Tips for funding your bricks-and-mortar historic preservation project

By Anne Raines, Deputy Director, MHT

Our recent warm spell has been a welcome reminder that spring is just around the corner.  For those of us who are involved with historic buildings, spring means more than just crocuses and daffodils – it means repairs and maintenance!  Many historic property owners across the state are looking for funding this time of year, so MHT put together this primer on the basics of preservation funding for your bricks-and-mortar project.

FUNDING OPTIONS

MHT administers several grant and loan programs which assist what we refer to as “capital” (bricks-and-mortar) preservation activities.

  • MHT Historic Preservation Loan Program: The program provides low-interest loans for rehabilitation, acquisition, refinancing or predevelopment costs. MHT typically funds one to three projects a year for borrowers including nonprofit organizations, local governments, businesses and individuals, with preference given to projects with a high level of public benefit.  Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Key considerations: Loan amount will generally not exceed $300,000; property must be National Register listed or eligible for listing; conveyance of a perpetual preservation easement is required; business and individual applicants must demonstrate inability to secure funding on the private market.

Contact: Anne Raines, Deputy Director, MHT.

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Leeke Academy, in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, received MHT Loan Program, MHT Capital Grant Program, and MHAA funding for a complete restoration.

  • African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP): The AAHPP provides grants for acquisition, rehabilitation, new construction, and certain predevelopment costs (such as architect’s or engineer’s fees) for projects related to African American heritage. Projects are not required to be designated as “historic”.  Applicants can include nonprofit organizations, local governments, businesses and individuals, with preference given to projects with a high level of public benefit.  Dollar-for-dollar match is required except for nonprofit applicants.  Application deadline is July 15.

Key considerations: Grant amount will not exceed $100,000 per project per year; if the assisted property is National Register listed or eligible for listing, then conveyance of a perpetual preservation easement is required.

Contact: (For technical preservation issues) Anne Raines, Deputy Director, MHT; (for project scope and purpose) Maya Davis, Interim Director, Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.

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Kennard School in Centreville received AAHPP, MHAA, and MHT Capital Grant funding and is now in use as a community center.

  • Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) Grants: Grants of up to $100,000, with a required one-to-one match of non-state support, are available for capital projects, which can include acquisition, development (repair or alteration of an existing building, structure or site; or new construction), rehabilitation, restoration, and pre-development costs. Projects must be related to heritage tourism and located within one of the state’s 13 Certified Heritage Areas.  Only nonprofit organizations and government entities are eligible to apply. An Intent to Apply form is due at the end of January.

Key considerations:  Due to the competitive nature of the program, grants for capital projects average $54,000; the conveyance of a perpetual preservation easement may be required on certain historic properties.

Contact:  Find your local heritage area contact using the map and links here: http://mht.maryland.gov/heritageareas.shtml. You can also contact Jen Ruffner, Maryland Heritage Areas Program.

  • Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) Loans: Loans are available to nonprofit organizations, local jurisdictions, individuals and businesses to assist with the preservation of heritage resources and the enhancement of heritage attractions and visitor services located within a Certified Heritage Area. Eligible activities include acquisition, development, rehabilitation, restoration, leasehold improvements, and purchase of equipment, furnishings, and inventory.  Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Key considerations:  The maximum loan commitment made for any specific project is limited by the available uncommitted balance of the MHAA Financing Fund.  Up to 50 percent of the total project cost will be provided based on an assessment of the applicant’s financial need.

Contact:  Jen Ruffner, Maryland Heritage Areas Program.

  • MHT Historic Preservation (Capital) Grant Program: After a long hiatus, we might be able to welcome the return of Capital Grant funding in FY2018.  The program provides grants to nonprofit organizations, local jurisdictions, individuals and businesses for acquisition, rehabilitation, and pre-development costs related to properties listed on or eligible for the National Register.  The conveyance of a perpetual preservation easement is required for all assisted projects.  Dollar-for-dollar match is required except for nonprofit applicants.  If funding for the program is provided, additional information about the application process will be available on our grants main page in May 2017.

