Books of the region: sea, war, the bay

BOOKS & AUTHORS

February 26, 1995|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to The Sun

As the British moved up the Patuxent River toward Washington on June 21, 1814, the interposed flotilla of small U.S. ships could neither fight effectively nor escape. On government orders, and at Capt. Joshua Barney's signal, some 15 vessels were blown up.

Ever since, finding the remains of Barney's barges has been a local sport, more difficult than it sounds. The Patuxent narrows -- and is only about 8 feet deep there, but the current is rapid, underwater visibility is maybe 2 inches, and the muck is egregious. Also, there as elsewhere about the Chesapeake and its tributaries, whole centuries' worth of unidentifiable other ships, wrecked or junked, mislead the searcher.

In the late 1970s, Donald G. Shomette gave it a try. Mr. Shomette (a marine archaeologist who works for the Library of Congress) has become, no less, the Maryland version of Jacques Cousteau. He organizes and leads expeditions, and afterward his books, replete with detail, make public the goals, the difficulties, and finally the advances in knowledge.

In this instance, Mr. Shomette had in mind " the first marine archaeological survey of an entire riverine system in the United States." A grandiose concept? To appraise it would require wading through the previously published technical report. In " Tidewater Time Capsule: History Beneath the Patuxent" (Tidewater Publishers. 370 pages. $29.95), the general reader will find a confession of his unscholarly delight in the planking and other artifacts he and a half-dozen associates recovered at a bend called Pig Point.

But Mr. Shomette, who lives near the Patuxent, also cares about that river system. First giving us historical background, he's 119 pages out before the expedition narrative begins. It has pained him to watch southern Maryland's landscape change from nature to suburbia, and the Patuxent (a 19th century example of environmental decay, as the runoff from deforested watershed silted it up) latterly become " chocolate brown . . . an open sewer."

His method was to locate sites of human habitation or activity, to test-sample, not ransack. Thus, having retrieved only enough material from his specimen member of the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla to ascertain that it was indeed the Scorpion, Barney's flagship, Mr. Shomette's group then replaced the 5 feet of bottom " goop" covering the wreck and removed their cofferdam, to discourage the many nonscientific relic hunters.

Of books on 1812 and all that, there is an oversupply. But one on underwater Maryland, without your having to get wet, is a distinct gain.

It used to be that you rounded up a few Robert H. Burgess titles, some Marion V. Brewington and Swepson Earle, and of course Gilbert Klingel's book, and you had the makings of a respectable Chesapeake Bay shelf. And throw in Paul Wilstach.

But not nowadays. To do justice to the subject, shelves, long ones, are essential (not to say money, in the age of photo and painting books). By now, many a collector limits it to an aspect: Bay workboats, or Bay decoys, or Bay softcrab recipes.

For Bay liners, the ranking author currently is David C. Holly of Annapolis. " Chesapeake Steamboats: Vanished Fleet" (Tidewater Publishers. 308 pages. $29.95) is his fourth work on ,, that nostalgic theme. The era began in 1813 and lasted 150 years, meaning that by now an entire generation has never taken the excursion boat to Tolchester, let alone the overnight boat to Point Comfort and Hampton Roads.

Which would be more fun: a cruise on the bay at the same time as 50,000 other sail and power boats, or riding down to Chesapeake Beach on the Dreamland, with 3,000 others aboard? The question sounds like February, yearning for July.

" Chesapeake Steamboats" offers not only the principal landings and shipowners but even the components of a crosshead TTC engine. Mr. Holly's mourning is subdued, and will be lost on the boat-hitch crowd, but it is very real.

J. H. Hall used to live on the Virginia Eastern Shore; when the look and sound and smell of it keep coming back to him, his outlet is to write short stories. In " Paradise: Stories of a Changing Chesapeake" (with sketches by Bill Martz; Rappahannock Press. 126 pages. Box 549, Urbanna, Va. 23175; $9.95 plus $2.95 shipping), the people are less amusing than the inhabitants of Oysterback, Md., but their predicaments and their reflections contain just as much saltmarsh. Maybe the genre should be called imaginary reality.

James H. Bready has writen for the Sun Papers for longer than anyone else. He has been covering books since 1954. He was Book Editor at The Evening Sun from 1968-1985. He now writes a monthly column on Maryland books for the book pages.

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