Finders hoping to display artifacts in area museum
HIGHLANDS — After he'd cleared away the sand and silt, Joe
Anthony knew they were on more than just a pile of slate
shingles when he saw Gary Filippone's eyes go wide behind his
Buried within the shingles were china tableware — and not
just fragments, like one glint of white stoneware that had
attracted the divers to a spot on the shipwreck. There were
stacks and stacks of unbroken teacups and saucers, plates and
platters, some as perfect as the day they were crated by an
English exporter 175 years before.
For five years a group of divers here have quietly
excavated and documented the wreck of the Aurora, an American
merchant ship that went down close to the Sandy Hook beach in
a gale on Nov. 7, 1827.
Now they're looking to find permanent homes for their
collection, with, they hope, the Gateway National Recreation
Area at Sandy Hook and the Twin Lights museum in Highlands.
"The artifacts are going to get to a museum. I'd like to
set up their museum out there at Sandy Hook with this stuff,
if they'd have it,"
said Anthony, of Highlands. These artifacts, he said, "are
not going to be sold. They belong to the wreck."
The survival of the ship's remains and its cargo are
remarkable, on a section of the sea floor scoured daily by
tides pouring out of New York Harbor and often raked by storms
that have threatened to batter through Sandy Hook itself. It
was that pile of slate, quarried in Wales and bound for New
York City rooftops, that ensured the Aurora would be the most
unusual wreck on this coast, the divers say.
"Nothing like this has ever been found in New Jersey," said
Filippone, of Highlands. "All this thing is missing is gold
What the divers did find was a time capsule of commerce and
technology from the 1820s.
"It was right on the historical edge, between one-of-a-kind
craftsmanship and mass production," said diver Ken Harber of
the Navesink section of Middletown. "It was like Home Depot:
shingles, tools, hardware, dishes."
Some 2,800 to 3,000 recovered artifacts include
Staffordshire china by the famed Adams pottery makers of
England, including patterns called Lady's Garden and Gables
Farm that are sought by collectors today, Anthony said.
There's a third, unidentified pattern in the haul, too.
Doorknob and lock sets, some still wrapped in paper, barrels
of hardware, tools by the Marples family company of Sheffield,
England, also were extracted from the hold.
"During this time, England was sending over many, many
manufactured goods," said researcher Dan Lieb of the New
Jersey Historical Divers Association, who helped the Highlands
divers identify the Aurora wreck and research its history.
"The Industrial Revolution was getting revved up, and America
just couldn't make everything it needed."
The rarest finds were a sea captain's navigation
instruments — a chronometer or navigational clock, and an
octant, forerunner of the sextant that navigators use to
calculate longitude and their position at sea. "It was the
heart of the vessel's navigation system," Lieb said.
Finding an octant is a career jackpot for any wreck diver,
partly because captains often took their prized instruments
before abandoning ship. The Aurora octant is in exceptional
condition with its lens frames, eyepiece and whalebone ivory
Research revealed there were two captains from the same
shipping company on the Aurora's final voyage, Harber said.
The octant probably was packed by the man along for a ride, he
added. "We think it was part of the other captain's gear. He
was heading for his next gig. He soon after took a ship out of
Both the Aurora's command captain, John Taubman, and his
colleague, Charles A. Hearn, made it off the Aurora alive,
with about 45 passengers and crew who rowed small boats
through the furious storm to stagger ashore on Sandy Hook. Six
sailors who tried to ride it out on the grounded ship were
drowned or battered to death by surf. Hearn himself died at
sea, trying to bring a ship past Cape Horn at the tip of South
America in 1846, according to the divers' research.
"The New Jersey coast at one point in the 1800s was
considered to be one of the worst passages in the world," Lieb
said. "Insurers charged higher rates for ships going there.
Sometimes they wouldn't cover it, and said, "If you go there,
you're on your own.' "
Accounts of the wreck
Highlands researcher Cassandra Stafford helped the divers
track down newspaper accounts of the Aurora's loss published
in the Maryland Gazette and in a New York City publication.
They say Taubman had loaded the ship and sailed from Liverpool
on Sept. 24, 1827, and arrived off Sandy Hook six weeks later,
the evening before the storm struck.
On the next Wednesday morning, "the wind (was) blowing a
violent gale from east- to east-southeast with a heavy rain
and thick fog," the Maryland Gazette story recounted. "The
vessel being in imminent danger, Capt. Taubman cut away his
three masts, and let go both anchors, to prevent her from
going ashore, but in vain she struck about 5 miles south of
Taubman was able to hold a position at anchor until around
5 p.m., when on a falling tide the Aurora struck bottom,
breaking some of its planks below the water line. Taubman
ordered 51 passengers and crew to get into the ship's two
small boats to attempt a row through the thundering surf, but
six sailors opted to take their chances staying with the ship.
