2015-08-27 / Front Page

Lighthouse Museum Honors Shipwreck Researcher

By James Merolla


Marine historian Jim Jenney, stands just a few hundred meters from a wreck in the Newport causeway that he has identified and documented for the Rhode Island Shipwreck Project Database which chronicles every ship that ever sunk off Rhode Island waters. (Photo by James Merolla) Marine historian Jim Jenney, stands just a few hundred meters from a wreck in the Newport causeway that he has identified and documented for the Rhode Island Shipwreck Project Database which chronicles every ship that ever sunk off Rhode Island waters. (Photo by James Merolla) The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association is recognizing Newport native Jim Jenney for his five decades of meticulous maritime disaster research that has been compiled as the Rhode Island Shipwreck Database.

Jenney has worked with Beavertail in documenting 1,208 vessels that have sunk off of Rhode Island’s coast, from Watch Hill to Block Island to the Massachusetts border. Combined with his data on other near-disasters at sea that did not result in a sinking, the database has around 3,050 entries. “It wouldn’t surprise me to find 4,000 to 5,000” before the work is complete, he told Newport This Week. He has done additional research on U.S. wrecks beyond Rhode Island, and has cataloged some 100,000 of them.

Jenney, 66, grew up in the Fifth Ward and has been interested in shipwrecks since he was eight years old and learned to scuba dive. “It was a great place to grow up and a great time to grow up. Everybody’s parents knew everybody else’s parents. You played until dark, as long as you came back when the street lights came on,” he reminisced.

He said he was very fortunate in that his dad was an explorer who was very interested in scuba diving. “He taught me to dive. I grew up on [the television series] ‘Sea Hunt.’ Mike Nelson [Lloyd Bridges’ character] and Jacques Cousteau were my idols,” said Jenney.

“When I was not quite 18, a friend of my dad’s said, ‘I think if you go out to Butterball Rock, just off of Castle Hill, you could probably find a wreck out there.’ He really got my interest up. He teased me and said I wouldn’t be able to identify it,” Jenney recalled. “I went to the site, discovered artifacts, and also discovered the Newport Historical Society. That was elemental to my evolution. I read old newspapers, did research, finding out what it was. I not only identified that wreck; I identified six other wrecks,” said Jenney.

“I went back to my father’s friend and said, ‘What you’ve got out there is the Lydia Skolfield. She was lost in 1891.”

Jenney first partnered with BLMA in 2008 when he was contacted by a member of the board, Varoujan Karentz. Thus began their seven-year association. Jenney was glad to share his research and to make it available to the public. “I don’t want this information to be lost,” he said.

A partnership with the lighthouse seemed like a “perfect match” to Jenney. “Lighthouses are designed to prevent shipwrecks, and people who are fascinated with shipwrecks are also drawn to lighthouses,” he said.

Does he have any “favorite” shipwrecks? “All the dives are interesting. The U-853, the German sub, off Block Island… George & Alpert, a small schooner…she was lost in 1905. She’s off Sachuest

Point in Middletown. To my knowledge, I’m the only person that has ever been on her. Not much is left,” Jenney described.

And what of the legend of Captain Kidd’s treasure-laden ship hidden below the water around here?

“He supposedly landed at Block Island and Jamestown. Captain Kidd, according to legend, left his treasure everywhere on the East Coast. He must have been a multibillionaire,” added Jenney.

The BLMA shipwreck event on Saturday, Aug. 29, will highlight the results of Jenney’s 50 years of pursuing his passion. For half of those years, he lectured in Rhode Island and wrote numerous magazine articles and nine books. He then left for Kissimmee, Fla., for the next 25 years to work as a quality assurance manager for Disney World.

“I gave up submarines for mice,” he laughed.

The Rhode Island Shipwreck Database can be accessed through a link on BLMA’s website and can be searched by parameters of interest, like the type of vessel, geographical regions, vessel names, or captains.

As an example of what can be discovered, the schooner Adrianna is reported to have wrecked in 1884, carrying a cargo of coal, off the west side of Block Island. Two lives were lost and the captain was said to have blamed the misfortune on compass variation. A brig from Maine, the Brookline, carrying a cargo of lumber, wrecked off the Dumplings in Jamestown during an 1859 snowstorm. The crew was able to save itself, it’s noted, and the vessel was salvaged.

“No one has ever done this in any other state,” said Jenney. “The closest, to my knowledge, involves the Great Lakes. It’s my life’s work. I am very, very proud of what I am doing now.”

TO GO

Shipwreck Talk

WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 29,
4 – 6 p.m.
WHERE: Beavertail Lighthouse
Museum
COST: Free
MORE INFO: beavertaillight.org

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