Disappearance of the Historic Ship Tijger

Part of New York’s heritage vanished when bulldozers dug the foundation for the World Trade Center

If the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had not constructed the World Trade Center, perhaps nothing more would have been known about the remains of the Tijger. In 1966 construction began on the complex that now occupies ten city blocks. The first phase involved the excavation of a seventy-foot-deep cellar hole just opposite the spot where Kelly had cut off the Tijger’s bow. Those who were aware of the ship’s existence believed that, with proper care, its timbers would turn up somewhere in the more than one million cubic yards of earth to be excavated. The nascent South Street Seaport Museum sought the support of the Port Authority, and professors Ralph Solecki of Columbia University and Bert Salwen of New York University, two archeologists with a great interest in the city’s past, agreed to direct the search under the aegis of the Seaport Museum.

Construction people are, at best, leery of archeologists. Once archeologists turn up an artifact at a construction site, they not only turn construction schedules topsy-turvy but they are also enormous insurance risks. A contracting firm can lose thousands of dollars in wasted time as workmen sift through every shovelful of dirt in hopes of turning up a coin or a piece of jewelry.

To an archeologist, the essence of a discovery is not the object itself, but what surrounds the object, particularly what lies under and over it. By examining artifacts as they lie in the ground, by making sketches and taking photographs, some perspective can be gained about time sequences, usage, and the habits of the people under study. The time-consuming process of relating one artifact to another, however, makes contractors turn pale. They envision archeologists, with their brushes and sifting screens, measuring tapes and sketch pads, as having no concern for a construction firm’s desire to keep costs as low as possible.

The Port Authority, however, agreed to support the initiative of the South Street Seaport Museum in the search. Finding the ship that represented New York’s earliest international trade directly beneath the building housing the country’s most sophisticated international trade organization would certainly be a tremendous kickoff for the World Trade Center.

This was the moment that James Kelly, then seventy-eight years old, had been waiting for. Ever since the Board of Estimate had turned down his petition seven years earlier, Kelly had complained that no one was interested in finding the rest of the Tijger. The discovery and rescue of the ship’s bow more than half a century earlier had won Kelly a certain amount of fame and recognition. In the past he had not consistently pressed for an excavation attempt, but now he frequently mentioned that he hoped that the main bulk of the keel and ribs would be recovered before he died.

In the spring of 1967 the Port Authority summoned him to the construction site, and guided by an old subway map, he marked a large yellow X near the top of the newly laid foundation wall of the World Trade Center. Construction for the complex began with the digging of a ditch, three feet wide and sixty to eighty feet deep, which followed the perimeter of the area to be excavated for the cellar hole. This ditch was first filled with hundreds of tons of cement and steel mesh, then the cellar hole was dug, creating a huge basin.

During the excavation of the spot where the Tijger was thought to lie, the jaws of the heavy machinery could have bitten off a three-foot-long section of the timbers without anyone noticing. The foundation wall of the cellar hole was ten feet west of the IRT subway wall, and since the area between the two walls was never excavated, ten feet of the Tijger’s timbers could have remained buried there. This section was now gone forever without any effort to excavate it, but it was assumed that at least sixty additional feet of the ship lay just on the inner side of the foundation wall.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey made good on its offer to support the search by allocating $20,000 for a large shaft to be dug by hand under the spot Kelly had marked on the wall. If the timbers were there, shovels would not damage them as much as bulldozers. As the workmen shoveled dirt out of the deepening hole, there were high expectations that they would strike wood at a depth of twenty feet, the approximate level at which the bow had been found.

As expected, at the twenty-foot mark, the workmen turned up pieces of wood. One piece was between six and eight feet long, according to Jim Hastie, a superintendent who was working in and around the shaft. Other pieces were broken and twisted; none of them looked as if they had ever been part of a ship. Of course, not every ship’s timber looks like a ship’s timber, especially if it has been buried for 350 years. Thinking that the wood was probably part of an old wharf, the workmen threw the pieces into a dump truck and hauled them away.

The shaft was dug without the advice of Solecki, Salwen, or George Demmy, the Seaport Museum’s staff archeologist. Henry Druding, then the Port Authority’s senior resident engineer, who supervised the excavation, claims that nothing was found in the hand-dug hole except a goat horn and an oyster shell.

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