Disappearance of the Historic Ship Tijger

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

Druding’s avocation is collecting bits of information about New York City’s past. He sees himself as someone who collects “useless nuggets of information—it takes away the burden of seriousness from what you’re doing.” As a result of his penchant for collecting, Druding rescued many artifacts at the World Trade Center site from the jaws of a steam shovel or the blade of a bulldozer. These were mostly old bottles, shoes, pottery shards, and animal bones, but some cannonballs and parts of cannons were found as well. Druding was also responsible for finding almost in the center of the cellar hole an anchor with a tenfoot shank and a ship’s rudder more than six feet high in perfect condition. The anchor is now rusting away in the bowels of one tower of the World Trade Center while the rudder is flaking away on the seventy-third floor of the other tower. No effort has been made to preserve either.

Druding was responsible for the proper laying of the foundations of the world’s tallest buildings. Despite his interest in the evidence of the past that was turned up in the cellar hole, he was too busy to examine every object that was dug up, especially nondescript pieces of wood, a not unusual find. Although the wood in the hand-dog shaft did not appear to have been part of a ship, it was found where the Tijger was thought to lie, a strong recommendation for investigation. Yet it was discarded without inquiry. The archeologists who were supposed to have directed the excavation project were never consulted. Informed only a short time ago about the find, Soleeki disappointedly remarked that for a cost of $110 the wood could have been analyzed and dated.

The pieces of wood found in the shaft in the cellar hole were inconclusive: mere hints of the presence of the Tijger’s remains. But a few months later, hopes were raised by a discovery about 100 yards to the south of the shaft. As the bulldozers scraped away a twenty-foot-thick layer of landfill and silt, they hit a bed of sand that had probably been a beach in the early Dutch period. Lying in and on the sand were a number of ships’ ribs and other timbers. The heavy machinery exposed more and more of the sand bed that Adriaen Block might have walked upon in 1614. Then a keel was uncovered. Using shovels, workmen scraped away the earth and discovered ribs attached to the heavy timbers, followed by some charred planking attached to the ribs by trunnels.

The workmen unearthed about twenty-five feet of the remains of a ship. At first, there was speculation that at last the Tijger had been found, but as they shoveled away the earth, it became evident that the keel was only eight inches square, smaller than that of the timbers uncovered in the subway tunnel. The discovery of the remains of a bow attached to the keel proved that the timbers were not those of the Tijger. Thus James Kelly’s last wish never came true before his death in 1972.

Since the planking at the bow formed an “apple bow,” characteristic of seventeenth-century Dutch ships, the approximate date of the ship could have been determined. Yet none of the archeologists involved in the project saw the remains, although they were exposed for two weeks. Druding says the timbers were without sufficient archeological value. “It [the remains] didn’t appear to have any value. I didn’t call Solecki because I presumed he would stop by sometime, but he didn’t, so he never saw it.”

The only person who took any interest in the discovery was Prof. Leo Hershkowitz, a historian and archeologist at Queens College, who acknowledges that he did not push hard enough to save the timbers. He believed they “were too large to move.” Yet they were not too large for the crane that eventually snatched them up and deposited them in the back of a truck, which hauled them off as landfill for Battery City Park.

While the cellar hole of the World Trade Center was being excavated, the possibility of finding the Tijger was the only archeological subject of interest. With all efforts directed toward finding the Tijger, other artifacts were ignored, even by professional archeologists. Substantial remains of another ship of the same vintage as the Tijger were found and abandoned.

The conflict between saving the city’s past and driving a bulldozer over it is not a new one. In the landfill that forms most of Manhattan’s tip, artifacts turn up in virtually every cellar hole excavation. Small artifacts sometimes end up in private collections or in workmen’s homes; large ones are discarded and usually dumped.

The city government is perhaps the only institution that could oversee the preservation of the city past. An archeologist hired by the city to examine construction sites for archeological evidence would have the influence, as well as the inclination, to understand and save the bits and pieces of the past, so that something of the city’s beginnings could be understood. Even now, as bulldozers and steam shovels smash and tear at the city’s roots, the past, together with some understanding of the present, is being carted away forever.

Recent Stories

The way they live, the food they eat, and the effect on us

A true but unlikely tale

Story and Photographs by William Rowan

Increasing day length on the early Earth boosted oxygen released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria.

Genomic evidence shows that Denisovans and modern humans may have overlapped in Wallacea.