When the Village of Sag Harbor gave Long Wharf and two surrounding acres of underwater land to Suffolk County on Nov. 20, 1947, the wreck of the brig Middletown had been lying undisturbed on the bottom for 168 years, ever since British forces fired on her from Sag Harbor’s prominent pier during the Revolution.
When the county resolved to give Long Wharf back to the village in February of this year, the bones of ships, sections of “wharf cribs,” and yet-to-be-discovered artifacts remained undisturbed, and that’s the way it should stay, at least until money can be raised to do a proper archaeological study, in the opinion of Henry Moeller, a retired professor of oceanography, marine archaeology, and botany at Dowling College.
Mr. Moeller was instrumental in finding the wreck of H.M.S. Colloden in Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay in the late 1970s. Cannons, cannonballs, shoes, bottles, and even a length of tarred rope were brought to the surface. The collection is held at the East Hampton Town Marine Museum on Bluff Road in Amagansett.
In 1999 Mr. Moeller traversed Sag Harbor with a side-scan sonar, a machine able to paint a black-and-white picture of objects from rebounding sound waves. The bottom literally echoed with hints of the harbor’s rich past. Mr. Moeller said he was concerned that the county’s giveback would not be accompanied by sufficient protections of the surrounding bottomland and its submerged history.
Long Wharf is on the National Register of Historic Places and has its protections, but Mr. Moeller said he was concerned that the bottomland and its treasures did not, making them more vulnerable in village hands.
Sag Harbor’s resolution, which states that the village wants the wharf back “for the municipal purpose of constructing, maintaining, and/or improving roadways and highways,” was debated last week in the County Legislature’s public works committee, of which County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk is a member. The roadway on the wharf is now owned by the county. Route 114, a state road, passes by the wharf’s landward end.
“Will Jay Schneiderman, while preparing for this legal transfer, see that the underwater archaeological sites around Long Wharf are preserved for future generations of New Yorkers, or will he bow to local political pressures and ignore our history and heritage?” Mr. Moeller asked at the tag end of an essay describing his sonar survey.
“As our oceanographic vessel repeatedly worked the waterfront in front of the Long Wharf, our sound-generated pictures revealed we were looking at former wharves on the harbor floor, perhaps the ones Ishmael [the inspiration for the ‘Moby-Dick’ character] or Nathan Fordham [who financed Revolutionary privateers] trod upon. We were looking at an underwater archaeological site.”
Mr. Moeller said he saw what he believed were remnants of the original wharf constructed of cribs, “logs or hewn timbers stacked in overlapping right angles with their joints notched and fastened like Lincoln Logs. After it was assembled the wharf crib was slid across the ice (settling in place when the ice melted) or floated into position and sunk with rocks or fill. The cribs were capped with ballast stones or smooth fill to make a roadbed.” Docks were often built this way in the 17th and 18th centuries, following ancient Roman design.
In 1770, the original wharf measured 500 feet long and 35 feet wide, with 60 feet of underwater land on either side. The land was purchased by businessmen from East Hampton and Southampton.
In 1808, the East Hampton Town Trustees conveyed to the people of New York State a slice of underwater land that added 300 feet to the wharf, after which it became known as the State Pier. When the demands of the whaling fleet grew, a third section was added in 1821, making the wharf 1,000 feet long.
Sixty-six years later, a warehouse fire damaged the wharf. Rebuilt, widened, and cribbed on both sides to make it stronger, the wharf was sold to Austin Corbin, owner of the Long Island Rail Road, and was made to accommodate railroad cars and to serve as a ship terminal for The Shelter Island, The Montauk, and The Shinnecock, steamship side-wheelers of the Montauk Steamboat Company with routes from Sag Harbor to New England ports.
During World War I, the remaining part was then leased to the E.W. Bliss Company, which operated a torpedo testing station at Sag Harbor. The wharf was still owned by the Long Island Rail Road at the time. It’s possible a torpedo or two are somewhere on the bottom.
Mr. Moeller said he believed there were older undocumented wharves in evidence, “the most intriguing seaward of the bridge abutment that connects Sag Harbor to North Haven.” He said the side-scan sonar found remnants of a dock that two Sag Harbor men gained permission to build for the landing of whale blubber to be tried out (rendered in iron pots to produce oil).
“Fully stoked tryworks were usually built wherever there was a sparse population due to the stench of the boiling blubber and burning flesh,” Mr. Moeller writes. Sag Harbor’s eventual gentrification led to the demise of the dock by 1855.
“Under water the wharf pilings were still intact when we made our sonar study. Artifacts or cultural remains from the whaling community would be strewn among the decaying pilings, long forgotten. . . . We could learn a great deal about the early history of Long Island shore whaling from this site. We could also learn more about the Shinnecock Indians’ contribution to shore whaling.”
Artifacts relating to Sag Harbor’s early role in the Revolution were surely on the bottom, Mr. Moeller said. Elnathan Jennings mustered his regiment at Long Wharf on Sept. 14, 1775. From there, the troops sailed to Harlem to join General Washington’s army.
In May of 1777, Col. Jonathan Meigs sailed across Long Island Sound from Connecticut to attack British brigs and sloops anchored in Sag Harbor. Twelve were sunk. “What would we learn about our culture from the twelve 200-year-old time capsules?” Mr. Moeller asked rhetorically in his essay.
Reached on Monday, Mr. Schneiderman said that although the village government had agreed to accept the wharf, it was not at all clear the County Legislature would hand it over. “Right now, the county pays for the maintenance and the village collects the fees,” the legislator said, referring primarily to the fees the village charges mega-yachts to tie up there.
Mr. Schneiderman said some legislators were making noises about keeping the wharf as a revenue source, charging for parking, for instance, or auctioning it off to the highest bidder. On the other hand, maintenance was a cost that other legislators would like to lose. Mr. Schneiderman said handing it over to the village might well be the best idea, and the safest.
Given the State Environmental Quality Review Act’s protections for potential archaeological sites, as well as the wharf’s listing on the National Register, the bottomland around the wharf would be secure, Mr. Schneiderman said, adding that the village’s own historical society might keep a closer and sharper eye on things than the county was able to.
Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski, the author of “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” said the village had not been especially protective of its heritage in the past. The remnants of the whaler Thames were carelessly excavated during construction and dredging at the Sag Harbor Yacht Club in the 1950s. Artifacts wound up at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.
Dismissing the possibility of finding archaeologically important objects on Sag Harbor’s bottom because of past indifference was exactly what he worried about, Mr. Moeller said.