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Digging up a shipwreck on the beach and racing against the clock

A dune restoration project is expected to start on this stretch of beach, placing tons of sand right where the wreck is.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — This week and next, just north of the Matanzas Inlet, archaeologists are up against the dunes and the clock.

"It's like a last-ditch effort," Archaeologist Airielle Cathers said. 

It's an effort to unearth a shipwreck that you can’t see much of right now except for some of its wooden planks.

In November, a nor’easter's winds and waves pushed the sand off part of the ship’s hull. It had been buried for decades.  

Archaeologists researched it and believe it to be the wreck of the Caroline Eddy. It was a cargo ship built in Maine for the Union Army during the Civil War. It was later used as a merchant ship.  

In 1880, the Caroline Eddy departed from Fernandina Beach, heading toward Philadelphia, full of lumber.

Credit: Penobscot Marine Museum
Caroline Eddy

It sailed into a hurricane and eventually hit a sandbar off the coast of Matanzas Inlet.

"And she broke apart and pieces came ashore," Archaeologist Chuck Meide with the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) said. "We believe this wreckage is from the Caroline Eddy."

Now about three feet of sand has covered the wreckage since last fall.  And Meide, Cathers and others with LAMP are quickly working reveal the wooden ship again.

"So we’re going to dig the entire ship up," Meide explained. "We’re going to expose the entire ship wreckage and we’re going to record it thoroughly."

Credit: Jessica Clark
Archaeologists and volunteers working on a shipwreck Monday, August 30th, just north of the Matanzas Inlet.

That’s because in two weeks, St. Johns County will start a dune restoration project on this stretch of eroded beach, putting tons and tons of sand onto this beach where the wreck is.

"We’re just kind of in a race against time," Meide said. 

When the archaeologists are finished documenting the wreck, they’re actually just going to leave it on the beach. 

But why not move it?

"It would take millions of dollars to preserve the timbers if they were removed from this context," Meide noted. 

The moist sand will actually help the wreck "because it will be more preserved under 9-10 feet of sand," Cathers said. 

So the race is on to document the Caroline Eddy, a ship that met its fate on the sand and will now be protected by more of it.