Search for the first steamboat to cross the Atlantic, the Savannah, on Fire Island, New York. October 1982.
The Savannah made all the history books. She was a fine ship, well constructed with elegant fixtures for her 32 passenger staterooms and expensive furnishings in her salons. An early 90-horsepower steam engine with folding paddles sat in her hull. And on May 22, 1819, she steamed out across the Atlantic. Twenty-nine days later, with smoke and sparks bursting from her single stack, she sailed into Liverpool harbor to the cheers of thousands.
Although she was only under steam for 80 hours, her famous voyage stands unchallenged in the history books.
Her owners turned their backs on her accomplishment, however, in favor of black ink and had her engine stripped off, remaking her into a cargo-carrying coastal ship. They regarded her as a financial failure, while Britain was inspired to leap into the world steamship trade, leaving the Americans far behind over the next decades.
The Savannah was lost when she ran aground on Fire Island in 1821, across the bay from a village then known as Fireplace. The approximate impact site was said to be at a point where there was a break in the island known as the old Inlet.
She struck and sat “upright and sound”, according to her Captain, whose name was Holdridge. During the next few days, the wave action split her hull and she began to bury herself. The last mention of the Savannah’s wreck was an obituary. A man sailing out to guard the doomed ship, “lying on the beach near Fireplace, L.I.”, drowned in a small boat.
The first search for the site of the legendary steam ship took place in 1958 when Frank Braynard, noted naval historian and director of the American Merchant Marine Institute, organized an extensive effort to find the Savannah’s resting place beneath the sands of Fire Island.
His best projection is that she grounded a hundred yards out from the 1821 beach line somewhere between the old Bellport life saving station and the Smith’s point station to the east (see 1878 chart).
Braynard conducted tests with naval blimps using magnetometers. His 1958 grid area shows six contacts running as far as 400 yards off the beach. None of the contacts paid off. At the same time, a group of divers claimed they struck a copper sheathed wreck off the Old Inlet area in 20 feet of water. But after repeated efforts, they could not find the spot again.
Surprisingly, the Fire Island shore has changed little since 1821. Surveys taken over nearly 200 years show tide line shifts of less than 150 yards, and then only after hurricanes have slammed onto the coast.
During our search in 1982, using a more modern gradiometer, we found no contacts a hundred yards or more off the shore. A survey of several miles along the Fire Island beach line strangely revealed the same lack of contact. This was puzzling because there are literally hundreds of ships that have run aground on the island over four centuries, the basis for the adage ‘a wreck lies every hundred yards under Fire Island’s beach.
We then gambled on losing the boat and made a run along the surf line, nearly capsizing in the breakers. Eureka! The contacts came one on top of the other. The gradiometer sang like an impaled diva.
This indicated that most of the wrecks lie under the tide line between the dunes and a parallel line only 75 yards out into the water.
A tight grid search within these perimeters, using a good metal detector, should strike on the copper hull sheathing of the Savannah. Then the real fun begins. An excavation.