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Navy vet finds remains of 1700s shipwreck in NJ

Shipwrecks (Courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island/WikiCommons)

Jaclyn Urmey has spent a lot of her career underwater.

The Navy veteran and certified scuba diver spent years exploring shipwrecks near Palau and Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean. But it wasn’t until years later that Urmey, now a Monmouth University anthropology graduate student and Manasquan resident, developed an interest in shipwreck history.

And while she has seen shipwrecks all over the world, the latest one she discovered is in some Burlington County residents’ backyards — just off the coast of Bordentown City in the Crosswicks Creek.

“I decided to look at New Jersey shipwrecks for my graduate thesis, so I went to our state historic preservation office, looked through some files and found this one,” said Urmey, who is also a social worker at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst when she’s not in school.

“I thought of this as a challenge, because the documentation said there’s only 10% or 15% of the vessel left. I thought, ‘Sounds like something I’ll just dive into.’ “

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There has been knowledge of Revolutionary War-era vessels at the bottom of Crosswicks Creek and elsewhere in the Delaware River for a long time, but even during low tide they are rarely visible, and not much of the ships remain.

No signs of the vessel that Urmey studied had been recorded since the 1980s, when the area was surveyed for highway and bridge projects for Interstate 295, and she was determined to find out if there was anything left.

She said a 1980s study determined that the Bordentown ship as well as another just 1,000 feet away but technically in Hamilton Township were likely merchant vessels that were donated to carry other types of cargo like weapons during the war.

In February, Urmey and a team of researchers from Monmouth University’s Urban Coast Institute and Stockton University were the first to revisit the ship with modern technology, including a side-scan sonar and metal detecting equipment, that wasn’t available 40 years ago.

“We wanted to see if it was still there, or if it washed away,” she said. “A lot is impacting it, but we determined it’s still there. So we could confirm it with updated coordinates, and even provide some possible directions for future researchers to go in.”

What’s left now is pretty close to what was found in the ’80s, but it’s slowly deteriorating further, due to natural factors like flooding, as well as the ship being submerged in a sandbar.

On those waters in the winter of 1777-78, dozens of vessels were destroyed by the Continentals and the Redcoats.

“She’s been able to relocate at least one of the ships and find evidence that there are probably other vessels out there that might not have been identified before,” said Richard Veit, chair of Monmouth’s history and anthropology department, who served as Urmey’s adviser.

Urmey said there’s still some vagueness around the ship’s exact purpose because so much of it is gone, but she believes it was used by the Continental Army.

“I have tons of information about local merchants and shipbuilders from the area,” she said. “My hope, and this is a long shot, is to find out who owned it, who built it, where it was laid down.”

“I’m unfortunately not able to do that, but there’s a possibility in the future, if she could be excavated and additional artifacts are found — who knows what that sandbar is holding? We did some magnetometry work, but nothing hit. We didn’t get pings for any metal.”

Although she was left with some mysteries at the end, Urmey hopes future researchers will find more.

“We got out on the river twice with two different side-scan sonar and magnetometry systems from Monmouth and Stockton,” she said. “It was a blast.”

Veit added, “We didn’t have the coldest winter, but when she went out there, they were like ice cubes in an ice cube tray. I have to give her kudos for persevering. It’s a really nice find to rediscover these remains, especially as we come up on the 250th anniversary of the Revolution.”

The project holds personal significance for Urmey. Back when she was in the Navy, she admitted that she didn’t have much interest in the history of the wrecks she explored in the Pacific. But now, her studies in anthropology have breathed new life into her past diving experiences.

“I traveled on live-aboard trips, and I love diving. I dived World War II wrecks in Chuuk, Micronesia. I didn’t know just how awesome it was because I didn’t understand the history,” she recalled. “I just wanted to dive. But later, when I took a maritime archaeology class, the history came alive. It just lit a passion inside me.”

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