In addition to these programs, we often direct our partners and constituents toward the following programs based on their project-specific needs:

Finally, MHT’s own handout on Potential Funding Sources for Heritage Preservation Projects, which has recently been updated, covers a range of options available from national and private sources.

PITCHING YOUR PROJECT TO FUNDERS

Now that we’ve identified some options for funding, the next step is to write an application.  In our grant workshops, we often provide a tip sheet for grant writing in general.  However, for this post we wanted to provide some additional insights about how to think through, develop, and explain a rehabilitation or construction project in the context of a grant or loan application.

First, it is important for you to be clear about the basic parameters of the project.

  • What kind of project are you undertaking? (Acquisition, refinancing, rehabilitation, new construction, predevelopment?)
  • What is the scope of the entire project from start to finish? (Is it as simple as a roof replacement, or is it a complicated multi-phase rehabilitation project costing many millions of dollars?)
  • What will the entire project cost? (You may need to hire an architect or project manager to help estimate costs for a very large project.  If you are undertaking a smaller project, we generally recommend that you obtain at least one price proposal in order to make an accurate grant application.)

Next, you need to determine what funding options are available to you.

  • What funding sources & resources are available for your specific project and applicant type?
  • Is it advantageous for your application to break down the project into phases and apply for each phase individually, as you are ready to undertake it?
  • Will you need more than one grant? Are you expecting multiple, sequential grants from the same program?  Funders always like to see that applicants are trying to secure funding from diverse sources – including their own fundraising.

Once you are writing a grant application, you will need to develop a clear scope of work – what are you including in the scope of this particular grant request?  What isn’t included?

  • Define a project that meaningfully relates to the grant amount: break it down. Typically a grant application will be more successful if it allows the completion of one discrete work item than if it provides for only partial progress toward one or more items.
  • Have a plan for how you will pay for any required matching funds and other costs that are necessary to complete the project. Funders want to know that you will be able to complete the whole project successfully.
  • Develop a meaningful and reasonable project schedule or timeline. What work can you reasonably accomplish within the specified grant performance period?  (Most grants are time-sensitive and have specific beginning and ending dates.)  According to your project timeline, are you READY for a grant?
  • Will your organization be able to manage the project (and the potential grant), or do you need to hire a project manager or architect? Know what expertise the project requires and assemble a strong project team.

Finally, convince the funder that they should fund you. Most funding programs are very competitive, and it is up to you to demonstrate that your project is important, and that it needs to happen NOW.

  • How do your goals reflect those of the funder? Don’t feel embarrassed to write about your larger goals and aspirations.
  • Be convincing about the significance and urgency of the project.
  • Review and understand the program’s selection criteria. Address them clearly and concisely!
  • Show your commitment to the project: how will it be sustained into the future? (How will you protect the investment that you are asking the funder to make?)
  • Show the funder that you have cultivated widespread support for your project from:
    • the community
    • your local, state, and federal representatives
    • any local, state, or federal agencies that may be involved
    • other organizations that may have similar goals

Now that you know what funding possibilities are out there, and you know what funders are looking for in an application, why not get started?  Can your project really wait another year?

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Charles Sumner GAR Post #25 in Chestertown in 2001, before its rehabilitation using MHT Capital, AAHPP, and MHAA grant funds.

 

 

 

Interpretation at Sotterley Plantation: The Road to Relevance

By Jeanne Pirtle, Education Director, Historic Sotterley, Inc.

Historic Sotterley Plantation has a long history, to be sure. It has also been open to the public as a museum since 1960.  Let’s see, what was happening in the 1960’s? Schools were still segregated. Jim Crow was still alive.  And in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Sotterley’s last private owner had decided to open Sotterley and create a non-profit so that it could be preserved.  As with most house museums at that time, the early tours focused on the furnishings and lives of the owners with a little legend, lore and myth mixed in.  After the owner’s death in 1993, ownership went to the Sotterley Foundation, which is now Historic Sotterley, Inc.

