The wooden ship was built in Maryland before the American Revolution. It ended its life as a carrier of tobacco and foodstuffs on the Eastern Shore before America entered the 19th century.
When it went under — possibly as a result of poor construction, possibly of battle — it sank to the bottom of the Nanticoke River.
And then this spring, when no one expected it, it rose again, recovered from the watery depths during the most prosaic of projects — a highway repair.
“The ocean, the bay, the rivers: You’re so used to them taking people. They take ships. They take things. And then the time when all of a sudden, 200-something years later, all of a sudden it gives you something back?” marveled Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Shipwrecks, they’re very romantic.”
Schablitsky said the shipwreck was found when a highway repair crew was at work on what seemed to be an ordinary project.
It happened near the Route 50 bridge, midway between Cambridge and Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which crosses over the Nanticoke before the river feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. After a barge crashed into a protective barrier, a crew went out on a boat to pull up pieces of the barrier that had been damaged.
But some of the wood that they dragged from the water in April seemed much older than the material from the barrier that protects the highway bridge. The key clue: The logs were held together with wooden pegs, not metal bolts. No one has used wooden pegs for well over a century.
That’s when the crew members called Schablitsky. Her job often entails making sure highway crews don’t pave over historically significant ground, or evaluating what they’ve uncovered if they do dig up artifacts while laying down roads.
It does not normally include shipwrecks, certainly not one of the oldest shipwrecks found in Maryland.
“We hardly have the chance to do underwater sites,” Schablitsky said. “We’re not really paving the bay.”
Now, she is working on a digital reconstruction that will let the public see the ship, both as it would have appeared before sinking and as it was found.
This shipwreck did not look like a movie-set image, a ghostly ship still holding its shape under the clear blue sea. First of all, the river bottom is dark: 30 feet deep, low in oxygen, clouded by muddy sediment stirred up by the fast-moving current. No one saw this shipwreck at the bottom; they brought it up piece by piece, by feel, with a crane.
Second, the boat probably did not retain its shape. Schablitsky said its top parts may have been swept away by the current soon after it sank. The rest may have survived by splaying out, its sides flattening into the mud.
“There’s deterioration and decomposition, much like a human body. You start losing the cargo. You start losing the exterior of it, which is the planks. You get to a point where you have the skeleton left,” Schablitsky said. “Some people might liken that to ourselves — you see this cycle of life.”
So when the shipwreck first reached land, it resembled a pile of logs, not the classic vessel of movie fans’ imaginations. But it wasn’t a hurdle for Schablitsky.
“As an archaeologist, we’re used to seeing things that are in fragments and in pieces. We don’t see the broken planks and the disarticulated timbers. We see the shipwreck in our mind,” she said. “We look at it, and we see the keel and where the planks would have gone, and it starts taking shape.”
The highway crew kept the logs wet with hoses and a lawn sprinkler. “As soon as it hits air, it’s going to start deteriorating,” Schablitsky said. “Once it dries out, it falls apart and you’re left with toothpicks.”
Spared from that fate, the ship traveled with Schablitsky to a Calvert County lab on a 50-foot-long flatbed truck.
The research that Schablitsky and her co-workers have done indicates that less than half of the ship was recovered.
It was 40 to 45 feet long, she said, and was meant to travel on the Chesapeake Bay, not on the ocean. The ship probably carried barrels of tobacco, grain, corn and other products from local plantations to ports and warehouses.
Its history was almost certainly tainted at every step by slavery — enslaved carpenters no doubt participated in its construction, and slaves grew the crops that it carried and worked on its deck.
The archaeologists speculate that the ship was built at a small local facility, not a major shipyard, because they can see some elementary mistakes in construction. An extra hole drilled in a log, a missing fastener that should have tightened the keel — those details are telling, centuries later.
Most evocative of all are the logs themselves. Scientists can date and locate trees with remarkable precision. The pattern in the rings of the oaks that became the ship tell archaeologists precisely when and where they were chopped down: 1743, somewhere in Maryland between the Potomac River and Annapolis.
“I was shocked that we could get that sort of detail,” Schablitsky said.
That means the ship was built sometime after 1743, probably soon after. And Schablitsky said it is clear that it went down before 1800.
It may have been purposely scuttled by because it was no longer seaworthy. But it may have met a more dramatic end.
Documents from the time tell of a Revolutionary War skirmish in the town of Vienna, Md. — where the wreck was found — in which British sympathizers shelled the town and sank several boats owned by colonists who supported the Revolution.
Intriguingly, the logs from the wreck were scorched, as if they had been burned just before sinking.
This ship started its tumultuous life marked by the errors of inexperienced craftsmen. Its seaworthy years were brief and were scarred by slavery. It met its end soon, possibly under the bombshells of war.
But somehow, its afterlife was much longer and more fortunate. Currents tumbled past, sediment swirled, bridges were built and the remnants survived.
“This is the luckiest shipwreck,” Schablitsky said. “I’m not a big believer in luck. But this ship was lucky.”