Dozens of century-old shipwrecks in Narragansett Bay

Providence

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Just a stone’s throw from India Point Park, hiding under just a few feet of water, are parts of Rhode Island’s rich, nautical history.

About a mile southeast of downtown Providence, covered sometimes by just inches of murky water, are dozens of boats buried at sea.

“The Green Jacket Shoal is the sight of Rhode Island’s largest ship graveyard,” said David Robinson, a marine archeologist with the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.

Sky Drone 12 flew a couple hundred feet over the waters off Bold Point Park in East Providence, revealing the remains from more than 100 years ago.

Robinson, who studied the area for a year, said there was a bustling shipyard here. The Providence Dry Dock and Railway Company acted as the service station for all the ships coming in and out of port. Ships were built and serviced here from 1884 to 1919.

“At the time, steamboats were at the height of technological ingenuity and were massive, massive structures,” Robinson said.

He dove into the murky waters several times and discovered the names of two of the vessels.

The ships were an important part of the fabric of everyday life, according to Robinson. 

“The Mount Hope was the Block Island Ferry for almost 50 years, traveling between Providence, Newport and then out to the Block,” Robinson said.

Today, the Mount Hope rests in the shallow water off of what was once a long pier. The hurricane of 1938 broke the stern off of the boat just a few years after it was left abandoned.

Another vessel, the Bay Queen, was left here at the turn of the century. It ferried people all around the bay.

“People would go out on the bay, enjoy themselves, listen to music, visit some parks like Rocky Point and Crescent Park,” Robinson said.

From Sky Drone 12, the Bay Queen (lower left) along an old dock off the East Providence coast.

In his research, Robinson found at least 29 vessels in the area, the oldest may date back to the early 1800’s. Boats range in size between 40 and 200 feet long. Sailing vessels, harbor steamers and a variety of barges lay there, slowly deteriorating.

“They were left here because it was a convenient place to leave old vessels at the end of their careers,” Robinson said. “You had the shipyard here, which would strip the vessels of their valuable parts… their engines, hardware. And the shoal itself was non-navigatable, it’s outside the federal navigation channel.”

The boats cruised the waters of Narragansett Bay during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Rhode Island. The water became quite polluted and much of the marine life either left or died. Robinson said the lack of marine life, ironically, may have actually helped preserve the wrecks.

Today, according to Robinson, there’s an incredible array of different species of fish, birds and shellfish. In fact, there are oysters growing on one of the barges.

While researching the shipwrecks, he dove into the low-visibility water.

“I bumped into a big, white-chinned tautog (a fish) that I wasn’t expecting to see and I don’t think he was expecting to see me either,” Robinson said.

Robinson would like to see most of what’s in the area stay there, with the exception of some of the more modern barges, for safety reasons. One barge is on the shore, while the other sits near the edge of the channel.

“As an archeological site, this is an extremely important place because of the variety and age of what’s here and it’s connection to the place,” Robinson said.

He also said he’d like to see some educational outreach and perhaps some signage, to inform people about what’s here, and how unique it is.

Eyewitness News has learned that there’s an effort underway to add Green Jack Shoal to the National Register of Historic Places. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission tells us that they’re evaluating that nomination and expect to reach a conclusion later this summer.

In recent years, there has been an effort made to clear Narragansett Bay of navigation hazards.   Federal funds acquired through Rhode Island’s congressional delegation kick-started the efforts. 

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been a strong supporter of clearing the waters of these hazards. 

Whitehouse sent a statement to Eyewitness News about the effort to put Green Jacket Shoal on the National Register of Historic Places:

“Senator Whitehouse continues to support projects that promote the revitalization of the Providence River, including the removal of derelict hazardous ‎pilings protruding from the river.  Learning which submerged wrecks have historic significance will also help guide preservation and recreational use of this valuable waterfront.” 

For anyone wondering if there are any treasure located on the wrecks. Robinson said no.

“The only treasures here are the treasures of history,” he said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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