Within the slick dark waters of Baltimore harbor, hidden as if by a shroud, there lies a riotous jumble of broken old boats. Forget any romantic ideas about the Outer Banks of Carolina as the graveyard of the Atlantic, with hundreds of ships come to grief. Right here in Baltimore there are, easily, thousands of wrecks.
A few of them still can be picked out; some are only half submerged. Most are long forgotten, but all of them had their day in the sun.
Jutting out of the soupy black waves of Curtis Bay, for instance, is the rotting, charred prow of the USS Dover -- a screwy idea for a ship that endures as a monument to a government boondoggle of 1917.
Nearby lie the mortal remains of the William T. Parker, a schooner that in 1915 sailed from the Carolinas to Maine and halfway back again -- without a soul on board.
On dry land, no less -- buried deep in the earth near the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel -- are a few remnants of a British ship called the Dove, which caught fire in 1752 to become the first documented wreck in Baltimore's harbor.
And somewhere out there, between Harborplace and the Key Bridge, there just might be a timber or two from the General Massena, which in 1807 was the last pirate ship to set sail on the Chesapeake Bay.
It's not that the waters here are particularly hazardous. It's just that over the course of 2 1/2 centuries, a lot of boats -- many thousands -- have used the harbor. Quite a few of them ran into each other, and virtually all of them have worn out over time.
The wrecks that litter Baltimore were not, for the most part, big-time catastrophes. A few, to be sure, died spectacularly, like the Alum Chine of 1913, which had been taking on a load of dynamite when it caught fire and which left too little behind to be properly termed a wreck.
But there are countless others that lived a life of anonymous toil until the day they went down, through neglect, carelessness, bad helmsmanship or the all-too-frequent boiler explosion.
They were pungies, log canoes, coal barges and coffee boats. And they too have a story to tell -- but it's an everyday kind of story. The bottom is dotted with their scattered remains: connecting rods, chain plates, belaying pins, rudder posts, oarlocks, cleats, deadeyes and turnbuckles.
The harbor is a 250-year-old junkyard. And it's packed.
"People just put stuff down to get rid of it," said Robert Keith, a marine historian. "It's not like some Spanish galleon with gold. They were just trying to junk this stuff."
Today, with the to-and-fro on the harbor a pale reflection of what it once was, interest in marine archaeology is burgeoning. Historic wrecks are protected by the state. But what to do with Baltimore Harbor? Most of it is filled with ordinary hardware and a few ribs and planks that even on the day they were lost hardly anyone bothered to lament.
Donald Shomette, a marine historian from Southern Maryland who led a recent tour of harbor hulks, says you have to imagine that on any day 100 or 150 years ago, the harbor was full of boats of every description. Some were new, some were 80 years old. Some of the skippers were sober, some were not. Steamboats were supposed to give way to sailboats, but they rarely did; the board of inquiry was controlled by steamboat captains.
There were so many wrecks that the Customs Office here had an official wreckmaster, to keep track of the mayhem.
Time, tide and a history of dredging that stretches back to the city's beginnings have obliterated most of the wrecks. The companies that dug the Fort McHenry Tunnel were required by law to look for any wrecks that might be preservable -- even though that would have meant incalculably expensive delays in the project.
"They didn't find any," says Mr. Shomette, "but I don't think they looked too hard."
Jerry Smith, who runs the A. Smith and Sons shipyard in Curtis Bay, a family-owned company that dates to 1905, says he doesn't think there's much left worth looking for. Mr. Smith has taken a keen interest in the history of the harbor, but as for the everyday nautical junk that might come up from the bottom, "Well, museums got more stuff than they can take care of now, anyway."
Wrecked on dry land
Not all the harbor's wrecks are still in the harbor. Large swaths of the city of Baltimore are built on fill. Under Conway Street near the Inner Harbor, for instance, there's the Dove (not the original Dove that brought the first English settlers to Maryland in the 17th century, but a namesake schooner that sailed 100 years later). In Canton, an excavation inland of Boston Street turned up an unidentified wreck. There could be hundreds of others, and the process hasn't stopped, as parts of the harbor are still being filled in.
"A thousand years from now," says Mr. Shomette, "some archaeologist is going to be digging around in the ruins of what had been the city of Baltimore, and he's going to find a ship 30 blocks inland and wonder, 'What the heck's a ship doing here?' "
But a few dozen identifiable, intact hulks remain, and the best places to find them are on the margins of the harbor, where they're not in anyone's way and they've been left alone.
"Every backwater had its vessels," says Mr. Shomette, "and every backwater was a junkyard for vessels that had outlived their usefulness."
Down on Curtis Creek sits a pile of sticks that once formed the graceful lines of the legendary Emma Giles, a sidewheel steamboat that for a half-century ran excursions from Baltimore across the bay to Tolchester.
It was a beloved boat. Retired in 1936, it was scrapped and beached in the creek in 1951 -- the same year that Emma Giles Parker, who as a 17-year-old had christened it at its launching, died at the age of 81.
Right alongside sits the misbegotten hulk of the Portland -- a reminder that bad ideas are nothing new.