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In the early 1970’s, a visitor and her father came to the museum.  They paid their two dollars for a tour.  They noticed a slave cabin on the property, but on their tour of the house nothing was mentioned about the slave cabin.  The visitor was Agnes Kane Callum.

Agnes was born in Baltimore in 1925.  She had raised her family while working for the post office. After retirement she earned two degrees from Morgan State University.  She continued to research her family and found a connection to Sotterley.  Her ancestors, Hillary and Elsa Cane, were enslaved there in the 19th century. Agnes made it her passion and mission to have the story of her family told in Sotterley’s narrative. She kept visiting Sotterley with research in hand, bringing large groups of her family and friends with her.  Eventually, Agnes became a trustee on Sotterley’s board and developed an education program for middle school students that is still taught today, Slavery to Freedom.

In 1996, Sotterley was on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered” list.  Agnes joined forces with owner descendants to save Sotterley. It was rescued and grant money was used to help restore the house and cabin. For some years, tours focused on this restoration with a few stories of the enslaved, but still it was not a complete and inclusive narrative.

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Sotterley’s slave cabin

In 2010, with grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Sotterley began work on a re-interpretation and developed research-based tours that moved past the romanticism to reveal a realistic view of the plantation’s story seen through different perspectives.  An exhibit in the slave cabin, as well as other projects focused on changing perspectives in interpretation at Sotterley, were assisted by grants from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.  In 2012, Sotterley was recognized as a port site through the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP).  In 2014, Land, Lives and Labor became Historic Sotterley Plantation’s first permanent exhibit created to focus on the people who lived and labored for the owners from 1699 into the mid 20th century.  It is housed in the Corn Crib, which was restored using funding from the African American Heritage Preservation Program, administered by MHT and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.

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“Land, Lives, and Labor” exhibit, housed in the Corn Crib

Agnes Kane Callum passed away in 2015.  Sotterley will remember her life and legacy as we dedicate the new Slave Cabin exhibit to her memory this April.  This exhibit will focus on the lives of her ancestors, Hillary and Alice Elsa Cane and their children and allow visitors to experience a window into their lives.

At Historic Sotterley, we continue to tell the stories of all who lived and worked here, as we remember our roots and the people who helped us along the way, not just in February, but every day. We welcome every visitor who anticipates a new discovery and finds relevance in our collective past.

Preserving Our Legacy: The Archives and Artifacts Ministry of Union Baptist Church

By Evelyn J. Chatmon and Dr. Dorothy Coleman, Co-Chairs, Archives & Artifacts Ministry, Union Baptist Church, Baltimore MD

A casual conversation between Lucretia Billups, Co-Chair Emeritus, and Evelyn Chatmon outside of church one Sunday morning, about a beautiful writing created by the then pastor, Rev. Vernon N. Dobson, blossomed into an acknowledgement of how many church documents were being accumulated in our homes.  That conversation led to our wondering if there was any unified effort to save the history of our church, which was already in the beginning stages of preparing to celebrate its 150th Anniversary.  We learned that there had never been a concerted effort to save the church’s history and were able to convince Rev. Dobson that her history needed to be preserved.  Thus was created the Archives and Artifacts Ministry of Union Baptist Church.  That was 20 years ago.  A well-known Baltimore archivist, by the name of Wayne Wiggins, gave us invaluable guidance, explaining at the outset of our efforts that what we were doing, though unusual, was of great importance.  The effort has been well worth it. union-baptist-1928-membership-photo

