‘Joan, Your Ship Came In’ — A Treasure Tale

Chicago Untouchable Tours Bus
photo by Zol87 via Flickr CC

One of my best first dates to date was a ticket aboard Chicago’s Untouchables Tour, a highlight-reel-on-wheels of iconic Prohibition-era gangland. Mode of transportation: a jet-black school bus. Tour guide suit of choice: the Zoot.

Makes me sick to imagine tourists 90 years from now getting kicks out of our contemporary crime scenes, but I’m gonna be real here: the Untouchables shtick was riveting. What’s more, I walked away with two pieces of information that forever changed my Windy City POV. Number one: There’s still a visible bullet hole in the side of Holy See Cathedral on State Street, trace evidence from when Capone’s guys gunned down Hymie Weiss in 1926. Number two: Grant Park is built on landfill.

Apparently, after the “Great Chicago Fire” of 1871, heaps of debris were shoved out to the lakefront to serve as foundation for city park space. Which got me thinking about other ways people have manipulated topography, historically. Which in turn reminded me of a conversation I once had with New York City Urban Archaeologist Joan Geismar, PhD.

Layers of Lower Manhattan (PBS)
Layers of Lower Manhattan (PBS)

Manhattan used to be rolling hills and flowing streams. As  colonists moved north, they smoothed out the surface, pushing land toward shorelines. PBS has a great interactive map (pictured here) of the Layers of Lower Manhattan, showing just how significantly settlement shaped geography.

But what does all that landfill entail? And what keeps it from washing out to sea? I understood that scooped up hills could be redistributed elsewhere, but this landfill business …

Any guesses?

Listen to the fabulous Dr. Geismar tell her jackpot story better than I ever could. Goonie bliss.

“My very first dig was in lower Manhattan. I was running a project that had 50 people on the crew. It was for a city block in the seaport area. That block had been the second block of landfill, going east into the east river that was put in place beginning in 1737. The question was where was the landfill? Where did the new landfill start? What was holding it in? How deep was the landfill?

So we were excavating backyards, we had privies we had sisterns — privies being the old outhouse bits — sisterns. We had walls, we had basements, we had sumps where they drained the wetland, but we wondered about the landfill. So we were testing and we found wood that fell away when the backhoe was testing. The backhoe operator said, “Joan, where should we put this last test?” I very scientifically said, “How about right there.” He started digging, the dirt feel away and we came upon wood that turned out to be the midsection portside of a 92-ft. merchant vessel.* And someone said, “Joan, your ship came in,” and it was very funny and it turned out to be an extraordinary find.

It was the largest artifact I’ve ever had, it was the most exciting artifact. There were gun ports, there was evidence of the decks, there was evidence of mast. A derelict ship — there was nothing on it, there was no gold, there was nothing like that. But it had been pulled in by these wealthy land owners to serve as cribbing for the landfill so they could fill behind it, which was the garbage we were getting in our dig, and then go out and create a street, which would have been Front Street, and then go on to the next block. But that was my most extraordinary artifact and find, I must say.

* In demonstrating just how much archaeological data changes with each new discovery, Dr. Geismar points out that the ship is now known to be a 100-foot vessel, not 92.

J. Geismar ship photo
Photo by J. Geismar of the ship’s bow, exposed and covered with salt hay in an attempt to keep it from freezing

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