Long canoe trip ends

Restored craft, likely built by slaves, to start new life as museum piece

June 14, 2006|By JULIE SCHARPER | JULIE SCHARPER,SUN REPORTER

Along the jagged coast of the Chesapeake Bay, African-American slaves once paddled dugout canoes to fish, visit family and, on dark nights, row to safe houses on the Underground Railroad.

Yesterday, a canoe thought to have been made by Maryland slaves went on a different type of journey - it was lifted by crane into a new museum in Fells Point that celebrates the contributions of African-Americans to maritime industry.

The canoe, which historians estimate to be between 150 and 200 years old, had nearly disintegrated before being discovered by a man in Talbot County.

It took 10 years for preservationists to piece together chunks of wood that nearly crumbled at a touch; the craft now rests safely in the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, scheduled to open this month.

"It transports you to another time," said Frederick Douglass IV, the great-great-grandson of the Maryland-born abolitionist, who is on the museum's board of directors. "It leads to all kinds of possibilities as to how it might have been used or who used it."

The museum will pay homage to Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland, and to Isaac Myers, a prominent Baltimore entrepreneur of the late 1800s. Exhibits will also highlight the important role that African-Americans played in the city's shipbuilding industry, said curator Dianne Swann-Wright.

The canoe interests museum staff because it was found near Douglass' birthplace and appears to have been crafted by African-Americans during the time Douglass lived. Tool marks on the wood indicate that American Indians did not build it, because they tended to use fire to hollow canoes, Swann-Wright said. The rough-hewn wood and rustic design indicate it was made by blacks, rather than whites who would have had access to better tools, Swann-Wright said.

The wooden canoe had nearly been reclaimed by the earth when Alan Sleeper spotted the stern jutting out of the mud at La Trappe Creek in Talbot County in 1993. Sleeper, a boatbuilder, recognized that the ragged hull was not driftwood.

"I dug down with my hands and felt that it was pretty big," said Sleeper, who lives in St. Michaels.

He alerted a local museum and returned with them six weeks later to find the canoe hidden under 3 feet of sand.

Eventually, the canoe was removed and taken to the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard, where a team of preservationists soaked the yellow pine canoe in a solution to remove the salt and water, then freeze-dried it to kill worms and insects, said Steven Pratt, a volunteer who worked on the restoration.

"The wood itself is the consistency of soft cheese. It couldn't bear its own weight," Pratt said. "You can hold the wood in your hand and watch it disintegrate." He compared piecing the canoe together to assembling a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

Yesterday, Pratt and Swann-Wright watched nervously as a team of art movers hoisted the canoe, packed in foam in a wooden crate, through a small door on the second floor of the museum, a former sugar warehouse at Caroline and Thames streets. A glass walkway connects the Sugar House - one of the oldest industrial buildings on the harbor - to a new addition.

Douglass used to walk the cobblestone streets of Fells Point at 3 or 4 in the morning, reading aloud from a book of classic speeches, his great-great-grandson said.

Myers founded the first black-owned shipyard, Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co., in 1866, two blocks from the site of the museum. Swann-Wright said Baltimore had a thriving community of black businessmen and the largest population of free blacks in any U.S. city before the Civil War.

The $14 million museum, a joint project of the Living Classrooms Foundation and the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore, is scheduled to open June 28. Organizers said they want it to complement the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and help cement Baltimore's reputation as a major African-American history destination

"We're hoping that this place will be so interesting that people won't be able to stay away," Swann-Wright said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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