U.S. Navy Shipwreck Inventory Project in the State of Maryland

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The U.S. Navy Shipwreck Inventory Project in the State of Maryland

By Donald G. Shomette (25 May 2001)

(This paper, which was read at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference on Historic and Underwater Archaeology at Corpus Christi, Texas on 10 January 1997, represent the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Naval Historical Center.)


The United States Navy and the State of Maryland have long shared a natural resource which has proved to be both of significant importance and a responsibility to both entities, namely the Chesapeake Bay and its myriad miles of navigable tributaries. For the Navy, the Chesapeake Tidewater has historically been of strategic importance. With Washington, D.C. lying at the head of Potomac River navigation, Baltimore at the head of the Patapsco, and the state capital of Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, on the Severn, the Navy has frequently been charged with protecting state waters against hostile attack. Not surprisingly, the Navy and Maryland have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship since the launching of the USS Constellation at Baltimore in 1797, one of the first six frigates ordered by Congress. From the Jeffersonian era to the end of the Cold War, innumerable Maryland shipbuilders constructed ships for the Navy. Maryland contractors provided arms, provisions, and support of every kind for Navy ships, while Maryland citizens were recruited to man, field, and fight aboard them. Since 1797, Maryland has been home to many U.S. Navy bases and facilities, ranging from scientific research centers, weapons testing centers, and communications complexes to sprawling establishments such as the Patuxent Naval Air Station.

The history of Maryland is the history of a seafaring state owing to its unique proximity to the Chesapeake. Although the state's nearly pristine Atlantic frontier is untrammeled the Tidewater has, throughout its history been the scene of many naval campaigns and activities. During the War of 1812, Navy flotillas patrolled the Bay, fought successful fleet engagements, conducted fireboat raids against invading enemy forces on the Potomac, and participated in the successful defense of Baltimore. During the Civil War, Navy ships defended the nation's capital against Confederate invasion, attacked rebel positions on the shores of Virginia, and interdicted enemy blockade runners. Later, Maryland did its part in fielding the "Great White Fleet." During World War 1, Navy torpedo cruisers tested their skills in state waters, and patrolled the Atlantic coast against German submarine attack, while state shipyards constructed many of the vessels that maintained the lifeline to our European allies. In World War II, the Navy, from its bases in Maryland, provided air and sea protection for the middle Atlantic seaboard, and U.S. Marines trained on state beaches for the amphibious invasions of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific. During the Cold War, the deeper waters of Maryland provided superb conditions for naval research and undersea weapons testing.

During the course of this formidable history, scores of Navy vessels have come to rest on the seabed within state territorial waters. That the remains of these same vessels are of significant historical and archaeological value, however, has only recently been recognized. In June 1984 the first major step towards the formal national recognition of Navy vessel remains as cultural resources was taken with the issuance of Department of Defense [DoD] Directive 47 1 0. I which articulated the department's policy to promote practical integration of the archaeological and historic preservation laws of the nation with the planning and management of activities under department control. In October 1990 the Navy prepared and disseminated Chief of Naval Operations Instruction 5090. IA to address policies, responsibilities and procedures to protect and preserve the quality of the environment, in which Navy policy regarding the protection of the historic and archaeological resources was addressed, and established Navy responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Preservation Act. The Department of the Navy was specifically directed to apply this policy to "water contiguous to land areas [that] may include archaeological resources, or may be significant because of an historical event."

Legacy Resource Management Program

In November 1991 the Legacy Resource Management Program was created by the Defense Appropriations Act of 1991 (P.L. 101-511) to provide for the identification, protection, and maintenance of DoD's natural and cultural resources. Four designated goals of the program related directly to the management of naval historical and cultural assets and gave teeth to the program. These goals were: (1) to establish a strategy plan and priority list for identifying and managing all significant historical and cultural resources involving lands, facilities, and properties under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Defense; (2) to provide for the stewardship of DoD controlled or managed air, land, and water resources; (3) to establish standards for collection, storage, and retrieval of historical and cultural information; and (4) to establish inventories of all scientifically significant historical and cultural resources on DoD lands. Navy management strategy, under the directive, focused upon seven concerns and objectives: (1) resource identification; (2) stewardship and curation of identified resources; (3) administration; (4) resource protection, rehabilitation, and restoration; (5) education; (6) personnel and funding; and (7) public access and involvement. In August 1992 the Naval Historical Center [NHC], Washington, D.C., was tasked with organizing a Navy program in submerged cultural resource management.