Following are just a few of the reasons why Union Baptist Church is historically significant.  Located at 1219 Druid Hill Avenue, Union was organized on May 10, 1852.  In 2010, she was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.  Moving from its North Street location, the new edifice, dedicated in 1905, became the first church in Baltimore City to be built by Negroes for Negroes.  Ten pastors have served her over 165 years of existence.  The congregation, presently led by Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., has had the distinction of also being led by two nationally recognized pastors.   Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson was her fourth pastor from 1872-1923 and Rev. Vernon N. Dobson her ninth from 1967-2007. During the tenure of Dr. Johnson, the congregation grew to 3,000 members.  Dr. Johnson won the first case in the United States striking down the identification of Negroes as cargo in interstate commerce in the case of “Stewart v s The Sue”.  Among other numerous civil rights accomplishments, Dr. Johnson led the litigation to get colored teachers pay equal to that of whites and to allow colored lawyers to practice in the state of Maryland. The tenure of Rev. Dobson saw a continuation of the work of the civil rights movement. Rev. Dobson began working with Dr. Martin Luther King and Union became one of the major sponsors of the March on Washington in the Poor People’s Campaign.  Union also was a staging ground for many civil rights meetings; a major achievement was the integration of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.  Under Dobson’s leadership, a pilot Head Start program was tested in 1968, a full time program was established two years later, and a child care center was built to house the program in 1995 at a cost of $3.2 million. Union was a co-founder of BUILD in the 1970s, under Rev. Dobson’ s leadership.

Over these twenty years, we have been fortunate to collect from many nooks and crannies in the church, from church safes, from file cabinets and from the homes of many members, documents of great worth.  Examples of what we have collected include original deeds, celebratory programs, minutes of meetings, photographs, numerous artifacts, and the ledgers of the giving of members, which include the monetary gifts of Dr. Johnson as well as documentation of his salary.  Probably most valuable are the hundreds of funeral programs of our members, even dating back to that of Dr. Francis Wood, the first black superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools in the late 1920s.  In addition, we have a copy of the program for the 50th Anniversary Celebration given for Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson.

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Our current Pastor, Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., whose dissertation was on the work of Dr. Harvey Johnson, and who is also a member of the archives ministry, is keenly aware of the importance of maintaining Union’s history.  It was at his urging that we sought an African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust to create an environment to house and safeguard our collection.  Thanks to the grant, we have a separate, climate-controlled space that was dedicated this past October.

The collection will be of great value to those who want to find information about their ancestors or to note the contributions of those in Union’s leadership who came before.  The ministry has mounted displays of documents and artifacts of historical significance. Various members of the public have used our documents to do research for books and papers.  We have received requests for access to our new archives space to learn about what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We encourage other churches to be inspired by our work, and to find similar ways to preserve their legacies – not only buildings, but also photographs, papers, and records – for future generations.

 

‘Mount Gilboa’ of Oella

By Commissioner Steven X. Lee, Maryland Commission on African American History & Culture

Journeying west along the Old National Road (Frederick Road) from Baltimore City to Frederick, Maryland, the historic mill town of Oella midway en route can easily be passed unnoticed.  It lies at the western border of Baltimore County, where the Old National Road meets the Patapsco River.  It is the synergy of river and road that imparts a big history to this small-town America region.

 

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“Oella”, Baltimore County, at the Ellicott City / Howard County border. This town sign is at the terminal point of Oella Avenue, where it meets Frederick (the Old National) Road, and the Patapsco River. [2014 / Courtesy of SXLee]

Research for a publication-in-progress, “Patapsco River Communities Historic Oella & Ellicott City ”, has revealed many compelling and diverse his- and her-stories of the American experience from this picturesque landscape.  Among them are some from a small vintage African American neighborhood in Oella that is vanishing with the tides of time and development.  Oella’s African American neighborhood, often called “Mount Gilboa” in its heyday, has been a part of the town since its earliest beginnings.   It was in the 1700s that free blacks first acquired land in this area, evolving a close-knit neighborhood that ran for about a quarter-mile along the eastern sector of Oella Avenue, from Westchester Avenue to Old Frederick Road.

Oella’s most famous early American resident, Mr. Benjamin Bannaky, was a member of one of the founding families of this African American community.  Better known as Benjamin Banneker — scientist, clockmaker, author, abolitionist, farmer, and a surveyor of the Federal Territory — he, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, was one of American society’s earliest renaissance men and innovators.  And but for the few months in 1791 that he was away surveying the land for the nation’s capital, he spent his entire life on the family farmstead in Oella.