All of the others landed safely and were given shelter in
the Highlands area, the divers say. According to the New York
newspaper account, around 2 a.m. the following day the storm
had subsided and local watermen set out in a small boat to
recover the other six seamen. They found "four had been washed
overboard, and the bodies of two men attached to the tattered
rail, shockingly mangled and their very clothes washed away by
the violence of the waves," the New York report stated.
"This boat was seriously built. It was double-planked oak.
With that load of Welsh slate, it pounded right into the
bottom and the sand filled it in," Harber said.
More than a century after Aurora sank and was forgotten,
local anglers knew it only as a hot spot for catching fish. In
summer 2002, Gary Filippone went down to take a look.
Identifying the Aurora
Scientists say the Hudson River plume that shoots out of
the harbor every day often creates stratified layers in the
ocean water off Sandy Hook. Filippone remembers swimming down
through murky brown that first day, before breaking into clear
water. Below he saw the slate pile.
"It opened up like a courtyard," he recalled. "It was
In July 2002, Filippone was back with Anthony, and they
began calling the spot the Shingle Wreck. "People have been
fishing on this pile of slate forever. We found sinkers that
are 50 years old," Anthony said.
Anthony dives with an underwater scooter, a hand-held,
battery-powered motor and propeller that's as useful for
blowing silt off a wreck as it is for towing a diver. After
Filippone located the stoneware fragment, Anthony aimed his
scooter's propeller down at the slates.
"He and I are on top of the slate pile, and I see his eyes
go wide," Anthony recalled, still grinning at the almost
ludicrous chances of such a find. They had located a trove of
china inside the 55-foot long, 26-foot wide slate pile. "It
was stacked inside the slate. That's how it survived."
There was so much tableware the divers used milk crates
hoisted by inflated air bags to get it all to the surface.
They kept closed-mouthed about their project. "I said, "We
can't let this get out of control,' " Filippone said.
They sweated out close calls, once finding a beach
replenishment sand dredge anchored over the wreck, and another
time diving amid fishermen drifting for summer flounder. "I
was down there with hundreds of hooks in the water," Filippone
said with a laugh. But they didn't tell anyone for fear of
setting off a rush of intruders who would clean out the wreck.
In time, the divers would learn the history of the Aurora —
a young ship at the time of its death, built in Bath, Maine,
in 1824 as a full-rigged, three-masted ship 106 feet long and
22 feet wide. Some of the hardware they recovered was stamped
by an import company that had been in business for only two
years in the mid-1820s, and some china indicated a similar
time frame. But the artifact clues stopped there.
"This ship was from Bath. But it threw us for a loop. To
this day, we haven't found anything American on the ship.
Everything was British, except for a wine bottle seal, which
was French," Harber said.
"They weren't able to come up with a single candidate,"
said Lieb, whom Filippone approached three years ago for help
in identifying the wreck.
But the divers had found an early piece of evidence — an
iron knee brace, a connector for ship's ribs that was
characteristic of Maine-built ships of the period, Lieb said.
Within weeks, a search of records named the Aurora as a
The final proofs were tiny: captain's stamps, used to put
official company impresses on letters and documents. The
divers had found two, one with the letters JT for John Taubman,
and C.H. Hearn for the ill-fated Hearn.
"That clinched it," Lieb said.
They learned the Aurora had been owned by a shipping
company called the Kermit Line that was very active in that
early Industrial Revolution trade. Filippone has friends with
a family home in Florida, and he gave them a china set to
bring to an Antiques Roadshow there, the traveling antiques
appraisal that's seen on public television.
An appraiser was impressed by one Aurora piece. "Your
family must have taken very good care of it over the years,"
"It was found at the bottom of the ocean," they told him.
There's no windfall fortune to be had from all that china,
Anthony said. One thing the divers learned is how much the
market for antique Staffordshire ware values perfection above
all else, even a good shipwreck story.
Beyond all the pretty blue plates, the divers' most
tantalizing find was a rather nondescript medallion — a cheap
unofficial medal, really, that was given to veterans of the
Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805. The British Admiral Lord
Nelson's victory over a combined French and Spanish fleet
settled the sea power side of the Napoleonic wars, and the
medallion likely belonged to one of the Aurora's older
sailors, the divers say.
On that last trip across the Atlantic, life on board the
Aurora would have been not unlike the scenes in the Russell
Crowe film "Master and Commander," with its depiction of early
19th-century life at sea, said diver John Kohnow of Yardley,
"When you see "Master and Commander,' in those scenes where
they're eating in the captain's quarters, you see the platter
racks," Kohnow said, hefting one stoneware piece molded in
England and fit for a roast bird or beef. "When Russell Crowe
is showing the younger officers how to navigate, it's an
octant they're using."
From their docks and houses in Highlands, the divers can
look out to Sandy Hook and easily imagine the Aurora jammed
into the shoals. Filippone said their investigation revealed
something else: "A lot of times, you find more adventure in
your own backyard than traveling around the world."