DEER ISLAND WHARF INVESTIGATION
Deer Island, approximately three acres in size, is situated just south of Swansboro at the junction of Hawkin's Creek and the White Oak River. The creek and an unnamed tributary, which separates Deer Island from the mainland by a narrow channel, are spanned by a private, one-lane bridge. The island's owners in the summer of 1983 were Burwell and Peggy Jackson. Though the Jackson's didn't buy the property until 1953, Mr. Jackson has been visiting the island since the 1930s. During extreme low tides, Mr. Jackson has observed up to thirty feet of the length of the wharf exposed.
The wake created by passing watercraft on the Intercoastal Waterway and the scouring effects of the daily tides and occasional hurricanes have continued to erode the shoreline around the wharf fronting the waterway. Mr. Jackson estimates that as much as ten to twenty feet of land has eroded from the property since he first started visiting the island. Filling in with bricks and blocks and other debris as well as bulkheading in recent years has slowed down the erosional effects of the constant wave action to some extent, but not stopped it.
The estimated date of wharf construction was not ascertained from the archival records or information gathered by Tucker Littleton, the local historian. It was first thought that the wharf might date from the American Revolution, when the first salt work was operated on the island. Artifacts, however, excavated in and around the wharf timbers indicated a beginning date for the extant structure from about 1820 to 1850.
Deed records first mention Deer Island in 1730 when Jonathan Weeks mortgaged the island to Richard Russell for non-payment of debts. The island exchanged hands a number of times in the next eighty-four years and was finally passed from Richard Stevenson’s family to the Dudley family in 1814. They in turn sold the island to William P. Ferrand in 1830 who kept the property for twenty-two years. It is during these years that this particular wharf is thought to have been constructed.
The rough timbers were of long-leaf pine with bark still covering the wood. Studies pertaining to marine structures, their deterioration and preservation, have shown that of the soft woods, those with good heart wood used in marine structures were the least susceptible to decay by worms.
After the first level of timbers was exposed to their base, excavation progressed deeper. At this juncture, excavation occurred primarily below the low tide level and a gasoline powered water dredge was employed to excavate below the base of the second level of wharf timbers. When the tide was up, the water depth increased to three feet above the bottom of the excavation floor and snorkels and masks were used to continue the excavation. Fill material below the resin layer consisted of anaerobic clay of a very elastic consistency mixed with dense concentrations of wood shavings and wood chips. The wood shavings and chips demonstrated that a saw mill may have been located on Deer Island as early as the Revolutionary War when kegs and barrels were manufactured, presumably to ship salted products to the continental troops.
A wet screen located at the other end of the suction dredge collected the material siphoned through the hose. This material was then hand-sorted in an effort to glean artifacts. Except for a couple of fragments of early creamware, diagnostic material predominately consisted of nineteenth century ceramic and bottle glass fragments along with a few clay pipe stems. Some of the other cultural material included gray slat-glazed stoneware, fragments of pharmaceutical bottles and underglaze whiteware.
Excavation continued into culturally sterile sand with no evidence of a third layer of timbers. The base of the wharf was apparently all that remained, with the greater portion of the superstructure having been rotted or swept away. The presence of enormous amounts of wood shavings and chips under the last level of timbers would seen to indicate that the wharf was constructed on top of a variety of discarded material formed on the main channel side of the island. It would have been impossible for the shavings and chips to have been used as fill, but rather for surface material, as this wharf with the open work of the wharf design, commonly called a cobb type of wharf, allowed finer material to be leached by water activity.
At the completion of this section of the wharf, divers conducted a reconnaissance offshore into the channel, following the line of ballast stone into the water. Approximately forty feet from shore the ballast pile became extremely dispersed and ill-defined in its boundaries. At thirty feet out from the first delineated and excavated section, and in line with the previously exposed wharf timbers, a second excavation section of the same dimensions was established. A plan view was drawn of the delineated section, and once completed, surface material of ballast rock, brick fragments and loose lumps of resin were removed from the study area. It was assumed here that the removal of timbers by erosion or dredging, or the settling of material along with the effects of sea level rise, can account for the submergence of the wharf or the existing shore.
The water dredge was once more employed to excavate this outward section. Divers used extreme care not to disturb large pieces of worm-eaten timber found in the excavation area. The water depth at this location ranged from four feet to seven feet between low and high tide. Debris siphoned through the dredge and into the screen at the other end was carefully hand sorted for evidence of cultural material. Little artifactual material was retrieved, with the exception of pieces of Rhenishware, an early black bottle glass lip and some whiteware fragments located just under the gray sandy bottom close to the margins of the wharf and associated timbers. This was not surprising due to the known history of this particular area being dredged almost regularly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain a navigable channel depth along the Intercoastal Waterway. When the culturally sterile channel bottom was reached, the wharf timbers were missing or nearly destroyed by the ravages of the teredo worm.
The final portion of the wharf examined was located by digging two test units in Mr. Jackson’s yard where a timber header was thought to continue from a portion of the wharf exposed on the beach. The test units were undertaken to ascertain the manner in which a wharf may have been secured into the shoreline, and to determine how far inland the wharf headers were buried. Timber found was waterworn and not of long-leaf pine but of Cyprus; surface about the timber was covered by a thick layer of hardened resin.
As mentioned previously, the wharf was built of long-leaf pine, and was fashioned in the cobb style. Cobb style simply means that the cribwork is not plastered, but left open. The construction of the cribwork was very similar to that of a log cabin style. The ends of the timbers were notched and then placed on top of each other at right angles. The interior of the cribwork was then filled with cobble stone and ballast, and then covered with resin.
The timbers were joined together with trunnels. This was apparently the only fastening method used, as not a single metal fastener was found in the site area.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire wharf excavation was the discovery of pine resin in the wharf structure. The area of resin covered the wharf’s width and extended the wharf’s length from the lawn to where the wharf timbers disappeared below the low water mark. The extent of the resin layer indicates that colonial manufacturing processes, similar to modern manufacturing, was concerned with production and not aesthetics. Indeed, the sawdust layers may have been a periodic necessity in order to keep the sticky resin off the shoes of the workers. It can also be theorized that the resin was spread purposefully in order to secure the filled contents of the wharf or to preserve the wharf timbers themselves.
The Deer Island wharf shares numerous characteristics with historic wharfs excavated in New England…Its cobb style construction was very popular and has been found in historic wharfs…lack of metal fasteners was consistent with the construction techniques of other documented historic wharfs.
In summary and of extreme importance, the Deer Island wharf was the first wharf to have been archaeologically excavated in the state of North Carolina. While it was first thought to date from the American Revolution, analysis of artifacts from the site suggest a terminus ante quem of the early part of the nineteenth century. The Deer Island wharf revealed much about nineteenth century wharf construction and augmented historical accounts of the naval stores industry in the Swansboro area. The State of North Carolina should seriously consider the Deer Island wharf as a significant historic site.