MAYS LANDING — Seen at low tide, its 150-year-old timbers barely visible above the Great Egg Harbor River, the Weymouth doesn’t resemble a great sailing ship.
If motorists driving through this quiet residential neighborhood take notice at all, they’re just as likely to mistake the ruins for the submerged piling of an old dock.
“You either stumble on it or you talk to the right people. Otherwise, you don’t know it’s there,” said Alan Mounier, the Vineland archaeologist who got the wreck listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
The designation was met with little fanfare, and no marker was ever erected despite the Weymouth’s being part of local lore since it was scuttled on the riverbank in the early 1890s.
“So many people who’ve moved here (in recent years) don’t know about it,” said Dottie Kinsey, president of the Township of Hamilton Historical Society.
The ruins are one of the last vestiges of the shipping industry that dominated the region’s economy, Kinsey said.
Historical records curated by Kinsey and Mounier show the Weymouth was built by master carpenter Samuel Gaskill in 1868 and sold to a group of investors who shared in the profits of each voyage. Its builder’s shipyards are now Gaskill Park, Kinsey said.
Based about a mile upriver from its current location, at a place called “Coal Landing,” the 60-ton, two-masted schooner once hauled charcoal and other goods created around the Pinelands up and down the coast from Maine to Florida. The ship was actually one of the more modest ones built in the area — others were as large as 200 feet long and 1,000 gross tons.
At the time, Mounier said, charcoal was big business.
“Charcoal was made in the woods all over the Pine Barrens and served as principal fuel of (the) bog-iron industry, but also in hotels for cooking and for heating in homes,” he said. It was also used for purification in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, two areas where charcoal is still used.
Mounier, whose 1985 application was an outgrowth of a survey he conducted of historic sites for the state three years prior, said dozens of similar vessels are scattered throughout the rivers and creeks of the Great Egg Harbor and Tuckahoe watersheds.
“A lot of vessels ran aground and were abandoned or were hauled to a spot to serve as a breakwater or were hauled out of a traveled waterway so as not to be a hazard to navigation,” he said.
The Weymouth, Mounier said, was special because of its connection to local history. It’s one of the last surviving examples of the hundreds of merchant ships built in South Jersey in the 19th century.
Atlantic County historian June Sheridan said many ships were simply abandoned when they’d outlived their useful lives. They once littered the riverbanks, rotting in place.
“After a while, they had to be tended like you tend a car,” she said. “When the repairs became more than they were worth, they just tied them up.”
According to historical documents and local legend, the Weymouth was retired in the early 1890s, tied to a dock and left to sit. The ship remained in good condition until it came unmoored one night and drifted about a mile downstream, where it lodged in the tidal mud flats at the edge of the river.
“They never did know what happened,” Kinsey said.
The owners, already suffering from the downturn in the shipping industry brought on by the growth of railroad transportation, couldn’t extricate the 58-foot-long ship from the mud. They salvaged what they could and, in 1894, filed a declaration of “abandoned vessel” with the U.S. Collector of Customs.
Kinsey said a township committeeman named Harrison Wilson admitted many years later to cutting the mooring lines as a child.
“Everyone believed it,” she said, because the Wilson family lived a short distance from where the Weymouth had been docked.
Mounier said the Weymouth’s current obscurity is partially due to preservation concerns.
“The public, by and large, is a poor guardian of its historic resources,” he said. “People will remove pieces as souvenirs, and of course there’s a finite volume of material to be removed.”
Kinsey said she believed there probably wasn’t much left to scrap. Anything of value was salvaged before the ship was abandoned, she said, and more than a century of curiosity seekers and divers have picked over most of the metal and other artifacts.
Natural deterioration has already taken a toll.
Several photos recently donated to the historical society from the early 20th century show a nearly intact hull sans the ship’s deck, masts and rigging. Young men pose on the bow of the ship. Two women in ankle-length skirts stand on part of the wreck, showing off a dead snake and a shotgun.
Egg Harbor Township resident Jack Thompson, who donated the photos to the society, said they belonged to his grandfather John Thompson, who was about 15 years old when the photos were taken.
“My grandfather was one of the first people who had a powerboat on the river,” said the younger Thompson, now 83. The elder Thompson often explored the river with his boat, and the photos were a result of those high-speed excursions.
Later photos, from the 1960s, show the wooden bow of the ship splayed out a foot or two above the waterline. Today, only a few inches are visible at low tide.
“The parts that are constantly wet are ones that are better preserved,” Mounier said. “If you look at old pilings, you can see the throw of the tide, the erosion … of parts of the structure that are exposed to the air twice a day.”
Kinsey, 59, said the Weymouth had always been part of the local lore, with residents visiting and sometimes diving around the vessel in the century since it was abandoned.
But that, too, is beginning to change. With the influx of new residents, drawn by casino jobs and the previous decade’s housing boom, fewer and fewer people pass on the story of the oceangoing merchant ship that was cut loose by a mischievous boy.
“So many people that have moved here don’t know about it,” she said. “It used to be, you didn’t dare do anything in this town or everyone would know about it.”
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