Fifteen feet down in the muck, mud and sand, you can reach out and touch the remains of a ship, or three, that were so worn out by 1798 that they were scuttled to help create new land for Alexandria’s thriving commercial port.
The wet wood was last dry when local resident George Washington had just retired from the presidency to nearby Mount Vernon, in a time before the invention of indoor plumbing, gas lighting or the steam locomotive.
Alexandria’s top archaeologist calls the recently discovered ships “one of the most archaeologically significant sites in Virginia,” particularly in an urban setting. They were uncovered last month by contract archaeologists working with developer EYA on a townhouse and condominium project at Robinson Landing, along the Potomac River.
The largest and best-preserved portion of a ship, in clear view from the unit block of Wolfe Street, was discovered March 29. It remains partially buried but looks to be about 25 feet wide and 46 feet long. The ship will get its moment in the sun Saturday afternoon, when the public will be given a four-hour opportunity to peer through a chain-link fence and listen to archaeologists explain the site and answer questions.
The other two ships, which are along the east side of the construction site and not visible from the street, were found March 9 and 16. They are about 12½ feet wide and have not yet been fully uncovered.
A fourth historic ship was dug up a block north along the waterfront in January 2016 as the Hotel Indigo was being built.
Specialists from Thunderbird Archaeology also have unearthed about 100,000 artifacts — the foundation of a flour mill, coins from Ireland, England, France and Spain, pieces of ceramics, bottles and animal bones.
“We knew we’d find something, but three [ships] is over the top,” said Dan Baicy, field director for Thunderbird.
The ships were probably ordinary merchant vessels, the archaeologists said, although their reinforced futtocks (curved timber pieces forming the lower part of a ship’s frame) could mean they carried heavy cargo or military gear.
They were used at the waterfront, along with bulkhead wharves, to contain soil and turn the original cove called Point Lumley into land that supported warehouses, mills and other commercial buildings.
The ships are being kept wet, because every moment they are exposed to dry air causes deterioration, said Eleanor Breen, acting city archaeologist. The wood is soaked and covered at night. Once the original location has been documented, the timbers will be taken to a warehouse on the West End, where they will remain underwater until city officials decide what to do with them.
Alexandria is still raising money for the conservation of the Hotel Indigo ship, which residents swarmed to see in freezing weather as it was uncovered. Officials say people are likely to visit the latest ships in great numbers as well. They are shutting down the first block of Wolfe Street from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and imploring visitors to walk, bike or take the bus rather than try to park on the congested Old Town streets.
Carole Cloyd, who has lived nearby since 1998, paused in her daily walk with her husband, a retired Air Force officer, to say they’ve been thrilled at the discoveries.
“We have watched them dig this up, cover it up, dig it up and cover it up,” she said Thursday, looking down at the ribs of the ship. “It’s awesome; it’s history in the making.”