Shipwrecks along the Delaware coast reveal underwater secrets

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Photos of Justin Heyes

Shipwrecks off the coast of Delaware were all too common in the 19th century. Here are some notable wrecks and what we learned from them.

It was May 25, 1798, and HMS De Braak entered Delaware Bay. The Lewes pilot boarded the battleship to sail up the Delaware River, which is generously criss-crossed with dangerous shoals and shifting currents.

“I got lucky,” Captain James Drew told the pilot. Alongside the De Braak was a captured Spanish ship, known as the “prize”.

But Drew’s good fortune was about to end. A sudden storm pushed the De Braak aside and the waves quickly consumed her. More than 45 men died, including the captain.

Over the next 100 years, efforts to find the De Braak failed. Many blamed the “bad weather witch”, who allegedly used the storms to thwart the efforts of treasure hunters.

Delaware’s most famous wreck is far from the only one. Disasters off the state’s coast were so common in the 19th century that the federal government commissioned lifeboat stations, lighthouses, and breakwaters. Today there are tangible reminders of the tragedies at sea.

During a reconstruction project at Lewes Beach, a dredge struck an 18th century wreck, spitting shrapnel onto the sand. The ship is probably the Severn, which sank in 1774.

Nuestra Senora de Atocha

Next, Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank off the Florida Keys, but set the stage for the future fury surrounding the De Braak. There is also a Delaware connection: Melvin Joseph, a well-known resident of Georgetown, financed the rescue expedition.

The galleon was part of a convoy carrying gold and jewelry looted from Central and South America, but the booty never reached Spain; the ship sank in 1622 during a hurricane.

In 1969, American adventurer Mel Fisher led rescue efforts supported by Joseph, and in 1975 divers found an inscribed cannon that confirmed the find; gold and emeralds followed.

A portion of Joseph’s part is on display in the Treasures of the Sea exhibit on the Delaware Technical Community College campus in Georgetown.

HMS De Braak

The Riches Band of Nuestra Señora de Atocha has reignited the hunt for the De Braaks. So why bother with a British warship? Captain Drew had left a convoy to hunt “a strange sail”, and he had captured a Spanish ship. As a result, there were rumors of gold, diamonds and precious metals.

In 1984, modern sonar located the wreck site. But instead of jewelry, the divers found items that detailed life aboard an 18th-century British warship: ammunition boxes, beads, barrels, muskets and the mourning ring that Drew wore for his brother, John, who died at sea five months before him.

In 1992 the state paid $300,000 for the hull – pulled from the bottom in a last-ditch effort to find gold – and artefacts, some of which are in the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.

the hull of the wreck of HMS De Braak

In 1986, a salvage team lifted the hull of HMS De Braak in a last ditch effort to find treasure, but there was none. The state of Delaware purchased the hull and artifacts from the salvage society. A sprinkler system inside a shed at Cape Henlopen State Park keeps the De Braak’s hull from drying out.

102 Kings Highway, Lewes; 645-1148; history.delaware.gov

Prior to COVID-19, the museum held near-hull displays, housed in a shed at Cape Henlopen State Park. Visits are currently suspended.

Captain James Drew’s grave is at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes.

200 Second St., Lewes; 645-8479; stpeterslewes.org

The Roosevelt Inlet Wreck

In the fall of 2004, during an Army Corps of Engineers beach replenishment project in Lewes, shell searchers found shards of pottery and metal. Did they come from a 17th century colony covered by the sea?

In reality, the dredge had struck a shipwreck. Work was halted and divers discovered over 200 artifacts. Further exploration will reveal nearly 100,000 objects, many of which were in pieces. By dating the materials, the researchers determined that the ship sank between 1762 and 1775.

The 200 ton Severn, which sank in 1774, ticked all the boxes. However, none of the items recovered bear the ship’s name.

See the artifacts at the Zwaanendael Museum. 102 Kings Highway, Lewes; 645-1148; history.delaware.gov

The wreckage of China

About 12 miles off Cape Henlopen is the China Wreck, named after a large amount of English china found at the site. Lt. Merritt N. Walter, who led the first diving expedition after the 1970 discovery, said it looked like “a basement sale at Macy’s.” Some plates were intact and neatly stacked.

Identity remains elusive. Some say it’s the Principessa Margherita di Piemonte of Naples. Others claim it’s the DH bills. But no one knows for sure without a manifest that matches the items or an artifact with the ship’s name.

Despite tricky visibility in the area, the China Wreck is a favorite spot for recreational divers, and intact ABC and alphabet plates are on display at the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum.

The faithful steward

The DiscoverSea Museum also houses artifacts from the Faithful Steward, one of the most spectacular shipwrecks in the state.

On September 1, 1785, the ship left Ireland with families in search of a new life in America. There were only 50 members of Clan Elliott. As the ship approached Philadelphia, passengers and crew enjoyed a party. Apparently the captain and mate passed out.

Unbeknownst to them, a storm pushed the ship onto a shore near the Indian River inlet. Although only 100 to 150 meters from the shore, most of the passengers could not swim and the sea crushed the lowered rowboats in the crashing waves. There were 249 passengers on board and only 68 people survived.

The ship also contained barrels of coins for the new United States of America, which had no currency. After a storm, treasure seekers hit the area north of the cove, now known as “Coin Beach”. DiscoverSea Museum’s Clifton began finding coins in 1980, and some of his finds are in his museum.

The museum also has a copper chamber pot, a small silver buckle and a bleeding bowl used by the barber surgeon.

SS Atlanticus remains

The remains of the SS Atlantus are mostly submerged off Cape May. The concrete vessel was towed to the New Jersey resort town in 1926 to serve as a ferry dock for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry system, but ran aground.

SS Atlanticus

In nearby Cape May, see the remains of a Delaware-bound shipwreck. In 1926 Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld of Baltimore purchased the SS Atlantus to create a ferry dock for the route between Cape May and Lewes.

Admittedly, this is an odd choice for a boat slip. However, the Atlantus was one of 12 concrete ships – an experiment that failed to gain traction.

Rosenfeld towed the ship to Cape May, where it broke free during a storm and ran aground 150 feet from shore. Instead of a dock, it became a photo opportunity and postcard subject. Unfortunately, little remains above the waterline. Meanwhile, the ferry service became a reality in 1964.

Inside the felted rooms are $4 million worth of artifacts, ranging from bronze cannons to a 71-inch chain made up of 419 handmade links. Emeralds, some gold, shimmer under the lights. The museum was closed during the pandemic and there are plans to reopen it by fall.

21179 College Drive, Georgetown; 259-6150; treasuresoftthesea.org

Milton-born Dale Clifton was 15 when he dived the wreck with Fisher’s expedition, and Clifton’s impressive treasures can be found in his DiscoverSea museum on Fenwick Island.

Coastal Route 708, Isle of Fenwick; 538-9366; decouvertemer.com

Related: Take a journey through Delaware’s history at these seven iconic sites


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