Remember that old brainteaser about the tree falling in the forest? If no one hears it, did it actually make a sound? Well, we could debate that one forever. On the other hand, it’s quite clear that many of you have heard a tale or two about the discovery of antique oak ship timbers on the Spaulding construction site.
You’ve been asking questions. Given the community buzz, I thought I would try to set the record straight – right here, right now.
First, a quick re-cap: Spaulding’s home-to-be at Yard’s End once served as a timber basin – basically an underground storage area – where white oak and live oak beams were stockpiled for future use. The beams we discovered were hand-cut by master craftsmen and numbered, suggesting that they were once part of an inventory that was used to build and repair warships and trading vessels. As the great era of tall ships came to an end, and steel gradually eclipsed timber as the shipbuilder’s material of choice, the timber basin was covered over by the Navy circa 1913. For the next century, the timber basin’s cargo lay forgotten while the land above it was used primarily for ship repair and maintenance.
No one – neither Spaulding, nor the National Park Service, not even the BRA – had any inkling that the timbers were onsite until they were unearthed by Spaulding’s construction crew in June of 2010. Apparently the yard’s briny mud acted as a perfect preservative, and as a result, many of the timbers were still in mint condition when we pulled them out of the ground.
You know as well as I do that buried treasure like this doesn’t show up very often - especially in the middle of a toxic brownfield site. Once the discovery was made, my colleague David Burson immediately contacted experts at the University of Arizona, who concluded that the white oak timbers originally came from Ohio and dated from the 1860s. While the live oak timbers were more difficult to identify, U. of A.’s hypothesis is that they probably date from the same era.
Nearly 300 timbers were discovered. An average piece weighed a hulking 10,000 pounds! It was beautiful, it was valuable, and it was in the way of our construction crew.
After a great deal of consideration, Spaulding determined that each piece of timber should be considered as an archeological artifact, and should therefore be repurposed in a way that honors both the Navy Yard’s rich history as well as the skills of the master craftsmen who originally cut it. Two primary destinations were chosen:
- Some of the finest timbers remain on the site, where they will find new lives as beautiful benches for Spaulding visitors to enjoy. Spaulding has initiated conversations with several of New England’s master woodworkers, challenging them to design seating for the hospital’s interior as well as the landscaped grounds. has already started working on several custom designs.
- Spaulding donated the vast majority of the timbers - which had been perfectly carved for placement in a ship’s curved hull - to the restoration of the 19th century Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. As the world’s only surviving wooden whale ship, the Charles W. Morgan is considered to be the centerpiece of Mystic’s collection. According to lead restorationist Quentin Snediker, the Morgan is scheduled for a re-launch - and a visit to Charlestown! - in the summer of 2013.
The few remaining timbers were sent to two local recycling centers, from which bits and pieces were reclaimed and fashioned into small benches. Just for the record, Spaulding has no business relationship with any of the retailers who are selling these benches, nor are we profiting from their sales.
As some notorious pirate once said, “Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit.” And now it’s time for me to land this swashbuckling blog! So there y’are, Mateys. I’ve surrendered all me gold, as well as all the facts. If any questions remain, please feel free to pull me mast – either by email or phone!