Issue: July 2001
Two Ships, Two Wars

Before a World War II Liberty Ship moves to its new permanent home in Baltimore, preservationists must decide what to do with the wrecked Governor McLane, a hero of Maryland’s oyster wars.


    Two of the Chesapeake’s most important historical ships are crossing paths. Funny thing is, neither of them is moving. Until a slew of bureaucratic issues are resolved, the Liberty Ship John W. Brown will remain at its Pier 1 berth in Baltimore’s Canton district, while the moribund 1884 steamship Governor Robert M. McLane will remain stuck in the mud in Baltimore Harbor.

    The McLane - built in 1884 and once the feared flagship of the Maryland Oyster Navy - is beyond repair, but not beyond being partially salvaged [see “Ladies in Waiting,” March 2000]. It lies rusting in the shallows near the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and only feet away from the proposed site for the Brown’s new permanent home. The problem is, the site needs to be dredged to accommodate the Liberty Ship’s 18-foot draft - a process that might further damage the McLane.

    “Both of these ships are extremely important,” says Susan Langley, chief underwater archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust. From 1884 to 1931, she says, the McLane made life difficult for oyster poachers and rescued more than a dozen shanghaied sailors from dredge boats. Afterward, the ship served as a Chesapeake tugboat until it was finally abandoned at its current site in the mid-1950s.

    The Brown is one of only two World War II Liberty Ships (cargo and troop carriers) remaining from a fleet of more than 2,700. While Captain Brian Hope, chairman of the board for Project Liberty Ship, is anxious for the Brown to assume its new and more visible berth, he acknowledges the McLane’s value. “Of all the semi-intact wrecks in Maryland waters,” Hope says, “the McLane is probably the most historic. So we’re hoping to see as much of it saved as possible.”

    One option, says Langley, would be for the McLane’s iron bow and stern to be salvaged and preserved, along with the crossbeam bearing the ship’s hull number. The pieces, Langley says, could then be displayed at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which owns the McLane. “That would be entirely feasible,” says Richard Ervin, the Maryland State Highway Administration diver who identified the wrecked McLane in 1995. “Those parts of the ship are remarkably intact.”

    Hope says the whole matter should be resolved within a year or so, but more than a dozen state and federal agencies will have to sign off on a McLane salvage plan first.