotope analysis. When that’s done, they’ll be able to confirm if the wood originates from Maine – the birthplace of the Caroline Eddy – or somewhere else. It’s an unapologetically technical process, and Meide provided an interesting comparison when describing the work.
Meide told The New York Times, “It’s kind of like this is a crime scene investigation. We are piecing together all of these facts that we can identify from all our forensic tests.” That’d make for an intriguing episode of CSI! As we alluded to earlier, though, this wasn’t the group’s first rodeo when it comes to shipwrecks.
Another notable project began back in 2015, when LAMP uncovered a buried ship on a St. Augustine beach. It was dubbed the “Anniversary Wreck,” as the community was celebrating its 450th birthday that year. And over the next four years, Meide and company slowly picked away at the mystery.
Yes, unlike the wreck on Crescent Beach, Meide and his colleagues had some cargo to work with that was found underwater. The objects included doorknobs, bricks, irons, tacks, locks, stone blocks and cauldrons. Remnants of a Wedgwood dinner plate were uncovered, too. Those were reportedly manufactured from 1765 in England.
So keeping all that in mind, it’s thought that the Anniversary Wreck could be one of St. Augustine’s earliest “merchant shipwrecks.” What an impressive discovery! Meide was certainly excited with the find, as he spoke to The Florida Times-Union in September 2019. And one thing in particular really interested him.
Meide explained, “It gives us a great insight into consumer behavior here in St. Augustine.” He went on, “[It shows] what it was like to be someone living in St. Augustine at this time period – through what they bought. In the future, someone will probably want to look through Amazon records and see what people were buying. This is kind of like that.”
“This is like finding a Walmart truck wrecked and preserved, hundreds of years in the future,” Meide added. “This is the nitty gritty. This is the stuff we know was coming into St. Augustine. This, presumably, was the stuff people asked for and wanted, and that merchants knew they could sell.”
It’s incredibly fascinating, but there might be more to come in the future. You see, as the beaches in Florida continue to alter, other ships like the Anniversary Wreck or the Crescent Beach remains could emerge. Meide was pretty convinced, telling The New York Times, “There’s a lot of buried history on our beaches and offshore.”
And it’s hard to argue with Meide. A deep-sea swimmer named Steven D. Singer told the newspaper that close to 4,000 old sunken boats have been recorded on Florida’s coastline. If that number goes up in the next few years, you can be sure that LAMP will be hard at work.