Thursday, October 14, 2004


Sunken ships reveal secrets

By Rusty Dennen

Variety of wrecks found by underwater archaeologists working in Potomac River's Virginia creeks

Sixty feet offshore in Westmoreland County's Nomini Creek, some iron spikes and barnacle-encrusted wood poke just above the surface of the water.

Underwater archaeologist Bruce F. Thompson and a team of volunteer divers on Tuesday pulled alongside in a small skiff.

"Get the anchor ready," Thompson yelled to divers Tim Jeffas and Chris Maple, who sat up front, pulling on 60 pounds of air tanks and gear.

"OK, drop it," Thompson said, summoning the divers for a look at a map he sketched on white notebook paper of the remains of what's believed to be a 19th-century schooner. The crew was making another stop in a monthlong effort to locate and map shipwrecks in four Virginia tributaries of the Potomac River.

Resembling plump black seals in their diving suits, Maple and Jeffas plunged backward over the side and swam about 20 feet to the wreck. Jeffas held one end of a tape measure along the centerline of the vessel while Maple unspooled it to where the bow rests below the murky, 69-degree water.

In about an hour, under a clear blue sky and bracing against a brisk northeast wind, they took three measurements in water from 5 to 10 feet deep. Thompson, who dived on the wreck himself a few days before, concluded the ship is slightly smaller than first thought, maybe 85 feet instead of 90.

At one point, Jeffas thought he'd found the ship's second mast. "There seems to be a log or something going this way," he said, pointing the direction with a gloved hand.

Thompson yelled to him from the boat, "When you dig it out, try to get a diameter on it!"

More investigation revealed that the piece of lumber was too small to be a mast, but was, perhaps, some other part of the rigging.

"These were typically two-masted, and were built from about 1830 to the 1930s," said Thompson, a bearded bear of a man with shoulder-length hair flecked with gray. Today, clad in jeans, sunglasses and flannel shirt, he's driving the boat and directing the action in the water.

He's not sure of the origin of this ship, but he's gotten clues from what's left.

"We don't know the type of wood--it could be a hardwood," he said. The rust-encrusted iron spikes were probably used to join larger timbers.

It's possible, he says, that this ship could have Civil War connections. Union sailors sank six ships in Nomini Creek between 1862 and 1865; the Confederates, two ships.

Most carried supplies.

"These were the diesel trucks of their time," Thompson said. Cargo typically included commodities such as coal, lumber and tinned oysters, for example.

Two years of archival research, combined with help from local watermen's memories, helped to locate possible wreck sites.

The team will return to Nomini Creek in November with side-scanning sonar. It malfunctioned earlier on this trip. That equipment, a yellow torpedo-shaped capsule towed behind a boat, pinpoints mounds of debris on the bottom that can be hard to find any other way. From the scans, scientists can determine whether it's the remains of a ship or some other object.

Another helpful tool used on the project was a magnetometer, which detects the presence of iron.

With grants from the St. Clements Island-Potomac River Museum in St. Mary's County, Md., and the Naval Historical Center in Washington, Thompson has methodically located and documented dozens of wrecks along the river. Information gleaned on the Virginia side will be shared with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which has done its own work on Revolutionary War-era shipwrecks near Yorktown and in the Chickahominy River.
Last year and earlier this year, Thompson worked in Maryland waters. In mid-September, the work shifted to Yeocomico, Lower Machodoc and Nomini creeks and the Coan River on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Next spring, Thompson will hunt for shipwrecks around St. George's Island, Md.

Thompson believes the river is a treasure trove of maritime history and that archaeologists have barely scratched the surface in learning the secrets of these silent sentinels of the deep.

Thompson, 55, a Texas native and an archaeologist for 26 years, is assistant state underwater archeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust.

"We've been all over Maryland, logging everything from prehistoric [American Indian] sites to log canoes, to shipwrecks. We've probably added about 150 shipwrecks to the record," he said.

In the mid-1990s, Thompson helped to survey and document wreckage believed to be the USS Tulip, a 97-foot screw steamer, which sank in November 1864 off Ragged Point after a boiler explosion, and the CSS Favorite, a 90-foot schooner, which went down in Swan Cove on the Maryland side of the river the same year.

High-profile shipwrecks such as the Titanic have captured the public imagination and focused attention on archaeology beneath the waves. Last week, divers off North Carolina found another cannon from what is believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge--the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard.

Thompson says every find is interesting.

Of the eight or nine wrecks examined so far on the Virginia side of the Potomac, "Not all are significant. A lot of them are watermen boats. There are two schooners from the Civil War period, and two earlier wrecks that need more study.

"The [Nomini Creek] schooner is proving to be pretty interesting. We've now got three schooners where we can compare construction techniques, the way the ships were built, and get a [better] picture" of the vessels, Thompson said. "We're trying to look at the evolution of ship construction in the 19th century, and this is an excellent way."

Often, there isn't much left to find, so the divers and Thompson attempt to piece together a mental picture of the ships from scattered planking, mineral-encased hardware and what archives of known ships tell them.

Though the origin and identity of many of the ships may never be known, "We're adding something to the literature and the knowledge. We're finding something significant enough to say we can learn something," he said.

The information payoff is not only with regard to ships. The project has also turned up a Colonial-era wharf and a steamboat wharf on the Coan River.

Any artifacts found are documented, photographed and returned to the river. "We try not to recover artifacts because the cost of conserving them is very expensive," he said.

About 20 divers and volunteers have been involved in the project, working out of a cabin at Coles Point Marina.
Thompson says it's an opportunity to pass along the notion of conservation and preservation to the public, and divers in particular.

"They come from every working environment, and want to relax and have fun, learn stuff and be involved in it," Thompson said.

Jeffas and Maple, both experienced divers, have helped on Thompson's projects for several years. Jeffas is employed at the Navy's Aviation Survival Training Center Patuxent River; Maple's day job is with the Montgomery County, Md., Fire and Rescue Department.

Maple said the work is definitely not recreational diving, which is typically a hands-off sightseeing experience in clear water.

"Here, you're getting down and dirty, you pull yourself through the wreck. On a good day, the visibility is 6 inches."
He laughed, "We don't look for wrecks so much as feel for wrecks."

Said Thompson, smiling, "The really good thing about this job is that no two sites and no two days are ever the same."

Photo by Mike Morones / The Free Lance-Star
Volunteer diver Tim Jeffas of Leonardtown, Md., measures the wreckage
of what is believed to be a 19th-century schooner in Nomini Creek.

To reach RUSTY DENNEN: 540/374-5431

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