The jurisdictional authority over Navy vessel remains lying in Maryland waters rests with the United States government. The U.S. Navy acts as custodian of all Navy vessels sunken worldwide, all of which enjoy legal protection under both U.S. and the "sovereign immunity provisions" of international law, as formally codified in Articles 95 and 96 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which entered into force on 16 November 1994, and which currently has 106 parties as signatories.

Development of Worldwide Database in 1993

In 1993, the NHC began the development of a comprehensive, worldwide database inventory of submerged cultural resources, development of evaluation guidelines for classes of submerged cultural resources, and then the evaluation of these classes. It also began development of National Register nominations and the evolution of a general overview of naval submerged cultural resources management needs, and its own responsibilities, capabilities, and limitations. At the same time, Maryland, through the state Historical Trust's Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program [MMAP], had already begun to explore avenues of cooperation with the Navy regarding the management, if not the inventory, of naval submerged cultural resources.

U-1105 Submarine Discovered by Diver in 1985

The cooperative effort, as often is the case, was promulgated as a result of a potential archaeological emergency. Specifically, the emergency was the possible looting of one the Navy's historical assets, a World War II German submarine, the U-1105, which became a Navy war prize in 1945. The sub had been employed by the Navy as the subject of secret submergence and mine experiments, and was intentionally sunk during testing operation in the Potomac River in 1949. In 1985 this unique, rubber-clad "stealth" submarine, one of Hitler's true super weapons fielded at the end of the war, was rediscovered by a sport diver, which led to the publication of its location in a popular diving magazine in 1992.

Owing to the possible impact of countless sport divers soon descending upon the site, a privately funded research effort, supported by the St. Clement's Island-Potomac River Museum, with technical support by the Maryland Historical Trust, was fitted out to evaluate the site's condition and significance. The submarine, partially buried in river muds in 86 feet of water, proved to be virtually intact. As a result of the findings, I suggested that the site be considered for development as a Maryland State Underwater Preserve as a means of insuring its protection, with stewardship of the wreck being awarded to the state. For the next year, with support from the Trust and the museum, a controlled survey was undertaken, and recommendations made regarding various factors required for the development of an underwater preserve. The State and the Navy entered into a Memorandum of Agreement governing the stewardship and management of the site on 18 November 1993. With financial support provided by a Navy Legacy grant, the site was sealed from entry, hazardous features recorded and removed, significant artifacts recovered for preservation by the Trust's conservator, and a marker buoy for divers affixed to the wreck. Brochures featuring the ship's history, diving information, and emergency numbers were published, and a permanent exhibit on the ship was erected in the museum's Piney Point Lighthouse Museum Annex. Diving safety and emergency management guidelines, for dissemination throughout the sport diving community, were commissioned by the Trust. On 8 May 1995 the U-1105 Shipwreck Preserve was officially opened to the public. To date, the site has been visited by an estimated 3,000 divers. Monthly inspections of the wreck are now being carried out by the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society [MA-HS], a not-for-profit organization, under the supervision of the State Underwater Archaeologist's Office.

The U-1105 Project was significant in that it demonstrated to both the State and the Navy that the stewardship approach to management of Navy assets, even though initiated from the private sector, could succeed. It also demonstrated the need for a comprehensive approach to assessing the naval resource base in Maryland at the earliest possible time, for some Navy sites were far from secure.

