RIMAP Research - Shipwreck Studies

Published by Kathy Abbass on Thursday, 21st February 2019 - 12:00PM

Some locations for RIMAP research projects. Graphic © RIMAP 2011.


© RIMAP 2017

Rhode Island has more shipwrecks per square mile than any other state. The "Ocean State" shipwrecks include pre-historic Native American craft (and submerged terrestrial sites), Colonial vessels, steamships and industrial barges, the 19th century gilded age of yachting, small craft, and many vessels lost in the modern era. There are Naval ships (and aircraft) of all periods and from a number of countries. Rhode Island also has a large number of vessels lost in the Revolutionary War. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) has found and studied many of these historic sites.

RIMAP has conducted a number of remote sensing efforts around the state, and mounted diving and non-diving field teams to ground-truth targets and then study selected shipwreck sites. Continuing historical and field research indicates the potential for many more sites that deserve attention, and as RIMAP resources expand, so will the public involvement in such studies.

Some RIMAP studies have been simple preliminary investigations, some generated inconclusive results, and some will take multiple years to complete. Presentations, media events, and this website share the results of RIMAP's work with a wide audience, and RIMAP publications are available in some local libraries. Most past RIMAP publications are out of print, but some are available for purchase from the RIMAP office. 


Aquidneck Island: The side scan survey along the western shore between Arnold Point and Coddington Cove located three Royal Navy frigate sites, lost on August 5, 1778, during the Revolutionary War. See individual frigate descriptions, below.

Barrington: The Brickyard Canal connected the nearby brick-making industry to Narragansett Bay, and the barge sunk in the Canal was one of many used to carry the locally-made bricks to Providence. From there they were shipped to other Atlantic Coast cities where they can still be seen in existing brick buildings. Most of the Canal is silted in and shallow, and the shores are overgrown. The brickyard closed in 1943 when the local clay to make the bricks was exhausted, and the clay pit filled with water, now called Brickyard Pond.

The barge that was sunk in the mud of the Canal was typical of its type and therefore not unusual. However, it represents an important, but now disappeared, local industry with national connections. 

The Barrington Brickyard Barge: RIMAP volunteers Debby Dwyer and Kathy Abbass in a skiff on the Barrington Brickyard Canal. Photograph by Charlotte Taylor, © RIMAP 1999.

Barrington: A dugout canoe was reportedly discovered by a resident in a nearby marsh. It was tentatively identified as within aboriginal parameters, but evidence of modern tool work suggest it was made in modern times, possibly a Scout project.

RI State Marine Archaeologist Charlotte Taylor is on board to show scale of this typical dugout canoe. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 1997.

Bristol: Off Independence Park are the remains of the Steamship EMPIRE STATE. A red nun buoy locates part of the site that is exposed at low tide. This site is dangerous due to metal snags, abandoned fishing gear, and boat traffic. Debby Dwyer was the RIMAP Site Manager for this preliminary investigation.

RIMAP volunteer divers Debby Dwyer and John Hoagland prepare to conduct a visual survey of the tangled EMPIRE STATE structure. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 2001.

Charlestown Breachway: Many vessels were lost along Rhode Island Sound and bits of them have become embedded in the shoreside dunes. The ship's structure near the Charlestown Breachway has a history of previous exposures as the dune erodes, and then it is covered as the sand is re-deposited. There appears to be nothing left that could be diagnostic of this vessel's identity. RIMAP partners with the Charlestown Historical Society to study this site when it is revealed.

RIMAP volunteer Sandra Pulchalski documents selected details of the Charlestown Breachway wreck. A winter storm soon covered the vessel again. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 2012.

Jamestown: RIMAP conducted a side scan survey along the western shore of Conanicut Island, from its southern tip to Dutch Island. This effort was inconclusive, despite the special attention paid to the area where diver reports indicate a ship and its cargo were lost near the south shore of Dutch Island.

Middletown-Portsmouth line: The Royal Navy frigate, HMS CERBERUS, was purposely grounded and burned near the Middletown-Portsmouth line on the western shore of Aquidneck Island: A side scan survey identified the site's general location, and ground-truthing RIMAP divers discovered a scattered debris field that included cannon and a bit of a ballast pile. RIMAP partnered with Bateaux Below and Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) divers to conduct a preliminary survey of the site's condition. The NUWC Engineers also installed a live link from the CERBERUS site to share video and communication with the National Maritime Historical Society cadets on board the training vessel ROSE, anchored nearby. 

