About 200 feet from the elegant homes and waterfront mansions of Horn Point, divers scoured the floor of the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, searching for evidence of the vanished Revolutionary War fort that protected Annapolis from the British.
Fort Horn once stood somewhere on the Eastport peninsula near the mouth of the Severn River, its cannons pointed out over earthen walls to protect Maryland's capital and regulate illicit trade. It served the fledgling nation again in the War of 1812 and became a smallpox infirmary during the Civil War. Then, the fort disappeared - lost forever, many believed, as the picturesque shoreline became heavily developed with condominiums and houses.
But now, archaeologists believe they may have uncovered traces of the fort under the shallow water off Horn Point. Sonar images this week revealed a jagged, fuzzy line that seems to match the 19th-century depictions of the fort.
To observers, the line in the sonar image looks little different from the one that shows the wake of the archaeologist's boat. But, for underwater archaeologist Stephen Bilicki of the Maryland Historical Trust, it is enough for him to declare that he is 75 percent to 90 percent certain that he has resolved the mystery of Fort Horn.
"We are looking at something that was eliminated from the landscape, but its footprint is being picked up and that is exciting," Bilicki told a small crowd that gathered yesterday to hear about the discovery at McNasby's, a building being renovated to house the Annapolis Maritime Museum. "It's making too many lines to be anything else, and it's in the right location."
Completed in 1777, Fort Horn had earthen ramparts supported by wooden stakes. Two trenches stretching out from each side protected soldiers as they moved to and from the fort at the tip of the peninsula.
The fort was one of three protecting the city during the Revolutionary War. The other two, on Biemans Point and Windmill Point, are now covered by the Naval Station and Naval Academy.
In 1866, the remaining structure at Fort Horn was bought for $20 by a neighboring landowner, who is believed to have burned the building that had housed smallpox patients, according to a history of the fort published by the Eastport Historical Committee in 1990.
Over the years, the earthen walls would have worn or have been plowed away. And for many decades, researchers - including Larry S. Mickel, who wrote the Eastport Historical Committee pamphlet - believed any traces of the fort were hidden under 19th century homes.
But Bilicki decided to take another look. During work on another Anne Arundel County site, Bilicki heard about a hurricane that swept through the area in 1933. Maps from 1934 show a shoreline drastically altered from 19th century depictions.
When Bilicki overlaid the 1934 map with one showing the fort from 1844, the fort lay just off of what remained of Horn Point, in the crisp, blue waters of the bay that were becoming more and more crowded by private piers and marinas.
Had the remains been on land they probably would have been destroyed by development, Bilicki said. Now, believing the fort lies off the coast, he feared it might be destroyed by development on the water.
"I wanted to come out to definitively see if there was any evidence of a fort," Bilicki said. Though the earthen walls would be gone, he said he "was hoping there was enough weight to leave an imprint of where the fort was," he explained.
For three days, he and his team scanned a mile-by-mile-and-a-half rectangle of the bay floor with sonar, detecting a 400 foot section that he believes to be the imprint from the wall or the trenches of the fort.
Yesterday, he supervised a team of divers who went down for a closer look. While cannonballs had been found before by watermen and locals nearby, the divers found no artifacts and only subtle traces of the line that Bilicki picked up on his sonar.
As diver Jim Turek, 32, emerged from the water, Bilicki shouted to him, half joking, half hopeful: "You found the fort, right?"
But the diver, an engineer from Pasadena and amateur archaeologist, shook his head.