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Buck Island Shipwreck Could Become Tourism Boon

June 21, 2006 – The 19th-century wreck of the RMS Wye, a Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. ship, could become a heritage tourism destination, State Historic Preservation Office archaeologist David Brewer said Tuesday.
"The rewards for the diving industry and tourism, as well as academic research, are fantastic," Brewer said.
He said that St. Thomas dive operators could bring their guests out on a tour, similar to that now offered to the very popular Wreck of the Rhone, located off Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands. The Rhone went down in the same hurricane.
Brewer said that divers often want to see more than just fish and reefs. The Wye – sunk off Buck Island, St. Thomas, in an Oct. 29, 1867 hurricane – would provide that alternative.
Kimberly Monk from the Center for Historical and Maritime Archaeology at the University of Bristol in England, student Ryan Duggins and underwater archeologist David Moore were on St. Thomas last week to take a look at what's left of the 210-foot Wye. They joined St. Thomas nautical archaeologist and businessman Charles Consolvo to evaluate the wreck sitting on the ocean floor.
"There's mostly machinery parts and some hull structure," Brewer said.
Consolvo said Wednesday the wreck sits in 10 to 25 feet of water, making it easy for snorkelers as well as divers to view.
"It would make a wonderful underwater trail with markers," Consolvo said.
He said the wreck includes a flywheel, piston rods, as well as parts of the hull, including a piece of the keel.
Consolvo said the Wye was on its way out of the harbor in an attempt to escape the hurricane when it went down.
Brewer said that most of the wreck is embedded in coral, where it will stay. A few pieces are scattered around the ocean floor, but Brewer said they will be removed and placed in a museum to protect them from people who could remove them illegally.
He said that the wreck is important because it was built at a time when ships were in transition from sail to steam. The Wye is the first screw propeller ship built for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.
Brewer said the ship was built for intra-island use, unlike its sister ship, The Rhone, which was used for ocean shipping.
Consolvo said that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. was based on St. Thomas, with a coaling operation on Hassel Island. He said the company was instrumental in blasting the channel between Hassel Island and St. Thomas.
Brewer said that when the Wye went down it had 61 people on board. "Only 20 survived," he said.
He said St. Thomas residents plucked them off Buck Island after the hurricane passed.
Brewer pointed out that the wreck occurred just weeks before the infamous Nov. 18, 1867 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that also hit St. Thomas.
Myron Jackson, who heads the State Historic Preservation Office, said that the Wye is part of the territory's cultural resources. "It's part of the unique history," he said.
Planning Commissioner Dean C. Plaskett reminded residents that violating the territory's Antiquities and Cultural Properties Act by removing artifacts like those at the Wye is a crime. He said fines for violating the law stand at up to $10,000, plus a year in jail. Additionally, violators may lose their equipment, including cars, boats and dive gear.
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