Within the slick dark waters of Baltimore harbor, hidden as if by a shroud, there lies a riotous jumble of broken old boats. Forget any romantic ideas about the Outer Banks of Carolina as the graveyard of the Atlantic, with hundreds of ships come to grief. Right here in Baltimore there are, easily, thousands of wrecks.
A few of them still can be picked out; some are only half submerged. Most are long forgotten, but all of them had their day in the sun.
Jutting out of the soupy black waves of Curtis Bay, for instance, is the rotting, charred prow of the USS Dover -- a screwy idea for a ship that endures as a monument to a government boondoggle of 1917.
Nearby lie the mortal remains of the William T. Parker, a schooner that in 1915 sailed from the Carolinas to Maine and halfway back again -- without a soul on board.
On dry land, no less -- buried deep in the earth near the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel -- are a few remnants of a British ship called the Dove, which caught fire in 1752 to become the first documented wreck in Baltimore's harbor.
And somewhere out there, between Harborplace and the Key Bridge, there just might be a timber or two from the General Massena, which in 1807 was the last pirate ship to set sail on the Chesapeake Bay.
It's not that the waters here are particularly hazardous. It's just that over the course of 2 1/2 centuries, a lot of boats -- many thousands -- have used the harbor. Quite a few of them ran into each other, and virtually all of them have worn out over time.
The wrecks that litter Baltimore were not, for the most part, big-time catastrophes. A few, to be sure, died spectacularly, like the Alum Chine of 1913, which had been taking on a load of dynamite when it caught fire and which left too little behind to be properly termed a wreck.
But there are countless others that lived a life of anonymous toil until the day they went down, through neglect, carelessness, bad helmsmanship or the all-too-frequent boiler explosion.
They were pungies, log canoes, coal barges and coffee boats. And they too have a story to tell -- but it's an everyday kind of story. The bottom is dotted with their scattered remains: connecting rods, chain plates, belaying pins, rudder posts, oarlocks, cleats, deadeyes and turnbuckles.
The harbor is a 250-year-old junkyard. And it's packed.
"People just put stuff down to get rid of it," said Robert Keith, a marine historian. "It's not like some Spanish galleon with gold. They were just trying to junk this stuff."
Today, with the to-and-fro on the harbor a pale reflection of what it once was, interest in marine archaeology is burgeoning. Historic wrecks are protected by the state. But what to do with Baltimore Harbor? Most of it is filled with ordinary hardware and a few ribs and planks that even on the day they were lost hardly anyone bothered to lament.
Donald Shomette, a marine historian from Southern Maryland who led a recent tour of harbor hulks, says you have to imagine that on any day 100 or 150 years ago, the harbor was full of boats of every description. Some were new, some were 80 years old. Some of the skippers were sober, some were not. Steamboats were supposed to give way to sailboats, but they rarely did; the board of inquiry was controlled by steamboat captains.
There were so many wrecks that the Customs Office here had an official wreckmaster, to keep track of the mayhem.
Time, tide and a history of dredging that stretches back to the city's beginnings have obliterated most of the wrecks. The companies that dug the Fort McHenry Tunnel were required by law to look for any wrecks that might be preservable -- even though that would have meant incalculably expensive delays in the project.
"They didn't find any," says Mr. Shomette, "but I don't think they looked too hard."
Jerry Smith, who runs the A. Smith and Sons shipyard in Curtis Bay, a family-owned company that dates to 1905, says he doesn't think there's much left worth looking for. Mr. Smith has taken a keen interest in the history of the harbor, but as for the everyday nautical junk that might come up from the bottom, "Well, museums got more stuff than they can take care of now, anyway."
Wrecked on dry land
Not all the harbor's wrecks are still in the harbor. Large swaths of the city of Baltimore are built on fill. Under Conway Street near the Inner Harbor, for instance, there's the Dove (not the original Dove that brought the first English settlers to Maryland in the 17th century, but a namesake schooner that sailed 100 years later). In Canton, an excavation inland of Boston Street turned up an unidentified wreck. There could be hundreds of others, and the process hasn't stopped, as parts of the harbor are still being filled in.
"A thousand years from now," says Mr. Shomette, "some archaeologist is going to be digging around in the ruins of what had been the city of Baltimore, and he's going to find a ship 30 blocks inland and wonder, 'What the heck's a ship doing here?' "