Workers dredge up historical find

Civil War-era cannonballs were in debris taken from the Patapsco River near Brooklyn

November 29, 2007|By Katy O'Donnell | Katy O'Donnell,Sun reporter

Usually it's a glass bottle or an abandoned tire. But workers sorting litter out of the piles of sand and dirt scooped from the bottom of the Patapsco River in South Baltimore this week came across an unusual find - Civil War-era cannonballs.

Given the proximity of Fort McHenry, state officials say, it's not uncommon for Baltimore-area barges to return to shore with long-submerged ordnance.

But cannonballs are another story.

"I've been involved in dredging for 30-some years, and I've seen [munitions] every year," said Jim Robinson, a senior engineer for the Maryland Environmental Service. "But as far as cannonballs are concerned, this is probably only my second time."

Weeks Marine, the dredger who found the three heavy, eight-inch cannonballs, turned them over to the state fire marshal, unsure of whether they were still live ammunition. The latest was pulled up Wednesday.

Officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground examined the ordnance but could not determine whether the cannonballs contained black powder because of inconclusive X-rays. They were able to date the weapons to the Civil War, using historical records and a guide to exploded ordnance disposal.

Dredgers began mining the waters northeast of Brooklyn in mid-September when the state launched a $130 million project to clean and reorganize more than 100 acres of the waterfront ravaged by shipwrecks and oil spills. The dirt and sand dredged to maintain shipping channels will be used to build a marine terminal, a wildlife preserve and a public park.

State officials and historians pointed to Fort McHenry as the most probable place of origin of the cannonballs, but their age perplexes most, since Baltimore saw no action in the Civil War. "It makes me think of [The War of] 1812," said J. B. Hanson, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.

Scott Sheads, a Fort McHenry ranger historian, theorized that the cannonballs were probably used in Union exercises during the Civil War.

But the surprise factor of Civil War cannonballs in a Baltimore waterway can't compete with the fame of the Battle of Baltimore. Munitions from that war remain more valuable, Sheads said.

Officials agree that the cannonballs were most likely submerged near Masonville Cove near Brooklyn, but they are unsure exactly where they were pulled up from the muck.

"All of this is dumped from the barge when no one is paying attention," said Hanson. "And then it goes through the sifting process."

Robinson added that the barge is always moving, and by the time workers begin to unload it, "that could be the accumulation of five to 10 days' worth of work, so being able to pinpoint exactly where it comes from isn't possible."

katy.o'donnell@baltsun.com

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