Preservation Urged For Historic Shipyard

January 08, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Burned by the British and smothered over time by tons of earth, an 18th-century shipyard that was the scene of Anne Arundel County's only Revolutionary War land battle faces a new threat from suburban sprawl.

Developers are gobbling up the peninsula at the headwaters of the West River south of Galesville, near the Methodist Church Camp. It would be a tragedy if the historic Stephen Steward shipyard, burned by British raiders in 1781, were gobbled up too, said Michael Cassidy, a member of the West River Federation.

The federation, a coalition of residents and civic groups, held a news conference yesterday morning announcing the discovery of the shipyard's remains -- below-ground and underwater foundations and bits of pottery, tools and other materials -- and calling for the site's preservation.

"The people down here feel an awesome responsibility to preserve our birthright, our heritage," Mr. Cassidy said. "We need to preserve archaeological sites like this."

Archaeologists who first unearthed it a year ago say the site provides an unprecedented glimpse into period life as well as shipbuilding and military tactics of the time.

"Here we've got the story of the ship builder, the tenant farmer, the slave and the war," said Bruce Thompson, assistant state archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust.

Historians have long known that Samuel Galloway and Stephen Steward began building cargo ships on the West River to carry tobacco and other goods across the Atlantic to England. When war broke out between the colonies and England, the Maryland Council on Safety hired Mr. Steward to design and build the state a navy of its own.

Most of his warships were 100-foot rowing galleys that carried as many as four heavy guns and were used primarily to deter illicit trading and privateers on the Chesapeake Bay, said Michael Crawford, a historian with the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yards.

Mr. Steward also had plans to build a 20-gun galley. But on March 31, 1781 -- less than five months before the end of the war -- a British raiding party landed at Chalk Point and burned Mr. Steward's home and the shipyard and everything associated with it, Mr. Crawford said.

But not only is this the first 18th-century shipyard discovered in Maryland, it may be the best preserved yard known to date, Mr. Thompson said.

Earlier archaeological sites have offered fragmented views of the times. But the Steward shipyard, which employed blacksmiths, shipwrights, tenant farmers, slaves and other laborers, promises bring it all together, he said.

"The major significance of this site is the fact that it's intact," Mr. Thompson said. "Every time I come out here I find a new piece of the puzzle."

For example, ship ways -- ramps on which finished ships would be slid sideways into the river -- have been found well preserved underwater. Shards of expensive pottery have been found at the site researchers believe was the shipwright's house. And an iron slag pile has been found where the blacksmith had set up shop.

At its height of activity, the shipyard, which employed more than 100 craftsmen, dominated the entire peninsula, encompassing hundreds of acres, Mr. Thompson said. In an effort to begin mining information from the site, the Maryland Archaeological Society will hold its annual field school there this spring.

Years may be required to unlock all its secrets, he said. Unfortunately, Mr. Cassidy said, only 25 acres of the peninsula, a tract known as Norman's Retreat, are guaranteed to be preserved. That site was placed under a conservation easement with the Maryland Historical Trust in 1979.

Esther Doyle Reed, president of the Anne Arundel County Chapter of the Maryland Archaeological Society, said her group is negotiating with the West River Estates Homeowners Association to allow them to excavate a portion of the yard now slated for development as a community marina.

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