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300 Oella Avenue, main entrance to the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park of Baltimore County. This site was originally the homestead of the Bannaky family, now a public park of cultural and natural history. [2010 / Courtesy of SXLee]

It was Benjamin’s parents, Robert and Mary Bannaky, who had purchased the land in 1737.   Their 100-acre property flanked Oella Avenue and crossed the Old National Road, including hilltop, hillside and wetlands terrain, with natural springs, access to the Coopers Branch stream, and the Patapsco River.   The varied landscape enabled the Bannakys to have a viable and sustainable farm, from which they provided fresh produce, tobacco, honey, herbs, candles and other products to the burgeoning town.  From the number of oyster shells found during the Maryland Historical Trust’s 1980s archaeological digs around the Bannaky cabin foundations, it is evident that the fruits of the river were harvested as well.

The African American neighborhood ends at the highest point in the landscape of this segment of Oella Avenue, at Westchester Avenue.  Here it culminates with Oella’s oldest institution – Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church.   It too shares an early American genesis.  In colonial times, its property was part of the large Williams estate.  When Mary Williams died in 1786, in her will* she freed her slaves and left them this parcel of land on which to build their house of worship.   Although the original wooden structure burned down in the 19th century, the church and congregation of Mount Gilboa A.M.E. have continued at this site since its inception.

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Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church, on Westchester Avenue at Oella Avenue, is Historic Oella’s oldest institution. [2015 / Maryland Historical Trust.]

The church came to be a symbol and namesake for the African American neighborhood that developed eastward down Oella Avenue.  During the nation’s Bicentennial, the state monument of an obelisk in honor of Benjamin Banneker was here erected on the church grounds  (the 1985 archaeological discovery of Banneker’s actual homestead further down Oella Avenue had not yet been made).   Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church continues as an enduring symbol among Oella’s local legacies.

What was life like for the African American neighbors of “Mount Gilboa” in Oella?  That can best be found in the telling of those who lived it.  And Baltimore County historian Louis S. Diggs must be credited for his initiative to document many of those stories in the oral tradition.  One of the Diggs interviews conducted in the late 1990s is with Mrs. Lydia Harris Cole, a native and resident of Oella Avenue in the twentieth century.

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Mrs. Lydia Harris Cole at her home in ‘Mount Gilboa’, Oella. [Circa 1990 / Courtesy of Louis Diggs]

…My name is Lydia Harris, I was born in Oella, in July of 1940.  The home I’m in now was always in the family. My aunt, Addie Hall, came from Washington and bought this home that I’m living in now in 1962; and she passed away in 1986.  I’m a descendant of the Halls.  My grandmother and grand-father were Jeanette and Caleb Hall. They lived next door.

… This is the African American part of Oella, from the Country Corner Store, on down to Old Frederick Road, mostly African Americans lived here, except [for the white families of] the Treuths, the Boones, and the Colfields.  Some of the African Americans [families] are the Rideouts, the Halls, the Matthews, and the Hendersons.

…We weren’t allowed in the section of Oella down the road where the white people mostly lived. The line was the Country Corner Store.  But, regardless, we all got along pretty well.

…The Country Corner Store was the one place we all went to daily.  When I was a kid, a Mr. Johnson owned the store, and later, Mr. Jay Patel purchased it. Both owners were very good to the Colored people.

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The Country Corner Store in mid 20th century, at the corner of Oella Avenue and Westchester Avenue. In the background on the left can be seen the side of Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church. [Courtesy of Jay Patel]

We couldn’t go to the Westchester School [in Oella] because that was for the White kids.  …We used to have to catch the streetcar right behind my house to go to school, which was Banneker School in Catonsville.  We went from the first to the twelfth grade there.

…African American kids at Banneker School came from all over the area:  Woodstock, Granite, Relay, Halethorpe, Arbutus, and Randallstown.