USS Tulip, a Civil War gunboat

The impact of relic hunting on naval shipwrecks in Maryland waters was again illustrated by the case of the USS Tulip, a Civil War gunboat which blew up on the Potomac on 11 November 1864. During the 1960s, Tulip was discovered by sport divers, and soon dive shops in Washington and Virginia were running charter trips to the wreck to recover artifacts. Most surficially exposed artifacts were recovered and the site was eventually deemed stripped, and was soon forgotten even by the dive community. In 1995, following the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Navy and the Trust, and through the efforts of the MMAP, with the support of a DoD Legacy Program grant, scores of artifacts which had been recovered during the 1960s were relocated through the investigative efforts of the Trust and recovered for the Navy without requisite of legal action. Phase I and 11 work, was then carried out by MMAP, with the assistance of MAHS, and the parameters and condition of the site were determined.

United States Chesapeake Flotilla, Sunk 1814 in Patuxent River

The first comprehensive management plan for a significant Navy resource, however, was to focus not for U-1105 or Tulip, but upon the remains of the United States Chesapeake Flotilla, 18 Navy vessels and a hired ordnance schooner, sunk to prevent capture in Patuxent River on 22 August 1814 as invading British forces marched on Washington. In 1979-80 one of the vessels, believed to be the USS Scorpion, was located and archaeologically tested during the Patuxent River Submerged Cultural Resources Survey. The wreck was found to be over 90 percent intact and was reburied following conclusion of the testing. In February 1995, the Trust authorized and contracted for "the development of a comprehensive, phased, research design to locate, identify, inventory and evaluate the extant remains of the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla" for the purpose of creating a physical and archival database, and to make recommendations for the flotilla's preservation, management, and further study. In June, the project design was submitted for review by the Trust and the NHC, and a final revised plan was approved in April 1996.

The 189-page study recommended a comprehensive approach to research, survey, test, inventory, selectively excavate, conserve, and manage the fleet remains. The design provided potential project sponsors with a foundation suitable for promulgation of the work, meeting compliance requirements, and addressing the complex management questions and the myriad rules and regulations established by relevant federal and state agencies. Offering a variety of management options, ranging from no action to state or private stewardship of sites to outright divestiture, the study addressed many issues common to all Navy wreck site management concerns. It also sought to address the integration of the findings, both historical and archaeological, as well as the sciences needed to accomplish the goals of the project, into the mainstream of the educational processes, from the classroom, to the museum, indeed into the field of inquiry itself. And finally, the plan recommended means for incorporating the very products of the processes of discovery into the matrix of economic betterment for the state and the nation. In early 1996, the Trust awarded the University of Baltimore a grant to initiate Phase I work on the flotilla, to develop an archival database development masterplan, and to establish a statewide public education and museum masterplan, among nine museums, state and county institutions, federal agencies and private non-profit organizations for the dissemination of information regarding the findings of research on the flotilla.

Full-Scale Inventory Deemed Imperative

With the above mentioned projects having been addressed or which were in the process of being addressed, and with the Chesapeake Flotilla Project model as a basis for furthering a holistic approach to the issue of Navy submerged assets in Maryland waters, it was determined imperative that a full-scale inventory of Navy vessel remains in Maryland waters be carried out. Again, with the support of a DoD Legacy Program grant, the Trust initiated a plan "to research and create an inventory of naval shipwrecks in Maryland waters." The study was to identify vessels and their remains to which the U.S. Navy (or the General Services Administration) now claims or are eligible to claim title, including colonial state navy and Confederate naval vessels. The study was also to include recommendations for the management of these resources and in a database format, including GIS, suitable for integration into both the general Maryland state inventory and resource management plan, as well as the NHC shipwreck inventory database. It was also to develop a system of assessing and evaluating naval shipwrecks to permit statistical analysis and manipulation of information recovered to provide flexible parameters for evaluating sites, such as National Register eligibility, imperilment, and erosion. And finally, the study was to provide recommendations for the management of naval shipwrecks in state waters, to serve as the basis for a reference and planning document to manage the sites. Recommendations were also to include: consideration for the protection and preservation of remains; coordination and cooperation with other relevant state and federal agencies; and provision the foundation for a standard Memorandum of Agreement between the Navy and the Trust for the cooperative stewardship and management of naval shipwrecks in Maryland state waters.

