Documenting shipwrecks in Virginia Beach.
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For 56 years, the building that stood on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and 24th Street in Virginia Beach was an active Coast Guard Station, housing the men who risked their lives to rescue others. In 1959, the station was decommissioned and stood empty for 10 years, until it found new life as a Virginia Beach Maritime Museum.
While the museum’s mission is to preserve the maritime heritage and history of Coastal Virginia, its reach stretches to any spot of sand where flotsam comes ashore.
When the stern of the Francisco Bella Gamba (an Italian ship that sank in 1878 while sailing from Genoa, Italy, to Baltimore) was uncovered in a Virginia Beach dune after a storm in 1983, the museum retrieved a recliner-sized chunk of the stern, which is displayed on the museum’s lawn.
Inspired by the Gamba, the museum launched the Shipwreck Documentation Project in 1989 to document all wreckage that washes ashore.
Some incredible finds, like a carved lion’s head from the stern of the 1891 shipwreck of the Dictator (a Norwegian merchant ship), are displayed at the museum. Most items—the project has documented 134 since its inception—are tagged, documented, and left in place. Since most of the found wreckage, which looks like weathered lumber, cannot be identified as coming from a specific ship, the project doesn’t retrieve it to display to the public. Instead, as wind and waves move the piece along the coast, the museum follows up each time it is rediscovered and reported, tracking its movement and further deterioration to provide valuable data on the natural lifecycle of wreckage.
“It’s a neat way for the public to be involved with history,” says the museum’s executive director, Kathryn Fisher. “Almost all the finds have come from someone out jogging on the beach or walking their dog and calling us up and saying, ‘Guess what I found?’”
The Shipwreck Documentation Project hopes to someday connect its database with those from other states to create a map linking found pieces and track their journey through tide and time.
To aid in their quest, anytime you find something washed ashore that might have once been a hewn timber from a ship, just pick up the phone and call. Says Fisher, “It’s sort of a way for an average person to feel like Indiana Jones, but without all the bad guys.” 757-422-1587. OldCoastGuardStation.com