Southern Prince George's officials and historians hope a nearly unprecedented archaeological dig in the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro will advance historic tourism during the state's War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations.
Archaeologists with the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Historical Trust and the Navy are working on plans to excavate a shipwreck they believe to be the U.S.S. Scorpion, a scuttled warship from the War of 1812, starting next spring as part of the state's efforts to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the war.
This year officials are preparing plans for how to excavate the wreck and obtain a series of environmental permits to allow the dig to move forward.
Stephen Sonnett, president of Upper Marlboro's board of town commissioners, said he hopes interest in the shipwreck will attract additional visitors to the town's own piece of War of 1812 history: the grave site of Dr. William Beanes, a Revolutionary and War of 1812 doctor who was taken captive by British troops during the war.
“We are active participants in the Prince George's County War of 1812 Committee, and we hope events like this will certainly add to the interest people may have in the town,” Sonnett said. “We hope to be ready for them.”
Dave Turner, chairman of the county Historic Preservation Commission, said the shipwreck shows how the war was felt throughout Prince George's County, not just around Bladensburg. He said there's no reason the county shouldn't capitalize on the battlefields, which draw people to Gettysburg, Pa., and archeological digs, which draw people to Williamsburg, Va.
“It truly is a countywide tourist experience,” Turner said. “We'd like to see some kind of effort made by either the private sector or the county to get actual tours from Washington [D.C.] out to the sites. ... We need to go to where the tourists are, rather than rely on them coming to us.”
Officials plan to excavate artifacts from the wreck using a method of cutting the ship off from the rest of the river and excavating as if it were on dry land, something that has only been done once before North America, they said, to excavate the La Belle, a 17th century French ship that wrecked in Matagorda Bay in Texas.
Bob Neyland, a Navy underwater archaeologist, said the ship in question is believed to be the flagship of Navy Commodore Joshua Barney's Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, which was built in 1814 to harass the much larger British ships that had formed a blockade in the bay.
They were eventually chased up the Patuxent River, and were scuttled so that the sailors and marines could join U.S. troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, where the British defeated American soldiers, leading to the burning of Washington.
Julie Schablitsky, SHA's chief investigator on the project, said the project is slated to cost a total of $5 million through 2017, including the preparation, excavation and then preservation and cataloging of artifacts uncovered. The project is a joint venture paid for mostly by the Navy and the federal Transportation Enhancement Plan, she said, with state agencies providing ‘in-kind' support in the way of staffing.
Schablitsky said the plan is to build a steel structure around the wreck called a cofferdam, drain the water inside it to create a dry archaeological site.
She and Neyland agreed that the use of the dry cofferdam not only makes it easier for archaeologists to recover artifacts than if they were diving, but also allows residents to watch the excavation as it happens.
“It'll be something where if people come out to visit, since it'll be open to the public, it'll be a once in a lifetime experience,” Schablitsky said.
The archaeology may be more simple because of how unusually well preserved the shipwreck is, Neyland said. A week or two after the ship sank in August 1814, a hurricane came through the area, covering the wreck in sediment, preserving it like a “time capsule,” he said.
“In a lot of shipwrecks, you'll find the wood has been destroyed by marine organisms,” Neyland said. “And in more saltwater environments, you may only have the very bottom of the hull preserved. But this is a time capsule ... when we pulled out a pair of surgical scissors last year, they were pristine, and still looked sharp.”
Neyland said that while the War of 1812 is often overlooked among the country's early wars, it was incredibly important and marked a turning point in both the country and in military policy.
“It was an important war and event in solidifying that the U.S. was going to be a free nation, free of British influence and conquest,” Neyland said. “But it also showed leaders at the time the importance of having a professional navy and military, as opposed to civilian militias.”