History Rising from the Muck; 150-Year-Old Oyster Pried Loose for Study

Article excerpt

Byline: Maggie FitzRoy, Shorelines staff writer

A hundred and fifty years or so ago, a 33-foot single-masted sloop sailed up and down the Tolomato River. Oystermen toiled beneath its two sails, trolling the waters off what would one day be the Intracoastal Waterway, cruising by the banks of what would one day be Guana River State Park.

Until one day, when the craft was abandoned, most likely hauled ashore, stripped of anything valuable -- and left. The sloop slowly fell apart and tidal waves repeatedly covered it with mud until it disappeared.

The sloop remained covered in its muddy grave until last fall, when a lawbreaking fortune hunter who was looking for Spanish coins at low tide came upon boards lying in the sand. When he mentioned his find in conversation to underwater archaeologist Robin Moore of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program in St. Augustine, Moore sensed it was significant.

Moore, LAMP Executive Director John W. Morris and fellow LAMP archaeologist Kim Eslinger have been researching historic maritime vessels through the area as part of a St. Johns County study, and decided to take at a look at the site the fortune hunter described.

They determined that the boat that was suddenly being uncovered by outgoing tides was a locally built oyster sloop. A boat like that had never been recovered in the area.

Historically, it's a significant and exciting find, Morris said. One that was in danger due to vandalism. So on Jan. 29, the LAMP crew took a boat ride out to the oyster sloop's remains to catalog and remeasure the wreck. The following day, they went back, dug the sloop up and took the pieces to a warehouse in St. Augustine for further study and restoration. In the future, LAMP researchers plan to publicly display the sloop and a re-creation of it as well.

Moore's Boston Whaler zoomed north over the waves of the Intracoastal early on the morning of Jan. 29 as he journeyed to meet the rest of his crew and archaeologist/historian Marsha Chance at the site. Morris, Eslinger and Chance, from Environmental Services in Jacksonville, had gone out earlier to start working on the wreck.

"This whole peninsula is full of evidence of human occupation," Moore shouted over the roar of the engine as he pointed toward the shore of Guana River State Park. The green tree line and smooth white sands of the bank of the park contrasted the roof line of Serenata Beach and other developments to the south.

That tip of the peninsula is known as Alligator Point, Moore said as he pointed to where a barrel well from an old homestead was recently uncovered.

"We're finding the same ceramics there as the [sloop] site we're working on now," Moore said. "So it was the same time period."

Moore said historical records indicate the state park was once the site of Grant's Villa, the homestead of the British governor during the period when the British controlled the St. Augustine area in the late 1700s. Historical records also allude to a Spanish mission that once occupied the site.

"Tantalizing hints" have also been found in the form of fragments of old Spanish pottery, he said.

When LAMP researchers went to investigate the old oyster boat that was rising from the sand, they also discovered the remains of a series of roads and wharves in what apparently was once a bustling area.

"We don't know what period they were used," Moore said. "We need to do a lot more archaeological work to tell more."

When Moore pulled up to the sloop site, his co-workers had set up temporary camp next to the boat, which lay on an empty beach south of Guana Dam, on the other side of some woods.

Morris, Eslinger and Moore waded out to Moore's anchored boat and rigged up a generator-powered pump to get ready for the morning's work.

"We try to keep track of historical resources owned by the state," Chance said. …