Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shipwreck could yield the USS Scorpion from the War of 1812

A neoprene-clad diver slipped into the murky water of the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro Wednesday to examine the wreck of a 19th-century ship that archaeologists and state officials hope to make a star attraction in Maryland's commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

The sailing ship could be the USS Scorpion, part of a fleet known as the Chesapeake Flotilla that was designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Patuxent and harass the British, whose Royal Navy at the time was terrorizing towns from Havre de Grace to Norfolk.

The archaeology excavation is part of Maryland's effort to create a tourism cash cow from the bicentennial of a war whose biggest claim to fame is inspiring "The Star-Spangled Banner." Based in part on Virginia's experience with revenue generated by Civil War sites, bicentennial boosters estimate the 32 months of events planned to commemorate the War of 1812 could generate $1 billion in tourism spending.

"It's very much about economic development and cultural heritage tourism," said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

The site of the wreck that could be the Scorpion lies a couple of miles upstream from Pig Point, also known as Bristol Landing, just past where Route 4 crosses the river. Since late July, underwater archaeologists from the U.S. Navy, the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland Historical Trust have been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, from a cluster of barges crammed with an excavator, a Port-o-Potty, a shipping container-cum-office and two large bins that filter water and sediment. Seven divers spend an hour or two at a time underwater with about a foot of visibility, carefully working through several yards of mud, silt and clay to what they believe is the hull of the vessel.

A couple of previously excavated artifacts indicate it might be the Scorpion: a grog cup with the initials C.W. that may have belonged to a cook who was transferred to the Scorpion, and a surgical kit that would likely have been on the ship. Researchers hope to find more definitive proof when they map the ship's dimensions.

The Scorpion was part of the Chesapeake Flotilla, which, under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney, battled the British in St. Leonard's Creek before retreating up the Patuxent, where the flotilla became trapped. Barney then destroyed his fleet to prevent the boats from falling into British hands. The British ultimately advanced on Washington, where they set fire to the president's mansion and the Capitol.

The wreck was first discovered by Donald Shomette, who has written several books about underwater archaeology in the Patuxent, and by Ralph Eshelman in the late 1970s. It was excavated in 1980, but they reburied it because they lacked the funds to fully excavate and conserve the ship.

The current team, led by Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the highway agency; Susan Langley, the state underwater archaeologist; and Robert Neyland, head of the Navy's Underwater Archaeology Branch in the Naval History and Heritage Command, faces similar constraints. Working with a budget of $200,000 cobbled together from different sources, it only has money to do limited underwater excavation. More than a million more would be required to dam off the site and excavate the vessel under dry conditions.

If the state and federal researchers can care up funds to turn the site into a dry archaeology digs, the archaeology excavation could become an attraction itself. Viewing platforms could be installed for tourists to see the ship as it emerges from the bottom of the Patuxent -- and for taxpayers to see their tax dollars at work.

The current team might also benefit from advances in conservation technology. The discovery of the wreck in 1980 contributed to the creation of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, which recently won a contract to conserve and reassemble the remains of a late 18th- or early 19th-century ship found at the construction site of the World Trade Center in New York.

If the vessel is confirmed to be the Scorpion, it could offer 21st-century tourists weary of present-day wars something other aspects of the War of 1812 can't: a heroic storyline.

As the British approached Washington from the Chesapeake, Shomette says, "this fleet was the only thing in their way."

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