The night before the video and communication demonstration, the replica Royal Navy frigate "HMS" ROSE anchored near the site of the real Royal Navy frigate HMS CERBERUS. Photo by Joseph W. Zarzynski, © RIMAP 1999.

Middletown - Coddington Cove: HMS JUNO was a Royal Navy frigate lost along shore of Coddington Cove on August 5, 1778 (along with the LARK, ORPHEUS, and CERBERUS): RIMAP archival research in 2016 discovered that two British transports, BETTY and BRITANNIA, were also burned in Coddington Cove with the JUNO. A side scan sonar survey located targets in the southeastern corner of Coddington Cove, but later ground-truthing was inconclusive. From their location, however, these may have been the remains of a local fish trap still use in the Cove. A sub-bottom profile survey identified a potential target near the south shore with a signature similar to RIMAP's other 18th-century shipwreck sites. Later ground-truthing of that area was also inconclusive, and suggested that if the target is an 18th-century ship, it is now completely covered with silt.

The center of Coddington Cove was dredged to accommodate the Navy's access to Piers I and II. Further dredging of this area is planned to remove toxic materials known to be in the silt. The Revolutionary War ships, if they still exist, are believed to be closer to the shore than the planned dredge area, but increased Naval security has stopped all RIMAP investigations to find them.

The red circles on the contemporary DesBarres chart show the original station of HMS JUNO and her final position in Coddington Cove. RIMAP graphic, © RIMAP 2017.

Narragansett (town): RIMAP has documented a number of wooden structures that are found along the Narragansett town shores facing the entrance to the Bay. Some of this may be construction debris, but some obviously is of marine origin.

RIMAP volunteer Kathy Willis at an unidentified structure at the mouth of the Pettaquamscutt River in Narragansett. Photo by Jim Riley, © RIMAP 1997.

Narragansett Bay: RIMAP's historical studies, remote sensing surveys, and field investigations have confirmed many of the lost or abandoned vessels known to be in Narragansett Bay and its adjacent coves. There is also a lot of trash in local waters, including lost fishing gear, abandoned moorings, ground tackle, and even ordnance. Many of the vessels may never be successfully identified, and the owners of other submerged cultural material may never be known. 

RIMAP's "Not the GASPEE" team measures an unidentified ship in Warwick's Occupessatuxet Cove. Photo by Joe McNamara, © RIMAP 2015.

Newport Harbor: During Colonial times, Newport was the third most important harbor in North America, second only to Philadelphia and Boston. Given its intense trade during Colonial times and later, there have been many ships lost in Newport's harbor. RIMAP has found many of these sites, has selected some for study, but has not been able to identify all of them. 

Of particular note are the vessels lost during the American Revolution, when British and Hessian troops occupied the city and controlled Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands. During the French threat in 1778, as many as 13 vessels were scuttled in Newport's Outer Harbor, and RIMAP has found many of these, too. There are many RIMAP publications about this fleet, and especially one of its vessels, the LORD SANDWICH ex ENDEAVOUR®

ALPHA and BETA targets northwest and west of the current north tip of Goat Island in Newport's Outer Harbor. RIMAP has studied these sites, but has not been able to identify them. Source: NOAA online remote sensing data.

Newport's Brenton Cove: There are many ship structures submerged in Brenton Cove, all of which have been part of RIMAP investigations. The only site securely identified is the BESSIE ROGERS at the Beacon Rock estate pier. Other vessels reportedly abandoned in Brenton Cove are the "reputed slave ship" GEM, a rum-runner named VIOLA, an unidentified barge, and possibly an earlier vessel. RIMAP's field teams have studied the BESSIE ROGERS and three other sites in Brenton Cove. 

The BESSIE ROGERS in 1910, and a RIMAP diver taking her measurements in 1995. Commercial post card; Photo by Mershon, © RIMAP 1995.

