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A long ago ship’s sinking in Greenport comes back to the forefront

When low tide arrives on the beach near Fanning Point in Greenport, at a spit of sand at the south end of Fourth Street where it intersects with Clark Street, bits of rusty iron stick up out of the pebbly sand.

People who walk by them might wonder what they are and how they got there, but only local history buffs like Dave Corwin know the story: that in July 1884, a U.S. Navy frigate called the Ohio was stripped for metal and copper in Greenport, then towed out into Greenport Harbor near the point, where it was loaded with dynamite and gasoline.

In a spectacular explosion, metal and wood flew all over, and what remained of the Ohio, which had been built in 1817 and launched three years later at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, sank to the bottom. Gone, but not forgotten.

The explosion killed a Greenport firefighter named Robert Corey, who had the dangerous task of loading the stripped-down hull with dynamite and gasoline and lighting the fuse. Accounts say he ran as fast as he could toward a crowd that had gathered on the beach, but a three-inch bolt flew off the remains and struck him in the back of the head. Summoned to the scene, a Dr. Ireland could not save him.

So today, 136 years later, some of the skeletal remains of the Ohio can be seen at low tide on the stretch of beach at the dead end of Clark Street. Whether those metal shards represent a danger to people who come to the beach was discussed at Thursday night’s Greenport Village Board of Trustees meeting.

After more current discussions mostly centered on a controversial project under construction on Sterling Avenue, the words “Battleship Ohio” were uttered and a long ago event came to the forefront.

It seems odd to some observers that no historical marker stands at the site telling the story of the Ohio and memorializing the death of Mr. Corey. (An oil storage facility also once occupied part of this site).

“This is history, our history, and should be remembered,” said Mr. Corwin, a Greenport resident and member of the Stirling Historical Society. (No one in Greenport seems to be able to agree on how Stirling – or Sterling on street signs – is spelled.)

He said he was uncomfortable with the idea that that the village would dig up the rusty shards and cut them off so they are never seen again.

“I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Mr. Corwin said. “This is history.”

Mayor George Hubbard Jr. said after the meeting that the village should dig up the metal pieces, or at least dig down enough to cut them off so they don’t appear on the beach when the tide is out.

“I’ve not seen it myself,” he said. “The talk is that a ship broke up and parts of it are still buried there.”

He said divers have seen more of the Ohio’s remains farther off the beach, under the path of the Shelter Island ferry.

“At high tide people are using the area more,” the mayor added. “I am afraid kids will step on sharp metal. We want to go at low tide, cut the stuff off so it’s not a hazard to kids on the beach.”

Newspaper accounts researched by Southold Town historian Amy Folk tell the story of a 212-foot, three-masted frigate with a 20-foot beam and a 20-foot draught that by the early 1880s was scrapped by the Navy.

A Captain Preston towed the boat into the harbor after several village businessmen bought the ship for scrap they could sell. A magnificent wood sculpture on the bow called Hercules was saved along with copper and other metals. The sculpture was sold to a local businessman, according to accounts, and for years could be seen at the now closed Canoe Place Inn in Hampton Bays.

One account says this is how Mr. Corey died: “Mr. Corey wanted to blow up a fragment of the timbers in which there was a quantity of metal and the other men, while not approving, did not oppose but moved away a few rods…

“Mr. Corey arranged the explosives to his liking, and touched fire to the fuse, ran off a distance of eighty paces to a point not far from where the other men were…” when a bolt hit him in the head. “Dr. Ireland was summoned. Mr. Corey was taken to the doctor’s house on Second Avenue” where he died. “Mr. Corey was well liked and regarded by our citizens.”

The accounts describe him as being a “foreman” in “Empire Engine Company No. 1” in Greenport.

So there on the beach, sticking up out the sand, are the last reminders of a great vessel that also represent the approximate location of where Mr. Corey lost his life.

“These are artifacts,” Mr. Corwin said. “That should mean something.”