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History Rises from the River

A ship wrecked long ago now tells its stories

An 18th century merchant ship was discovered in the Nanticoke River during bridge-work on U.S. 50. Since then archeologists have retrieved an intact keel timbers and more.

Roads came late to Chesapeake Country. Well into the 20th century, Chesapeake Bay was our central corridor of transportation. Tributaries extended the system, carrying goods and people in and out of the interior.
    Now an 18th century merchant ship has risen from its watery grave on the Eastern Shore’s Nanticoke River, reminding us of our history and sparking our sense of wonder.
    Its discovery was accidental. Last spring, repair was underway on the U.S. 50 bridge over the river when workers imagined they saw ship timbers in the debris they were hauling up.
    They were right.
    Hurrying to the scene, State Highway Administration archaeologists identified an intact keel, framing and other ship timbers resting on the construction barge.
    “It’s not every day we get to touch a shipwreck built more than 200 years ago,” said Julie Schablitsky, chief highway archaeologist.
    Preserved in mud under 30 feet of water, the timber is in good condition with visible saw marks and curious carved symbols. 
    From the Eastern Shore, the old 45-foot ship made a posthumous journey to Maryland Archaeology Conservation Laboratory in Calvert County at Jefferson Patterson Park.
    There archaeologists read more of its story.
    Growth rings in the timber show the ship was constructed primarily of oak cut along the coastline of central Chesapeake Bay, between the Potomac River and Annapolis.
    The 18th century construction date makes it one of the oldest wrecks of a Maryland-built ship to be discovered.
    More mysteries are still to be solved, including the meaning of the carved symbols and the cause of the sinking. Perhaps most fascinating is the mystery of its death.
    Consulting with Schablitsky, Bob Neyland, the U.S. Navy’s Chief Underwater Archaeologist, found burn marks on the keel. The ship could have been scuttled and burned when it became unseaworthy, they speculate. More dramatically, the burns may reflect action during the Revolutionary War.
    The ship’s shape will not remain a mystery, as a virtual reconstruction can be made from 3D laser scanning of the timbers.
    “The inadvertent discovery of this shipwreck,” said Schablitsky, “is an amazing opportunity to study early maritime history.”