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Browns Ferry Vessel: After 250 years, shipwreck's best years may be ahead

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

When students enroll in Cheryl Ward’s class, World’s Greatest Shipwrecks, they can count on a field trip to the Rice Museum in Georgetown.

“This is one of the world’s greatest shipwrecks,” Ward said, looking at the 50-foot-long timber frame of the Browns Ferry Vessel. “This is so underrated.”

Ward, a marine archaeologist, is director of the new Center for Archaeology and Anthropology at Coastal Carolina University.

She first got involved with the Browns Ferry Vessel as a graduate student at Texas A&M in 1982. She saw it for the first time this summer after taking the position at Coastal Carolina.

The 18th century cargo ship is the oldest vessel of colonial manufacture ever found in North America, a fact Ward was eager to share with a couple of tourists who ventured up to the museum’s third floor earlier this week.

The ship was raised from the Black River in 1976. It arrived at the museum in 1992, where it was lowered by crane onto the top floor.

The yellow pine, cypress and live oak sections all have a story, Ward said. And she believes that there is more to be learned from the ship.

“From the day I got to graduate school, my advisor, Dick Steffy, told us this was the most important ship in the country,” Ward said. “I love this boat.”

Jim Fitch, the museum director, has invited Ward to lecture on the vessel and archaeology at the museum, and she has offered to help the museum staff interpret the vessel to visitors.

“People say, ‘oh, it was just a brick carrier,’ ” Ward said. “But bricks were really valuable.”

The ship sank around 1740 with a cargo of 12,000 bricks, but was probably built 30 years earlier, she said.

“This ship has even more of a story to tell,” Ward said, and she wants to get Coastal Carolina students involved in learning it.

Although her background is in ancient Egyptian shipbuilding, she said colonial American shipbuilding has many issues in common, such as the allocation of resources.

For instance, there isn’t much iron in the Browns Ferry Vessel. It was held together mainly by wooden pegs. “That takes you back to the economic issue,” she said.

Another aspect Ward wants to explore is the link between the vessel and the elegant lines of its hull and West African boat building. It has been suggested the boat blends European and Native American traditions.

But it makes more sense that the shipwright would draw on African ideas because the builders were probably slaves, she said.

“There’s a strong case to be made for investigating West African boat builders,” Ward said.

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