Newport's Brenton Cove: At the base of the boat ramp south of the Alofsin Building in Newport's Brenton Cove are the remains of a ship generally identified as the reputed slave ship GEM. The GEM was built in 1851 in Baltimore, and five years later, on a return voyage from Africa to New York, she went aground on Block Island. The damaged GEM was brought to Newport, stayed as a derelict at the Perry Mill Wharf until 1870, when she was taken to Brenton Cove. RIMAP teams have done detailed studies of 4 of the Brenton Cove structures and have continued to collect histories of the ships thought to be there. However, the local stories about the GEM and the boat ramp shipwreck are confused. The GEM was probably never a slaver because she carried Christian missionaries from Connecticut to Africa, and an 1850 illustration of a derelict vessel in the boat ramp area predates the deposition of the GEM there in 1970. This suggests that the boat ramp site identification as the GEM is incorrect, and that she is to be found elsewhere in the Cove. 

The derelict ship south of the Alofsin Building at Brenton Cove in 1891, and an 1850 view of the Cove looking toward Newport that shows a derelict vessel near the same area. Photo: private collection; Drawing published in Mason 1854.

Newport's Brenton Cove: RIMAP teams partnered with Bateaux Below Inc., to measure, map, photograph, and videotape the flat slab of structure that lies off the sandy beach at Brenton Cove. Joseph W. Zarzynski was the RIMAP Site Manager for the study of this structure that was also identified in the local lore as having been the "slave ship GEM." However, the historical study concluded that there was no evidence that the GEM had ever been a slaver, and that the archaeological study of the structure identified no details or artifacts to suggest that it was part of the GEM. Historical evidence discovered later suggests that this may be part of a barge that broke up along that shore in a storm.

The ship's structure off the sandy beach in Brenton Cove as seen in 1997. Drawing by Joseph W. Zarzynski, © SHA 1998.

Newport's Bailey's Beach: There are many vessels known to have been lost along the shores of Newport Neck, from the west side of Fort Adams, to Castle Hill, to the turn at Brenton State Park, and along the south shore facing the Sound as far as Rough Point. RIMAP has collected historical materials about these vessels, but the local difficult conditions and lack of funding have meant that field teams have not investigated most of these sites. An exception is the unidentified wooden barge lost in the 1930s[?] at Bailey's Beach. A RIMAP training class mapped, sketched, and photographed that when it was exposed on a moon low tide in 1995.

RIMAP trainees documenting the derelict barge at Bailey's Beach. Photo by Greg DeAscentis, © RIMAP 1995.

Portsmouth - Royal Navy shipwrecks: During the American Revolution, on August 5, 1778, the captains of four British frigates ran their ships aground and set them afire so they would not fall into French hands. RIMAP found 3 of these sites during a remote sensing survey. HMS LARK was lost south of Arnold's Point and RIMAP's non-disturbance investigation there located an unidentified bit of structure and scattered artifacts. HMS ORPHEUS was lost off Melville's naval fueling station, and RIMAP teams noted what may be an exposed bit of its ballast pile in a silty area. HMS CERBERUS and HMS LARK are mentioned above. The RIMAP studies of the Royal Navy frigates were in partnership with Bateaux Below Inc, the University of Rhode Island, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Rod Mather was RIMAP's Site Manager for these studies.  


Where the Royal Navy frigate were stationed and where they were lost along the western shore of Portsmouth, shown on the contemporary DesBarres chart. HMS LARK is a triangle; HMS ORPHEUS is a circle; and HMS CERBERUS is a square. DesBarres chart; RIMAP graphic, © RIMAP 2017.

South Kingstown - Along Rhode Island Sound: There are a number of bits ship's structures (of varying sizes) that are embedded in the dunes along the south shores of Rhode Island. There are exposed when the dunes erode in a storm, and then are re-covered in later storms. Some of these eventually break up, but there are large sections of ships that appear to be stable. See also the shipwreck at the Charlestown Breachway.

This structure was exposed on the beach just west of the entrance to Point Judith Pond. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 1998.

Warwick - Gaspee Point: The 2 shallow water sites in Occupessatuxet Cove are described elsewhere on this website, and the RIMAP team collected enough data to make scale sketches of the exposed structures. These show that the vessels were the about the same size, but with very different underwater profiles. RI 2118 was a flat-bottomed barge, and RI 2117 appears to be a more finely-shaped vessel, possibly for sail. Joe McNamara is RIMAP's Site Manager for these studies.

Comparison of RI 2117 and RI 2118 site sketches. Sketches by Abbass, © RIMAP 2015.

All of this work, and more, was done by RIMAP trained volunteers, under professional direction (also volunteer), with very little funding, and especially no support from the Rhode Island state budget !

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