Search for sunken history

Schooner: An archaeological team searches an Anne Arundel creek for the remains of an American vessel burned by the British during the War of 1812.

October 12, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Under the murky waters of Bodkin Creek where tangled sea nettles bob, Stephen Bilicki is searching for remnants of Maryland's past.

This week, the state underwater archaeologist thinks, he might have found a big piece of history: the remains of an American schooner burned by the British during the War of 1812.

Using a yellow, torpedo-shaped sonar device, Bilicki and his assistant, Lauren Franz, have been photographing the Anne Arundel County creek's bottom and watching the images on a computer screen as they sail. Where most of the bottom is a dense gray, the device picked up two dark shadows outlining what looks like a ship's bottom.

"There's something out there," Bilicki said this week. "Whether it's modern or old has yet to be determined."

On a shoestring budget - the office uses graduate students for research and relies on the generosity of marinas for boat slips - the Maryland Historical Trust's underwater archaeology office has been combing the state's creeks for relics from the War of 1812.

What they hope to find in the brownish waters near Fort Smallwood Road could ignite interest in the historical gems of North County, which have long been overshadowed by Annapolis' pristine streets and restored 18th-century homes.

The trust entered into a partnership with the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program in 1998. Since then, archaeologists have discovered part of American naval commander Commodore Joshua Barney's gunboat flotilla in St. Leonard's Creek in southern Anne Arundel County and part of a burned American merchant vessel in the Elk River in Cecil County.

"We didn't have a Bunker Hill or a Yorktown," said Susan Langley, the trust's lead underwater archaeologist, referring to prominent battle sites of the Revolutionary War. "The War of 1812 had the most impact here."

Bilicki had only a few clues when he started his work in Bodkin Creek. In addition to a map, he had seen references to a letter from Capt. Peter Parker of the British Army that talked about burning a schooner close to Bodkin Point.

Several area residents helped fill in the blanks. John Schuman, who grew up along the creek, remembers discovering the ribs of an old boat when he was crabbing as a boy 40 years ago.

When he saw Bilicki on the water earlier this week, he hopped in his boat to point out where the old wreck was.

The archaeologists already had a hit in that spot. They also saw something near Hancock's Resolution, an 18th-century farmhouse thought to be the site of a signal corps during the War of 1812.

"There wasn't much there, just an old sunken boat, very old and very big," Schuman recalled. "I was only 11 or 12 years old. I didn't have any idea [about its history]."

Another resident, Dennis Grimes, showed up at Pleasure Cove Marina with Parker's original handwritten letter, along with an e-mail of his attempts to decipher it.

Grimes then climbed into the boat and joined the archaeologists in their search.

Bilicki said he appreciates the neighbors' tips.

"The people on this river have come forward with what they know about everything," he said. "It's very encouraging."

Bilicki believes the schooner was a merchant vessel between 40 and 80 feet long. He won't know for sure if he's found the shipwreck for another few weeks.

His team needs to analyze the images, and next month divers will search the target areas.

If the wreck exists, Langley said, bringing it to the surface probably would be too costly for an office that operates on a budget of about $10,000 a year.

But even if the ship never surfaces, its discovery could give a boost to Hancock's Resolution, a well-preserved stone farmhouse and cemetery tucked in an area better known for its marinas and cul-de-sacs.

In pre-Bay Bridge times, the area was a choice vacation spot for Baltimore residents looking to escape the summer heat. Although a few horse farms remain, the old Hancock family homestead, which the Historic Annapolis Foundation owns and leases to the county, largely is surrounded by subdivisions.

A local nonprofit organization, the Friends of Hancock's Resolution Inc., operates the site for the county.

The house, which is open Sundays from April to October, is not one of the county's best-known attractions. Few road signs lead to its perch along a dirt road next to Bodkin Creek.

But park caretaker Esther Doyle Read hopes Bilicki's work will remind Marylanders of the area's proud past as the site of a signal corps for ships. And if the wreck is indeed near the Hancock property, perhaps the finding will entice more visitors when the park reopens.

"I think this peninsula's been forgotten for a long time," she said.

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