First splash in search for Gaspee

Posted 7/19/22


Gaspee Point has hidden its secrets well, although divers found a “cultural item,” a brick, as they prepared over the weekend for a more extensive search this week in …

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First splash in search for Gaspee


Gaspee Point has hidden its secrets well, although divers found a “cultural item,” a brick, as they prepared over the weekend for a more extensive search this week in the hunt for remnants of the HMS Gaspee that colonists burned 250 years ago.

In an email Dr. Kathy Abbass, principal investigator of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, said dives on Saturday and Sunday were designed to set up equipment to control “the first ground-truthing” of a target identified by sonar sensing last year. Abbass was aboard the research vessel both days.

“The area at Gaspee Point is challenging, even though the divers were working in only 20' of water. The tide was against the river current, and the wind was brisk, too, and with almost 0' visibility, the diving was slow. We discovered that slack tide was better, but visibility then was even worse. Such early dives are about learning how to have access to a location so we can do good research, but mainly to ensure that our teams are safe,” said Abbass.

As the research vessel was on station, a group of volunteers, graduates of RIMAP training, manned a tent setback from the Gaspee Point beach to welcome spectators interested in the search, answer questions and provide informational flyers. Volunteers also manned a gate granting vehicular access to a field for parking near the beach.

Logistics of the expedition including the dockage of vessels at Pettis Boatyard in nearby Pawtuxet Cove, establishing the operations at the point, invitation of elected officials (Governor McKee got the close-up tour Tuesday) and assembly of equipment including a Porta-John was worked out after a group raised more than $35,000 in private, corporate and foundation donations to mount the search. In a surprise move, as funding for the first phase of a search had already been raised, Saint Johns Lodge #1 Providence, F. & A. M. came in with an additional $15,000 earlier this month.

Many of the raiders of the Gaspee, including John Brown and Abraham Whipple, were known members of Saint Johns Lodge.

“The Lodge takes great pride in the pivotal role its colonial-era members played in sparking the movement for American Independence,” reads a release dated July 13.

“Freemasons are dedicated to supporting our communities through charity and philanthropic work and have been doing so in Rhode Island for more than 250 years,” said Joshua Irizarry, Past Master of Saint Johns Lodge. “Our Lodge is honored to partner with RIMAP to preserve this important moment in our community, state, and national history.”

So, is there any significance to a brick?

Abbass explained it may have no bearing on the search. She said the first few days are devoted to establishing search control areas. More remote sensing was set for this Tuesday and Wednesday with divers returning to the water Thursday.

“The sonar image of this area is very subtle, showing objects that don't stand very proud from the bottom, so if we find more such rocks, then we will have answered the question of ‘what is that funny texture in the sonar image?’ The brick is the first cultural item noted in the 2022 Gaspee Point study, but it was not collected and without looking at it closely, we can't yet tell if it is a modern brick like those used elsewhere in lobster traps, a construction brick that might have come from a building on shore that was washed away in an earlier hurricane, other trash dumped in the river, or perhaps a brick that could have been used as the foundation for an historic wooden ship's cauldron or forge. So although we have no data yet to say anything about this particular object, the first two days of set-up have told us a lot about what we can expect going forward,” Abbass said.

Is the team focused on the two potential targets identified last year?

“The target we began over the weekend deserves careful mapping since it appears to be a disturbed area and possibly where an earlier archaeological excavation might have been done,” Abbass said.

She said from the sonar reading the second target “is clearly a vessel but we won't get to that until the first target is complete.”

Every evening, Principal Investigator Abbass sends a summary of the day's work to the shore-side team at the RIMAP Research Station at Gaspee Point, along with a plan for what will happen the following day. Those interested to know what is going on may visit the Research Station from 11-4 to hear that summary and view whatever activity is happening.

Gaspee, search for the Gaspee


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