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Kids at play in front of the Benjamin Banneker School, in the historic African American community of Winters Lane in Catonsville. This school provided education for the African American children of Catonsville and its neighboring Oella, as well as of the other communities of west Baltimore County in the era of segregation. [Circa 1941 / Courtesy of Odessa White and Louis Diggs]

Some of the older Blacks in the community attended school in Mount Gilboa AME Church, in the bottom of the church.  My mother, uncles, etc., attended that school.

The neighborhood is not like it used to be in the old days. I remember the big holidays, like the fourth of July when everyone had cookouts and activities.  We’d just go from house to house having a great time.  People here don’t do that now.

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Front row – left to right: Malfalda Pollitt, Consuella White, and one of the Hoke girls. Rear – left to right: two of the Hoke children, and Sylvia Pollitt. [Circa 1940s / Courtesy of Odessa White and Louis Diggs]

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Children of the Hoke and Pollitt families at the home of George and Ethel White at 321 Oella Avenue. The white Hoke family, and the black Pollitt and White families were all neighbors in ‘Mount Gilboa’. [Circa 1940s / Courtesy of Odessa White and Louis Diggs]

Growing up in Oella was nice.  We played mostly among ourselves.  I would play with the Edmond girls, and my brother would play with the guys. We couldn’t go out to play until after the work was done, and back in those days, there was no electricity, no running water, so we had a lot of chores to do.  We had to do all of our washing on the washboard, carry the water three and four times and dump it, and in the wintertime, had to hang the clothes up on the line in the snow.  There was a well right on the property, and we would pump the water and carry it in the house, put it on the stove to heat it, and then put it in the tub.  Of course we had an outhouse in the backyard.  Plumbing and sewage didn’t come around in our area until 1956. We had all the usual animals on our property, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats.  When we got sick, we had some of the old country curing by my grandmother.

There used to be as many as sixteen or seventeen African American families here; I recall that this community was called Mount Gilboa years ago.  I have some letters that my uncle wrote when he was in the war that he wrote back to my grandmother.  On the front of the envelope was her address in Mount Gilboa, Maryland.

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Neighbor Dorothy Dorsey walking home from the Country Corner Store, along Oella Avenue. The store is a couple blocks behind her (out of frame) on the right. The land of Benjamin Banneker is just in front of her (out of frame) on the left. [Circa 1941 / Courtesy of Odessa White and Louis Diggs]

The enclave that was once the “Mount Gilboa” neighborhood now fades to memories.  Most of its elders have passed, and younger generations moved on to other locales.  Old houses have been replaced or made anew, as Oella has been redeveloped and rediscovered for the unique charm it encompasses.  But the icons of the community remain.  Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church, the Country Corner Store, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum are all within a stroll, and like many other features of Oella, make for a surprisingly intriguing day trip into Maryland Americana.

A museologist, Commissioner Lee also served as the Founding Director for the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum.

 

* –  African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation Collection

The Common Good: Blacks in Secret Societies in Calvert County, Maryland

By Michael Gayhart Kent, Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture

Volumes have been written about the sacrifices and victories of the many men and women who have fought for civil rights.   While the focus is often on individual leaders and national events, many of our black ancestors worked quietly in the shadows to create a better future for their descendents. These unsung heroes, working together within the framework of benevolent, masonic, and fraternal societies, made lasting contributions to their local communities, setting the groundwork for – and engaging in – the struggle for civil rights.  This article examines the presence, impact, and succession of several such African American societies in Calvert County, Maryland, , which is also the subject of an exhibit opening at the Prince Frederick Library on February 6, 2016.

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The Baltimore Afro-American celebrated the Galilean Fishermen in an article on July 1, 1974, noting a current membership of 500.

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WANTED: Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program Staff

Do you have an eye for detail?

Do you enjoy engaging with people?

Do you value historic buildings?

Melissa at Thomas Point Lighthouse

Former tax credit staff Melissa Archer at Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse.

If so, you might want to consider applying for a position with MHT!  We are currently hiring two new preservation officers to serve as rehabilitation tax credit program reviewers within MHT’s Office of Preservation Services (OPS).  These new MHT’ers will have unique opportunities to make a real difference in the preservation of buildings large and small across the state.  Check out the job posting here — the deadline to apply is September 22.

