A neoprene-clad diver slipped into the murky water of the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro Wednesday to examine the wreck of a 19th-century ship that archaeologists and state officials hope to make a star attraction in Maryland's commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
The sailing ship could be the USS Scorpion, part of a fleet known as the Chesapeake Flotilla that was designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Patuxent and harass the British, whose Royal Navy at the time was terrorizing towns from Havre de Grace to Norfolk.
The excavation is part of Maryland's effort to create a tourism cash cow from the bicentennial of a war whose biggest claim to fame is inspiring "The Star-Spangled Banner." Based in part on Virginia's experience with revenue generated by Civil War sites, bicentennial boosters estimate the 32 months of events planned to commemorate the War of 1812 could generate $1 billion in tourism spending.
"It's very much about economic development and cultural heritage tourism," said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.
The site of the wreck that could be the Scorpion lies a couple of miles upstream from Pig Point, also known as Bristol Landing, just past where Route 4 crosses the river.
Since late July, underwater archaeologists from the U.S. Navy, the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland Historical Trust have been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, from a cluster of barges crammed with an excavator, a Port-o-Potty, a shipping container-cum-office and two large bins that filter water and sediment.
Seven divers spend an hour or two at a time underwater with about a foot of visibility, carefully working through several yards of mud, silt and clay to what they believe is the hull of the vessel.