The Portland was one of nearly 1,000 wooden freighters that the U.S. government commissioned in 1917 as it entered World War I.
It didn't matter that wooden shipbuilding was nearly a forgotten art by 1917; the Navy Department spread $1 billion among shipyards on both coasts to get the ships into the water. They were so leaky that when some of them were launched they went down into the water and kept on going right down to the bottom.
It was the biggest shipbuilding program the world had ever seen up to that time. The ships were built of green wood, from short timbers, by men who had received two weeks' training.
They were useless. Not one of them ever made the voyage to Europe.
In 1923 the entire billion-dollar fleet was sold by the government for scrap -- for $750,000.
The Portland lies on a bank of Curtis Creek. Around the bend are three of its sister ships -- the Dover, the Ashland and the Fort Scott -- and a little farther out in Curtis Bay are 15 more.
The ships have been carefully measured by Mr. Smith, of the Smith shipyard across the creek. He discovered that they don't match their drawings. That's how fast they were slapped together.
A couple of other remains are squeezed in alongside the Dover and the Ashland.
Foremost among them is the William T. Parker, the Flying Dutchman of Baltimore. The Parker, a three-masted schooner built in 1891, was stranded in 1899, disabled in 1908 and finally abandoned off the Outer Banks during a storm in 1915, according to Mr. Keith.
From there -- without a soul aboard -- it drifted all the way to Maine and then back down the coast, before a tug finally corraled it and brought it in. It was rammed by a steamer in the Chesapeake in 1935. It was used as a watchman's house in Curtis Creek until another steamer rammed it again, practically breaking it in two.
The battle of Chester River
A couple of gray rats slither and scamper into the water as Beth Nowell, of the Museum of Industry, bushwhacks her way through the old Hercules Shipyard lot off Key Highway to the broken-down pier where the 114-year-old Gov. Robert M. McLane and four or five other hulks lie rusting in the thick, lustrous water.
The museum wants to build a pavilion and new pier here to mark the end of the harbor promenade. It would like to get rid of the McLane. It's a hazard. Its time has passed.
"She was brought here to die, not to live," Mrs. Nowell says.
But even as the museum -- which is usually concerned with preserving history -- was making plans to junk the old boat, an unlikely defender emerged in the State Highway Administration.
The harbor promenade uses highway funds, and this gave Richard Ervin, an archaeologist with the highway administration, the leverage he needed to require the museum to conduct an archaeological survey of the McLane and the other wrecks on the site.
The McLane, he says, "is one of the most important state vessels in Maryland's history."
It's hard to disagree. The McLane was launched in 1881 as the flagship of Maryland's Oyster Navy and served for 50 years as a powerful and well-armed part of the state's effort to bring a semblance of order to the bay's rough and violent oyster business.
It chased down illegal boats that crossed over from Virginia or came down from the north. In 1892 it rescued a crew of immigrants who had been kidnapped and forced into oyster work, then left trapped in the ice on their boat. (Shanghaiing immigrants was common practice in those days.) And wielding its deck howitzer, it led the forces of the law into a protracted gunfight with outlaw dredgers on the Chester River on the wintry night of Dec. 10, 1888, a battle that broke the back of organized resistance on the Chesapeake.
Mr. Ervin would like to see the McLane left where it is, half out of the water, as a historic exhibit. The museum, still trying to organize the required survey of the site, is pondering what to do beyond that.
Pirates of the Chesapeake
Turn back a century or more now, to the memory of a ship that ended its days no one knows where exactly. But its last confirmed mooring was just across from Fort McHenry, and thus it is easy to imagine that its bones lie uncharted somewhere within the city of Baltimore, as do the bones of so many of its contemporaries.
The ship's name was the General Massena, and it was to write the last chapter of Chesapeake Bay piracy.
It was 1807, during the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France, and a small French navy squadron had been bottled up inside the bay by British warships patrolling just outside Hampton Roads. For months, as Mr. Shomette relates, the French were unable to move or do just about anything else.
Finally, restless and thirsting for adventure, a group of sailors deserted the fleet, made their way to Baltimore and, in most unpiratelike fashion, bought themselves a ship. They named it the General Massena and slipped out of the harbor.
Straightaway, they came upon an unsuspecting American ship carrying woolen goods out of Liverpool and seized it.
The buccaneers headed south, but eventually realized they still had the British blockaders to worry about down at the mouth of the bay -- a fine point they hadn't up to then considered -- and turned around to the north again.
They ran into a posse of boats out of Baltimore, were taken into custody without much of a fight and were brought in to Lazaretto Point. There the gallant Frenchmen were to be tried for piracy, but soon enough they had charmed their captors and they walked free.
Most likely, the Massena was sold at auction. It probably ended up as a barge or, years later, was run down by a steamboat. There is as good a chance as any that its end came in Baltimore, that its ribs are moldering even now at the bottom of the harbor or deep within a forgotten landfill in Locust Point or Canton or Curtis Bay.
And if it's not there, it doesn't matter. There are 10 or 100 or any number of other boats whose stories, though long forgotten, are surely even better -- the true ghost ships of Baltimore.