Cities are as much a vault for abandoned history as the countryside, and there’s something logical and engaging about urban exploration. The whirr of production, the odor of industry, the energy are all as much a part of the bay’s history and ecology as remote stretches far from any city center.
Among the most intriguing of the bay’s industrial waterways is Baltimore’s Curtis Creek. The creek (a short river, really) is a telling display of man and nature jockeying for position over one another, a snapshot of maritime history through the wrecks that litter its shoals.
Heavy industry crowds Curtis Creek’s banks and is largely responsible for the historic ships sent there to die. I chose to put in here after reading the work of Robert Burgess and Robert Keith, late Chesapeake historians who painstakingly documented the ships brought to Greater Baltimore to end their days.
A rare tree-lined cove at the eastern foot of the Pennington Avenue and I-695 bridges contains the most accessible of Curtis Creek’s boat graveyards, an eclectic collection of some dozen or more derelict vessels that once moved commodities in and out of the city. Jaws Marine now occupies the land just adjacent to these ships, and for a fee, you can conveniently launch a craft just feet from these gloomy ruins.
In fact, one of the parking areas is on the remnants of a couple old ships. It seemed odd–eerie almost–to leave my truck there, like standing for a length of time on the grave of a stranger. At water’s edge rotting beams, mangled metal and frayed lines descend deep into the earth, held fast to some buried superstructure, the remains of a vessel that was long ago covered with tons of fill gravel. A rocky spit, grown over with scrub and probably-not-coincidentally resembling the stern of a vessel, reaches into the cove.
Lines descend into the bank From a rocky spit resembling a boat’s stern
The ships here, unlike those at Kiptopeke or Mallows Bay, aren’t of one pedigree. In fact, they’re not even of the same century. What they share in common, though, is that they’re slowly yielding to the very water that once gave them purpose, vitality, character.
Several are what’s left of the antiquated age of commercial sail. The William T. Parker was a three-masted schooner that once drifted unmanned from North Carolina to Maine and back. She exposes only a rotten and peg-studded gunwale above the waterline now. The four-masted Katherine May, all but a heap of rotting wood, lies dead where her captain placed her in the 1930s, unable to find cargo in those lean years.
The Parker‘s peg-studded gunwale at right Ruined ships
The handful of World War I-era wooden freighters in Curtis Creek were luckier than others of the same design. These found use as barges hauling pyrite from Cuba for the nearby Davison Chemical Company. Just around nearby Sledds Point are fifteen identical vessels partially sunk as a breakwater. A ship-breaking company burned and abandoned some 200 more in Mallows Bay on the Potomac River.
The lone concrete vessel here, probably the hull of the 1920s-era General Morgan Lewis, is unlike the nine sunken World War II steamers at Kiptopeke, the only resemblance being that both were ill-fated efforts to prove the worth of concrete ships. The cove is the final resting place, too, for barges, even a gambler’s yacht.
Probably the General Morgan Lewis A World War I-era wooden freighter
Another assemblage lies a short paddle upstream, south toward the U.S. Coast Guard shipyard. The hulks here, too, are barely identifiable, really just heaped and strewn lumber in spots. Among these ships is the hull of the Emma Giles, a sidewheel steamer that ferried passengers and cargo across the bay for almost fifty years.
Curtis Creek shows that progress has few memories and takes no prisoners. These ships, once the pride of their craftsmen and lifeblood of their crews, changed in the eyes of their owners once they’d outlived their usefulness. Too obsolete to sail, too cumbersome to scrap, these ships became part of Curtis Creek. Now the water that gave them life is slowly taking them back.