Steven Shephard, assistant director of Alexandria Archaeology, would have been happy to see Emily Washington at the bottom of the Potomac River.
The Emily Washington was a schooner trapped by ice. After its owners determined that it couldn't be salvaged, it was abandoned and pinned to the bed of the Oronoco Bay in 1909. The Plumie H. Smith suffered a similarly ignominious end: it was dynamited and sank to the river bottom in 1911.
But a team of underwater divers using several electronic surveys last week were unable to find any signs of the derelict ships thought to be have been sunk near the Alexandria waterfront.
"It would have been exciting to find a ship. As it looks now, there are no historic vessels" there, said Shephard, head of the project for the archaeology section of the city's Office of Historic Alexandria.
Shephard and others were hoping that the discovery of shipwrecks and remains of old docks and wharves would yield some insights into the city's history.
Archaeologist Gordon Watts and the divers used a side-scan sonar device and a magnetometer, which detects metal, to "see" possible objects in the river bottom.
Visibility in the river ranged only from a few inches to a foot, hampering the diving operation. "The river is filthy," said diver Billy Ray Morris.
Native aquatic vegetation also proved a problem, according to Watts. "You do get a sonar image of the hydrilla growing on the bottom . It obscures the river bottom," Watts said.
Two years ago, Watts directed a project that located the wreck of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor off the coast of North Carolina. But in last week's waterfront survey nothing quite so exciting was found. A fuel pumping station for boats, probably less than 50 years old, was discovered, along with crevasses in the river bed.
"Either they totally rotted away, or they are under the deep silt but couldn't be found because of interference from the metal pipes of the fuel pumping station ," Shephard said.
Watts will present a report to the city on the underwater survey next month.
Now that the survey is over, the city can begin dredging near the north and south docks of the Torpedo Factory. The removal of tons of silt, soil and rocks will allow owners of recreational boats and other pleasure craft to moor near Old Town, where modern day tourism keeps the former colonial port bustling.
After the dredging begins, Shephard's crew of volunteers will also check samples of the dredging material, known as "spoil," for possible traces of the city's past.
In colonial times, Alexandria was among the top port cities on the Atlantic seaboard. Between 1783 and 1820, Alexandria was lucky seven -- behind New York; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Philadelphia; Baltimore, and Norfolk.
But the luck ran out.
Georgetown's C&O Canal and Baltimore's ocean commerce signaled the decline of Alexandria's trade, according to maritime historian Donald G. Shomette. Washington wanted a piece of the water commerce as well.
"Washington had federal money, Georgetown had the canal, and Alexandria had a depression," said Shomette.
Hired by Alexandria Archaeology, Shomette researched old nautical records to find out what kind of ships came, where they came from and what they brought.
Shomette's 600-page study (a copy of which can be read at the Lloyd House Library) documents the rise and fall of Alexandria as a port, but more importantly it documents what ships came to stay -- about 42 in all -- at the bottom of the river.
Derelict ships that had outlived their usefulness were stripped and brought to the Oronoco Bay waterfront, known in colonial times as Fish Town, to be dynamited and sunk.
Thirteen of the 18th- and 19th-century ships were probably brought over to Jones Point landfill by the Army Corps of Engineers' 1909-1910 dredging operation, Shomette said.
All but three wrecks, including the Emily Washington and the Plumie H. Smith, were recovered in dredging operations over the years, Shomette said. A third, believed to be the steamer Cygnet, caught fire and sank in Oronoco Bay in 1834.
Shomette said that the Cygnet is probably under the land that is now Oronoco Bay Park. "There is so much landfill that Oronoco Bay is about half its size as compared to the early 19th century ," Shomette said.
Alexandria Archaeology's Shephard is still satisfied despite having found no sign of sunken boats. Shomette's report cost the city $2,700 and the underwater survey $11,600.
"Without this survey we wouldn't know what was down there, and we've collected enough data to make use of it for the public," Shephard said.