State archaeologists and volunteer divers working in the West River in Anne Arundel County say they have found the remains of a Revolutionary War shipyard burned by British forces in 1781.
The excavation of the Galloway-Steward shipyard is believed to be the first ever of an 18th-century shipbuilding site in the United States.
"We probably know less about Revolutionary-period shipyards than about the Revolutionary-period ships themselves," said Paul Hundley, Maryland's underwater archaeologist.
"It's a [National Historic] Landmark-type site," said Bruce Thompson, the assistant state archaeologist who directed the dig. "It meets all the criteria."
Hundley said divers and diggers will return in the spring to excavate and record the find in detail.
The excavators began work in August, digging on shore and groping in the murky water and bottom muck just offshore. They have now found and mapped the yard's timber "ways," which supported the ships as they were built and launched, and recovered scores of artifacts.
Among the finds have been ceramic fragments, one of them dating the site to the mid- to late 1700s; a well-preserved and decorated leather harness strap; a broken workman's ruler; pig iron and a large iron ship fitting; and considerable amounts of charred wood and melted glass suggestive of an intense fire.
Work at the site will include a search for traces of a 20-gun galley said to have been burned in the British attack.
The bloodless British raid -- the surprised Americans ran after offering little or no resistance -- was the only Revolutionary War action in Maryland west of the Chesapeake. Similar attacks were mounted on St. Michaels and Crisfield in attempts to suppress American naval activity.
"We know that there were at least four shipyards in the Chesapeake area" during the Revolution, said Thompson. "There were two in Baltimore at Fells Point, one in Chestertown and one on the West River."
The West River shipyard was established, probably in 1740, by Baltimore financier Samuel Galloway and shipwright Stephen Steward. They picked West River, Thompson said, because of nearby stands of live oak, "which everybody had figured out was the best shipyard material."
When war broke out, Galloway and Steward won a government contract to build 20-gun war galleys. Modeled after a Mediterranean type, the galleys were fast, agile ships, 60 or 70 feet long with shallow draft and triangular lateen sales. They could be sailed or rowed and were often used as messenger ships on the bay.
Thompson said two of the galleys known to have been built on the West River were the Johnson and the Conqueror. "They took five months to build the Johnson," Thompson said.
The archaeologists are pressing the National Archives for access to more of Galloway's business records, which were donated to the government with certain restrictions on public access.
"One of the benefits we see in this shipyard," said Thompson, "is that we will be getting a better view of the history of this period for the state of Maryland."
They hope to learn more about sources of iron, the complex commercial networks needed to supply the yard, and the nature of the labor force employed there.
While the existence of the Steward-Galloway shipyard on the West River was well-known, its exact location had been forgotten in the 210 years since it was destroyed.
"People have been looking for these yards for a long time without
success, I think, because they were looking on land rather than in the water," said Thompson.
The site was finally found in July, on a creek southwest of Chalk Point, during a routine survey of known historic and prehistoric sites in the Galesville area.
A key to the discovery, Thompson said, was the recollection of Galesville resident Emil Hartge, 78. "He remembered stories from his grandfather about ships being slipped into the channel by means of oxen and a pulley block across the creek," Thompson said. "The place he pointed out to us turned out to be 20 meters from the actual site.
"We actually discovered the site by walking in the water with a hand-held magnetometer."
A portion of the property is slated for development by its owners, Lovell Land Inc., of Columbia, and Michael T. Rose, who planned an access road and marina on top of the shipyard site, Hundley said.
But after a meeting last week with Lovell vice president Oliver Hand, Hundley said Hand "made the decision that he will preserve the site intact . . ."
Hundley said the Galloway-Steward project has been a cooperative effort of the state Office of Archaeology, Anne Arundel County, the Maryland Historical Trust, volunteer sport divers and archaeologists, and local residents.