Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 1, 2009
Byline: Edward Colimore
Valuable relics found by chance in Delaware River
As Karl Van Florcke sees it, the discovery of the centuries-old relics in the Delaware River was meant to be.
The captain of the Army Corps of Engineers dredge McFarland was working on the vessel last month when its pumps were turned off for the day — at the precise moment that a piece of the nation's history was vacuumed up with tons of muck and debris.
Less than 24 hours after the crew finished shipping-channel maintenance near Fort Mifflin in South Philadelphia, Van Florcke glanced up at the dredge's nine-foot-wide drag head and spotted something lodged in its grate.
"I was talking to my wife on a cell phone and told her, 'I think that's a cannonball,' " said Van Florcke, of Long Island, N.Y.
He climbed up to retrieve a 24-pound ball and found two other treasures six feet away on the other side of the drag head.
One was the rare tapered iron tip of a cheval-de-frise, the business end of a log once embedded in the river, along with many others, to gore the hulls of British warships that menaced Philadelphia in the mid-1770s. It had been silently resting a few hundred yards from the fort.
Next to it was a huge iron staple that had held together the chevaux-de-frise, a bristling collection of the iron-tipped poles.
Not exactly sure what he had, the captain loaded the metal point and staple in a truck and drove them to Fort Mifflin, site of a monthlong 1777 battle and bombardment by British forces during the Revolution.
It was the weekend of Nov. 14, and the Mifflin staff was marking the 232d anniversary of the American evacuation of the fort. Lee Anderson, the fort's executive director, looked in Van Florcke's truck and was stunned.
"The spear-type object, the cheval-de-frise, is unlike any I've ever seen," Anderson said. Its slightly bent tip was apparently attached to a log by a rivet still embedded in the metal head.
The relic was probably placed in the river in 1775, when the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, under the direction of Benjamin Franklin, oversaw the colony's defense.
After the Revolution started, chevaux-de-frise were used by Continental forces at Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer, across the river in New Jersey, to thwart British efforts to bring supplies to troops occupying Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-78. They were bolted into a wood-frame box anchored with rocks.
Not coincidentally, that winter was the one that Washington and the Continental Army spent at Valley Forge. The heroic stand at Mifflin — Philadelphia's Fort McHenry — held up the British pursuit of Washington.
Of nearly equal interest to Anderson was the other item Van Florcke brought him.
"The staple I have heard of, but have never seen," Anderson said. "It was used to hold the logs of the chevaux-de-frise together."
Excited by Van Florcke's finds, Anderson told the captain that he would probably find cannonballs in the river.
"I did," Van Florcke told Anderson. "It's on the McFarland." The captain had left it in his cabin on the dredge to show crew members.
"The most exciting part for me was to see Lee's reaction," said Van Florcke, who later delivered the cannonball to the fort. "It's nice to see somebody so passionate about something.
Anderson was surprised again. "The 24-pounder is the largest cannonball I have seen taken from the river," he said.
The three relics were donated by Van Florcke and the Corps of Engineers to the fort, which eventually will create displays for public viewing, Anderson said.
"It's such a wide array of different artifacts, but they're all interconnected," Anderson said yesterday. "It's amazing to find all three items. I know there's more stuff out there."
Two years ago, a cheval-de-frise was found by an archaeologist who used side-scan sonar to check for obstructions on the river bottom at the Sunoco Logistics pier in South Philadelphia. The company donated the 11-foot-2 relic to the Independence Seaport Museum.
That the latest items were recovered at all was remarkable.
After passing through the grate of the drag head, they could have been lost in more than 3,000 cubic yards of riverbed material deposited in the hopper. They could have been part of a massive fill by now.
But the pump motors were turned off at precisely the right moment, causing the relics to fall back against the grate, where they later were spotted.
The river area where they were found had not been dredged for more than 20 years, Van Florcke said.
"We've brought up things like you wouldn't believe," he said. "We've picked up anti-aircraft shells, hand grenades, a bowling ball, auto parts, truck tires, toys, and Frisbees.
"We've picked up rocks that men couldn't lift," he said. The relics "just got stuck in the gear at the right moment. And now people will be able to enjoy this history."