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Do You Believe in Ghosts…?

Do You Believe in Ghosts…?

By Susan Langley, State Underwater Archeologist

Do you believe in ghosts? You might if you find yourself at Mallows Bay in Charles County. Standing on its shores, a ghostly fleet of nearly 100 wooden World War I-era steamships appears to rise from the depths as the tide ebbs.  These are friendly ghosts, as they saw no battles and lost no souls.  Nevertheless, at nearly 300 feet long each the ships create an impressive sight, especially at times of extreme low water. Around a full moon, one could almost cross the water on the skeletons of these behemoths.

The "ghost fleet"

The “ghost fleet”

These ships are remnants of the civilian U. S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, which was established when America entered WWI on April 2, 1917 to carry men, arms and equipment to the theater of war. They were also intended to carry supplies to European Allies whose shipping had been decimated by German U-boats. Donald Shomette, who literally wrote the book on this ghost fleet, put the project in perspective when he noted that, between 1899 and 1915, the U.S. had launched 540,000 tons of ocean-going shipping and now proposed to build 6,000,000 tons in 18 months. Unfortunately, by October 1918 –a month before the end of the war—only 134 of the 1000 expected vessels had been completed, 263 were less than half completed and none had crossed the Atlantic. Within a year of Germany’s surrender 264 were in operation, though only 195 had crossed the Atlantic once.

World War I shipping poster

WWI shipping poster

With diesel engines and metal hulls now dominant, the ships were obsolete by the time they were completed and the U.S. Shipping Board determined to sell the fleet. A few – sold into private service and eventually abandoned in Curtis Bay – are still visible while traversing the Key Bridge. In September of 1922, a firm purchased 233 ships for $750,000 (approximately the cost to build a single ship) and moored the majority in the Potomac to be taken to Alexandria, VA and broken for scrap.  After the vessels in the Potomac caught fire, broke loose in storms, and created other problems, the company corralled them in Mallows Bay. Small-scale salvage operations took over the bay during the Great Depression, providing 15% of the per capita income for Charles County residents at that time. With the outbreak of WWII, Bethlehem Steel attempted to renew salvaging the vessels and constructed a gated burning basin at the back of Mallows Bay. Ultimately, the company determined it was not cost effective and abandoned the effort.

As the years wore on, the slumbering fleet became part of the maritime landscape, providing roosts and nesting sites for osprey and eagles, a nursery for bass that has made it a prime fishing ground, and shelter for many rare, threatened and endangered species.  The bay and its denizens are best viewed from the water and the shelter provided by the vessels creates prime conditions for kayaks and canoes. Numerous State and local government agencies, environmental organizations and private citizens have long wanted greater recognition of Mallows Bay’s many merits but no single program existed that provided the right fit.

Benzonia in Mallows Bay

Benzonia in Mallows Bay

Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it would consider community-driven nominations for new National Marine Sanctuaries; the first in more than 20 years. The steering committee, consisting of State and County agencies, environmental organizations, tribal representation, fishing organizations, education and outreach specialists, and citizens-at-large, developed a nomination for Mallows Bay and a portion of the Potomac River in 2014, to coincide with the initiation of global commemorative activities for WWI. The application was submitted by the Governor and included letters of support from nearly 100 groups. In January 2015, the Committee received word that the nomination was accepted into the NOAA Inventory for consideration as a viable candidate for the establishment of a National Marine Sanctuary. If the decision is positive, NOAA will solicit public comment and the steering committee will initiate public scoping meetings. If all goes well, we might cut the ribbon on a National Marine Sanctuary close to the Nation’s capital in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I.

Additional Reading:

Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake.  Donald G. Shomette.  1996.  Tidewater Publishers: Centerville.

Don is currently working on two new volumes about Mallows Bay so stay tuned for these too.

NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Inventory:

http://www.nominate.noaa.gov/nominations/

Read the nomination and see the letters of support for this endeavor.