The context for Navy and related shipwreck sites were organized as follows: (1) by geographic distribution; (2) by time period/historic context; (3) by vessel typology/ service; and finally, (4) by event/loss. This system provided an organizational framework for the description and analysis of documented, known, expected, and unknown vessel remains, and the basis for evaluating them.

The geographic distribution of documented sites was found to be widely dispersed throughout Maryland. Three distinct geographic divisions of Maryland territorial waters, all recognized as composing the main physiographic components of the marine environment, have been employed: the Atlantic frontier; the Chesapeake Bay; and riverine and other tributary systems. A fourth, termed Contiguous Waters, was later added. Each of the above geo-graphic regions were temporally divided thus: (a) Colonial Period - 1631-1775; (b) Continental Navy and Confederation Period - 1776-1790; (c) Jeffersonian - 1790-181 1; (d) War of 1812 - 1812-1815; (e) Early Steam Age 1816-1860; (f) Civil War - 1861-1865; (g) Reconstruction - 1866-1897; (h) Spanish War/World War I 1898- 1918; (i) Post War - 1919-1940; 0) World War II - 1941-1945; and (k) Cold War - 1946-1986.

21 vessel types identified within Maryland waters

A total of 21 vessel types were identified within Maryland waters, or in relevant contiguous areas. The following are the vessel types identified: Diesel auxiliary ships, armed military barges, transport and cargo barges, boats and scows, brigs, brigantines, diesel and sail cutters, ferry launches, frigates, diesel gunboats, sail and oar powered gunboats, steam powered gunboats, hydrographic survey vessels, ash lighters, freight lighters, schooners, sloops, submarines, row galleys, sailing transports, and yawls.

The service of vessels was divided into two discrete sections, each subdivided into seven categories. The first category included all vessels within the territorial waters of the State of Maryland. The second included all vessels in directly contiguous waters, primarily along the Potomac drainage system, in the immediately adjacent territorial waters of Virginia, but which had a direct cultural and historical relationship with activities, events, and archaeological resources in Maryland waters. Two vessels lying beyond the territorial borders of Maryland's Atlantic frontier, one of which is administered as an artificial reef by a corporate municipality in the state, and the other, with an imprecise final location given as beyond state waters, but which may, in fact, be within territorial waters, were also included.

The service classifications of all the vessels listed in both Categories I and 11 were as follows: U.S. Navy vessels (36 vessels); state navy vessels (2 vessels); foreign navy vessels (I vessel); privateers (3 vessels); Confederate States Navy, or vessels otherwise in service to the Confederacy (8 in Maryland and 48 in contiguous waters); privately owned former Navy vessels or vessels lying in or beneath Navy property (3); and vessels belonging to other agencies of the Federal Government (4).

The classification for events causing vessel losses include: abandonment, breaking up, collision, explosion, fire, foundering, gunnery practice, military action, mine testing, riot, scuttling/intentional sinking, weather, stranding, and unknown.

Register of 105 shipwrecks created

During 1995-1996 inventory research, a register of 105 shipwrecks containing general information about each vessel type, history, and location was created. Naval shipwrecks from all periods of U.S. Navy history make up the database while losses from the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II and Cold War era constitute the most comprehensive data. A printout of all vessels in the database, organized by name and wreck date, and a narrative history of the vessel, and when possible, its archaeology, was produced. From this database, it is possible to identify the significant groups of wrecks which should be prioritized for more detailed investigations in future project phases.

Although the inventory has been completed, the management plan is still under development. Moreover, although the project to date has yielded a wealth of new information, it has also produced a host of administrative, jurisdictional, and legal issues which have yet to be unsnarled, which are not within the bounds of this paper to present. However, I believe it is safe to say that legal precedent, continued state and federal cooperation, and public involvement will in due course contribute to a viable state and federal policy for the management of these substantial naval historical and archaeological assets.