The discovery of old-fashioned train wheel-sets in shallow water off East End may be linked to the bygone era of phosphate mining in the Cayman Islands, historians believe.

Dive shop owner Steve Broadbelt made the discovery of 13 wheel and axle sets partially buried in sand and encrusted in coral in around 20 feet of water while doing maintenance on underwater web cams in the area.

The find, never previously reported, is being investigated by the Cayman Islands National Museum.

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Peggy Leshikar-Denton, the director of the museum and a specialist in underwater archaeology, said the site would be protected under the Abandoned Wreck Law and could eventually become part of the Maritime Heritage Trail. She said an initial theory dated the wheel sets to the 19th century.

“I believe the cart wheels and axles may be related to the phosphate mining era of the late 1800s. We had tracks and phosphate cars and carts at several locations on Grand Cayman and also on Little Cayman,” she said.

Some pieces of the old track are still visible on the nature trail in Little Cayman today. A piece of rail was commandeered during the construction of the bar at the Southern Cross Club, where it serves as a footrest for thirsty divers.

Broadbelt is continuing to conduct surveys of the site to take measurements of the wheels and axles to provide the museum with more information to trace the origin of the find.

Historian Roy Bodden said the largest phosphate mining operation in the islands was in Little Cayman. He said the wheel-sets were most likely relics of that era.

“From the size of those things, they don’t look like they were made for passenger rail,” he said. “Most likely they would have been for shipment to Little Cayman or Jamaica.”

A piece of rail from Little Cayman’s old train track that transported phosphate can be found as a footrest at the base of the bar at the Southern Cross Club. – Photo: Peter Hillenbrand

He said the south east corner of Grand Cayman was known as the ‘graveyard of the Caribbean’ and it was common for ships to be wrecked on the reefs in that area.

Caribbean historian and UCCI assistant professor Christopher Williams said the discovery, which is close to Cayman’s oldest settlement, Old Isaac’s, was a fascinating find. He said the artefacts were probably jettisoned cargo.

“Perhaps Caymanian wreckers had been in the process of salvaging what was salvageable from a wrecked merchant ship sometime in the 19th century on its way to Jamaica, and this particular load got away from them,” he said.

Williams added that Jamaica-bound ships sometimes found themselves in Cayman’s waters as a result of “navigational folly”. He added that any theory was speculative at this stage, and it was vital to get the artefacts dated and identified to compare them with what was used in Cayman and Jamaica at the time.

The wreck is in shallow water, close to the Old Isaac’s dive site, which is a regular stopping point for dive charters and lies on the south-east corner of Grand Cayman, less than a mile from Ocean Frontiers’ dock.

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