While the heavy toll in destroyed property, displaced lives and human suffering exacted by Hurricane Michael a year ago this month is still being assessed and dealt with, the storm nonetheless left an unexpected gift that serves as a reminder of Franklin County’s long and prosperous link with the sea.
Shortly after the seas subsided following Michael’s Oct. 10 landfall, returning homeowners and visitors to Dog Island were stunned to find the remnants of two large wooden ships sitting fully exposed at the edge of the surf on the island’s western end.
The existence of the largest wreck fragment, measuring nearly 80 feet long, had been known for years by some locals, but sand and surf had kept it largely buried for decades. Michael’s rage changed all that, stripping away nearly eight feet of sand and shell, and revealing the wreck in far more detail than few, if any, had ever seen.
A second fragment of a ship’s hull was also found less than 75 yards to the west, lying upside down on the remnants of a 120-foot-long pier made up of dozens of pilings running parallel to the beach. Surrounding this curious structure was an expansive field of stones of various sizes and mineral types, exactly the kind of material that oceangoing sailing ships commonly used as ballast for centuries.
This huge ballast field was soon found to extend all the way from the Gulf side to the bay side, buried for most of the 100 yards across the narrow reach of the island and resurfacing again at the bay’s waterline.
Word quickly spread of the discovery of the old shipwrecks. The news sparked keen interest from journalists, history buffs and sightseers, and soon created a brisk business among local captains chartering regular trips to the site.
Not surprisingly, the news also triggered attention from state archaeologists. Senior archaeologist Ivor Mollema was the first researcher from the state’s Division of Historical Resources to visit and study the site. He had first visited the site a year before Michael and had begun work then on unraveling the tale of what the wrecks were and how they wound up where they did.
A full year after the storm’s big reveal, Mollema and his colleagues can offer only speculation about the wrecks’ identity.
“So far, we haven’t been able to conclude with 100 percent certainty what we’re seeing here,” he said. “But it’s pretty clear that these fragments date to the period of the 1899 hurricane that devastated the island and Carrabelle.”
On Aug. 1, 1899, a powerful, unnamed hurricane slammed Dog Island and the small town, wreaking horrific damage and killing seven. Dozens of ships and small boats moored around the area were sunk or destroyed, with the worst loss occurring on Dog Island. Thirteen large merchant ships anchored there were either heavily damaged, blown ashore or sunk altogether. Most of the stricken vessels eventually were refloated, but four in the island’s Shipping Cove area were lost.
Mollema says the largest wreck fragment uncovered by Michael roughly matches the size and characteristics of a Norwegian-made bark named Jafnhar. This 130-foot-long ship was one of the four foreign-flagged vessels (two were Norwegian, one was Russian and another Italian) whose days in the lucrative lumber trade between Carrabelle and Europe came to an abrupt halt in August 1899.
Ships from this period were built for hauling huge quantities of American sawn lumber - predominantly longleaf and other pine - to shipbuilders in Scandinavia and Europe. Starting in the 1850s, these ships commonly used a sheathing material known as Muntz metal to clad their hulls and protect against wood-destroying shipworms and other fouling organisms, Mollema said. The metal - an amalgam of copper, zinc and iron - was a cheaper replacement for traditional all-copper sheathing. The bow of the ship Michael exposed was substantially covered in metal sheets, fastened to the hull with brass nails, that Mollema was able to positively identify as Muntz metal.
But without proof, which may or may not come through more research that his office has budgeted for the coming year, the ship’s true identity remains an unsolved mystery, Mollema said. Also unclear is whether the 78-foot hull fragment found nearby is part of the same wreck, or is in fact part of another wreck entirely. Notably, however, the largest wreck fragment clearly shows evidence of having been burned, whereas the hull fragment initially showed no evidence of charring.
The remains of the long, parallel pier exposed by the storm present another puzzling twist to the story. There’s no historical record of the pier being built, Mollema said, even though there are records of piers similar to this one being in the area a century or more ago. Since the pier directly faces the now offshore remains of the last lighthouse to stand on Dog Island (that structure finally succumbed to a rising sea in 1876 and was abandoned), Mollema speculates that it could have been built as part of lighthouse operations.
Another theory is that the pier - which would have faced the bay instead of the Gulf a century ago - was used as a station for ships to load and unload ballast. The vast ballast field that envelops the pier suggests as much, but could also have been used to stabilize the pilings, Mollema said. Whatever the case, since the island has been steadily migrating to the north throughout its modern geographic history, pinpointing the exact location of the pier vis-à-vis the surf a century or more ago requires further study, he said.
Alas, a year of exposure to both the elements and the public has come at a cost. Relentless pounding by the surf on the naked wooden skeletons have torn planking apart in several places and ripped away large pieces. The upturned hull that once sat atop the pier’s pilings has since been washed well inland and is now almost completely reburied in sand. The main wreck is rapidly returning to its sandy grave as well, which may be a good thing given continuing damage posed by vandals.
Within weeks of the discovery, vandals stripped away almost all of the metal sheathing and even used power tools to cut off pieces of both hulls and extract bronze bolts, some of which were nearly six feet long. Mollema decries the vandalism but says there’s not much the state can do about it. His team posted signs around the sites indicating the wrecks are on state land and therefore are official state property.
But Mollema remains optimistic the state eventually will learn a lot more about the Dog Island wrecks. Among the chief goals is to use DNA analysis to determine what species of trees went into the making of the vessels. Shipbuilders of the day often used such species as white oak, live oak, longleaf and other pine and cypress, and they even used what were called “tree nails” (corrupted into “trunnels”) made of hard, rot-resistant black locust to bind planks together. Before sands began to reinter them, the Dog Island wrecks revealed that they were held together by hundreds of these short, wooden pegs that are so durable that they’ve been known to outlast the hulls of century-old shipwrecks.
Frank Stephenson is a freelance writer, photographer, retired magazine editor and semi-serious charter captain living in Carrabelle. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org