New use is proposed for ill-timed behemoth

The huge Chesapeake Bay Model was outmoded from the start. Now the site could become a maritime center.

February 07, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

MATAPEAKE - Colossal is about the only way to describe the Chesapeake Bay Model. Colossal in its ambition, colossal in its failure.

Three decades after the Army Corps of Engineers created a 9-acre concrete replica that mimicked the 200-mile-long estuary in precise detail, all that's left of the world's largest hydraulic model is a dank and crumbling building the size of 15 football fields.

But the dilapidated white elephant on Kent Island appears set for new life - not as the giant science project that some say was a catalyst for environmental study of the bay, but as an employment center for maritime industries and a school to teach maritime trades.

"If this new plan works out, it'll be the first positive bit of news since the place was dedicated," said George M. O'Donnell, a former Queen Anne's County councilman. "When it closed, nobody ever knew what to do with it. This is a hulk of a thing, probably the largest one-story building on the Eastern Shore. You could put a small town in there."

The bay model was envisioned in the mid-1960s and opened a decade later to much fanfare from scientists and politicians, who hailed it as a key to reviving the bay.

Lauded at its 1976 dedication ceremony as "a triumph of environmental values in a technological age," the behemoth was outmoded by computer imaging and modeling technology practically as soon as it opened.

It took three years and about $14 million to build. No one is sure how much was spent for maintenance and repairs before it was closed for good in 1983.

Using a 1,000-to-1 scale, engineers copied every detail of the bay, sculpting concrete floors in the huge building to match the contours of the bay's shallow bottom, duplicating the twists and turns of its tributaries. Leaving nothing to chance, they dug two 750-foot wells to simulate fresh water from 50 rivers that empty into the bay, then added precise amounts of salt.

The model could run through a full tide cycle every eight minutes and could duplicate a year in the life of the bay in less than four days.

Torrey C. Brown, a former state legislator who headed the Maryland Department of Natural Resources from 1983 to 1995, characterized the model as an important phase of bay research, ultimately a grandiose effort to test everything from the impact of deepening shipping channels to the effects of droughts and hurricanes.

"It deserves credit for spurring research that treated the bay as an entire ecosystem," said Brown. "When it was operating, it was tremendously impressive."

A handful of experiments were conducted during the model's short life, including studies of currents, tides and the mixing of salt and fresh water.

"When it was operational, it must have been fascinating, but it just faded quickly after computers got more sophisticated," said Suzanne Eakle, Queen Anne's County's economic development director. "Ownership seemed to flip back and forth for years from federal to state to county."

After vain attempts to find a tenant for the 66-acre property adjacent to a state park at the old Matapeake ferry terminal, Queen Anne's officials think they have a solution that will aid the county's economy.

The Matapeake Maritime Center would be focused around a climate-controlled indoor boat warehouse that could accommodate as many as 600 yachts and other pleasure boats. It would include boat repair businesses and a marine trade school that boosters say would provide jobs in a growing industry on the Eastern Shore.

The renovation will be handled by Robert W. Marsh, a Kent Island boat dealer who will lease the site, paying the county about $2 million over the next decade.

The plan, Marsh says, is to take advantage of proximity to the water without having to pay ever-spiraling costs for waterfront sites.

"We're talking about a very simple plan on a site that's close to the water but doesn't have to compete for land that's worth more for condos and restaurants," said Marsh. "We needed something more like an industrial site, and this is a good fit."

In the brief heyday of the model, visitors could stand on miniature piers in a mock version of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, or next to a scaled-down version of the Bay Bridge and marvel that they could barely see the mouth of the bay in the southeast corner of the building.

Despite the model's popularity with tour groups and schoolchildren, a plan to turn it into a tourist destination never materialized. Other proposals included using the building to store paper and converting part of it for use as a shrimp farm. More recently, pieces of the Wye Oak were stored there after a 2002 thunderstorm felled the ancient tree.

Over the years, graffiti artists have spray-painted exterior walls and vandals have stolen many of the model's signposts. Parts of the concrete bay bottom have been removed.

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