Century-old shipwreck identified off Cape Henlopen

In 1889, a vessel went down just 200 yards off the coast of Cape Henlopen in Delaware. Just this summer, 123 years later, a University of Delaware team finally identified the ship.

Two years ago,  students learning to use sonar equipment happened upon evidence of the ship. Their geology professor Art Trembanis told them to look up the site, find out what it was.

“To our surprise, however, the ship we found was not marked on the nautical charts and it wasn’t noted in any of the databases,” Trembanis said.

So this summer, Trembanis returned with more sophisticated sonar equipment and an underwater video camera.

His team compared images and data from the  wreck to old newspaper articles and insurance claims. They discovered it was the W.R. Grace, a three-masted, 215-foot wooden cargo ship that sank in a hurricane.

The team was surprised to find a ship so close to shore still undocumented – and, after a long internment in the turbulent surf zone, so well-preserved.

“You know that’s 123 years of battering by Nor’easters, and the occasional passing hurricane,” Trembanis said. “To find an intact hull is just quite surprising for us.”

Graduate student Carter DuVal studied the sonar and underwater video to make the identification.

“Because of the harsh conditions, we initially thought that it would be an iron or steel-built steamer,” DuVal said. “It was actually a wooden vessel, which was very surprising to us.”

The ship went down on the way to Philadelphia with 7,000 empty petroleum barrels to fill and ship to Japan.

Trembanis believes shifting sands may have periodically buried the ship, protecting it and hiding it from view.

They are hoping to return to the site with scuba divers next month to get a closer look.

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