A group of Bodkin Point residents want answers about a mysterious, and possibly historic, canal before a developer wins approval to build nearby.
Once upon a time, the 12-foot-deep, V-shaped canal was a highway connecting the choppy waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the relative calm of Bodkin Creek.
But for whom?
"It's a clearly defined landmark. It's been on the books as a reference point for over 100 years," said Brian Brooks, president of the Pinehurst on the Bay community association. "But there is some confusion about what it is."
The two most popular theories, Mr. Brooks said, hold that the 2,000-foot channel was dug by Indians who wanted to mine the rich oyster bars on the point's bay side or by colonists who floated timber through the canal for loading onto ships heading back to the Old World.
Neighbors, whose children have unearthed numerous stone arrowheads, favor the Indian theory, Mr. Brooks said. But historians have discounted that notion because Maryland's earlier inhabitants were nomadic and not inclined to build such a permanent structure.
"The only way to tell for sure is to do an archaeological dig," Mr. Brooks said.
Al Lukenbach, an archaeologist with the county Office of Planning and Zoning, said the canal is "significant" to the county's history, but no excavation is planned.
"I suspect it was a way for people to get either tobacco crops or timber out of [Locust Cove]," Mr. Lukenbach said. "I also suspect it was constructed with slave labor, because it was such a large undertaking."
Although land records show colonists had settled the region in the early 1600s, there is no mention of the canal until 1790. Later references suggest its use was discontinued by the mid-1800s, Mr. Lukenbach said.
"I'm not sure what would be learned" by a dig, Mr. Lukenbach said. "You'd be hoping that something fell out of the boats while they were passing through, and I'm just not sure that it would be worthwhile."
Although Pinehurst residents have lived with the mystery for years, they are pushing for answers now because a developer wants to build 12 houses on 60 acres that include a portion of the canal. The remainder of the canal passes through Downs Park.
Dennis Gilligan, who purchased 200 acres on Bodkin Point in 1985, said the new homes mark the second phase of the exclusive, private community he started there in 1986. Of the original 28 five-acre, custom-built homes -- priced at about $1.5 million each -- only two remain to be sold, he said.
Mr. Gilligan said he wants to develop the new homes in the same fashion. The state Critical Area law appears to restrict him to constructing no more than three homes on the remaining 60 acres, but the developer said the project is exempt from those rules.
The county's 1988 Critical Area ordinance requires more environmentally sensitive development within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries.
Louise Hayman, a spokeswoman for County Executive Robert R. Neall, said Mr. Gilligan is not exempt and will not be allowed to develop all of the homes he has proposed. Mr. Gilligan has been informed of the county's position during informal discussions with the county Office of Planning and Zoning.
But Mr. Gilligan said he believes he received tacit approval to build 12 homes in 1987 -- a year before the Critical Area law was adopted -- when the county rezoned the property.