Digging up local history

Photo Credit: The Shickluna Shipyard Project

Photo Credit: The Shickluna Shipyard Project

This summer Brock University and the Niagara community had the opportunity to take part in the first excavation of an industrial shipyard. The remains of the Shickluna Shipyard are buried along Twelve Mile Creek and the excavators have just scratched the surface.

According to Dr. Kimberly Monk, who is trained in Maritime Archaeology and History at Brock University, shipyard archaeology is a very unique area of research. There are few people who have investigated shipyards.

“This is the first industrial shipyard, to my knowledge, that has been excavated.”

The shipyard was an active site from 1838-1891. Monk and her team of students and volunteers worked from July into August to excavate this historical site in St. Catharines under the Burgoyne Bridge. Dr. Monk’s team focused on three operating areas: the dwellings associated with the shipyard, the ship building process and the boathouse.

“It was quite a significant dig from the standpoint that we opened up these areas new in mid July and despite the weather and despite the fact we were running this as a field school.  Our field school students who had never done archeology or very little archeology previously managed to document and record over 2000 artifacts,” said Monk.

The team dug to depths up to 60 cm, which Dr. Monk says “revealed a couple layers of history that brought us to the 1880’s period.”

Some of these artifacts have been dated  between 1880 and 1930, such as a pair of lace up leather boots manufactured by Goodyear in 1915, a number of ceramics, medicinal and bottle glass, ship fasteners, as well as structure that Dr. Monk and her team have dated back to the shipyard.

Monk explained this is only the start of the research and excavation: “We are still in quite shallow depths for that portion of the excavation so we need to dig deeper in order to tell the story of ship building as a process but we did encounter ship fasteners and other ceramic and glassware at that portion of the site.”

She added that these items will help to paint a picture of what life was like in St. Catharines at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. Although her interests are the shipyard and the ship, the other layers of earth being excavated offer insight into later time periods.

“Naturally in doing archeology in order to look at and interpret an earlier period you usually have to go through the later periods of history.”

Monk and her team offered open days for the public to view the site. The dig has since concluded after the area was reburied on August 22.  Monk explains that they have left a “bookmark so we can essentially go back and continue on with our excavations where we left off next year.”

By covering the area with Geotextile they have protected the area, made a barrier between the area not investigated and the previously investigated one and left a marker so that they can continue next year.

Monk expressed confidence in returning to the area next year although she stresses that further field work relies heavily on the support the team receives from the city of St. Catharines and community members. One of the keys to this project was community initiative. With the help of the students, volunteers and sponsors like Rankin Construction, Calhouns and more they were able to run  the fieldwork, do historical research and start cataloging the finds.

“The opportunity to have a learning environment of younger and older students working together, learning together, experiencing their history together was such a joy to watch.”

Monk is confident that the dig will continue with the amount of material found and the evidence of documentation, aerial imagery and historic photographs that the James Norris re-rigged schooner is still buried in the shipyard.  This was a vessel that worked in the trade of high volume low value goods on the Welland canal.

The continuation of the dig is important to Niagara.

“I think it is important for us to continue on with them, to dig deeper and reveal additional context with regard to those site areas and to tell a fuller story about these dwellings and the people who lived in them and how shipbuilding developed as a process within Niagara,” said Monk. “Not even just within Niagara during the historical period but also to encounter further material relating to the shipyard as a business.”

Until then the past lays buried but the Shickluna Shipyard Project continue to catalogue, research and are planning a fundraiser in the new year in order to support discovering more about this important piece of local history.

For more information on the project, the volunteers and team have put together a Facebook page called ‘Archaeology of a 19th Century Shipyard’. 

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