The lure of 'lost at sea' Shipwrecks: A Rodgers Forge man is floating the idea that a museum devoted to maritime disasters belongs in the Inner Harbor.

July 06, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For the moment, David Hammond, of Rodgers Forge, is stuck with one of the solid-bronze propellers from the ill-fated Lusitania.

Measuring 18 feet from blade tip to blade tip and weighing some 22 tons, the giant propeller powered the Lusitania at a top speed of 24 knots until the luxury liner was torpedoed May 7, 1915. A U-boat got it off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, killing 1,198 people.

Hammond discovered the propeller in a Welsh shipyard three years ago, purchased it and had it shipped to California, where it's on loan to a maritime museum near San Francisco.

He hopes that in the not-too-distant future, the relic will form the centerpiece of the "National Shipwreck Museum," which he is proposing for Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"When I tell people that I own one of the Lusitania's propellers, they're flabbergasted," he says, "and that's the kind of enthusiasm I'm counting on to make the museum a success."

There's just one little problem: He needs $5 million and someplace to put the museum.

Hammond is a self-employed stonemason who for several years has conducted a mail-order business buying and selling shipwreck artifacts as a sideline.

One day last year, the thought occurred to him that these unique items ought to be available for the public to enjoy rather than hidden away in private collections. He began dreaming of a shipwreck museum.

He contacted city and state officials, who so far have offered little or no encouragement. He spoke with developers, who have been only mildly interested.

"I'm not discouraged," Hammond says.

The public has a seemingly insatiable appetite for anything to do LTC with shipwrecks, he says, and the "Titanic" blockbuster has fueled it even further.

"The movie 'Titanic' brought it to the fore, but let's face it, people all along have been fascinated with shipwrecks. And whenever you mention the word shipwreck, people stop and listen," says Hammond. "They love the violent storms, mysteries, drama and human incompetence which results in ships going to the bottom."

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Hammond, 52, graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1967, where he was an All-American swimmer. Later, he served a two-year hitch in the Navy, but his shipboard experience was limited to sleeping for a week aboard a tied-up Navy vessel and unloading ships with a forklift. For more than 20 years he worked for a large consumer products company, 10 years as a district manager, until quitting several years ago, eventually going into masonry.

The fact that he didn't sail aboard the great liners during the halcyon days of the trans-Atlantic and Pacific runs doesn't faze him. He's an unabashed admirer of ships and 2,000 years worth of sea tragedies.

Hammond concedes that creating a National Shipwreck Museum is ambitious.

He hopes to purchase a well-known English maritime collection by fall, he says, and he's counting on long-term loans from collectors worldwide.

"The National Shipwreck Museum will contain the world's most comprehensive collection of genuine shipwreck artifacts, recovered from shipwreck sites around the world; representing centuries of disasters-at-sea," Hammond writes in his proposal.

He dreams of displaying artifacts from the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII's flagship; the Atocha, the Spanish treasure ship that went down in 1622 off the Florida Keys; the S.S. Central America, which slipped beneath the surface in 1857 off the North Carolina coast taking with it 500 souls and tons of newly minted California gold; as well as the Titanic and Lusitania.

In his vision, visitors would be surrounded by prints, posters, newspaper front pages, ship models as well as dramatic film footage of documentaries and explorations of shipwrecks. Background sounds of ship's whistles, bell buoys and the sea, Hammond hopes, would heighten the experience.

Ideally, he says, he would need 40,000 square feet but would happily settle for 20,000 square feet. He figures his best bet is a Baltimore City Community College building at 500 E. Pratt St. "I've made a proposal to the BCCC developer, the Kravco Co. of Philadelphia, and should know something by the middle of July," he says.

Based on figures furnished by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, 15 million people a year visit the Inner Harbor and existing attractions, so he estimates that 5.25 million would visit the National Shipwreck Museum.

"It's been 18 years since a new Inner Harbor attraction has opened," Hammond says. "If you catch people's fancy, they will certainly come.

"Not all of the national treasures are in Washington."

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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