Hunting for Sunken Treasure: The Mattie F. Dean

When news that the remains of a legendary schooner, the Mattie F. Dean, could be resting at the bottom of Annapolis’s Back Creek, the promise of such a treasure beckoned the Back Creek Conservancy (BCC) to pursue the forgotten relic (as reported in SpinSheet October 2016).

The Mattie F. Dean expedition included members of the Anne Arundel County Fire Dept. Photo courtesy of BCC

Mattie F. Dean was famous for championing several races during her heyday in the late 19th century and was widely renowned as a beautiful boat on the Chesapeake Bay, until the 1950s, when she outlived her life a working oyster boat. Photographic documentation, local lore from historians, and whispered clues about this once majestic vessel lost to time inspired BCC to spearhead the Mattie F. Dean Expedition.

Alex Dulude, a full time sonar pilot and senior researcher for the expedition said, “We know that in the 1950s, Back Creek was a dumping ground for old boats and other marine refuse, so we also wanted to see how much of that was left and what kind of concentrations it might be.”

What relevance does on old ship and other debris in the creek have to Annapolis residents? The discovery and removal of an abandoned shipwreck would give way a healthier watershed environment, and if they were able to find the boat, they would resurrect a significant relic of local Maryland history.

The Mattie F. Dean fell into disrepair in Back Creek in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of BCC

Lorie Stout, (then) BCC treasurer, says, “Our mission is to try and clean up the waters and make it a viable habitat for life in the water and for also recreational boating outside of the water.”

Through a series of communications, they came into contact with the Anne Arundel Fire Department (AAFD) regarding the use of its Sea Scan ARC Explorer tow-fish technology, a valuable piece of equipment utilized by the dive team.

“We are always looking to help our partner agencies in the county, especially for a project such as this where it is going to benefit the citizens of Anne Arundel County. A project like this that’s going to improve the health of the waterway benefits everybody,” says Battalion Chief David Chen of the Anne Arundel Fire Department.

The AAFD Company 8 Dive Team, comprised of Chen, along with Firefighter 3 Nathan McKinzie and Firefighter 2 Bill Reaver, is trained in a variety of maneuvers to help safeguard civilians, including the efficient use of the Sea Scan Arc Explorer tow-fish to locate victims and bodies underwater.

“Being the dive team, we don’t always know what’s there, so having the ability to know that will help us if ever we have a call in that area,” said Reaver. He added, “What we would really look for are snag points, such as if there was a vehicle in the water, because we would want to know it was there before we put a diver in the water.”

On March 5, the AAFD dive team and Dulude conducted a sonar scan of Back Creek. With Chen captaining the AAFD vessel, Reaver manning the depth and safety of the tow-fish, McKinzie monitoring the laptop and depth readings, and Dulude assessing the findings, the study spanned two hours as they lapped the creek from headwaters to the mouth and back, four times over.

After Dulude analyzed the footage, the scan revealed about 40 different objects, including possible boat hulls and masts, dock pilings, logs, a refrigerator-like object, and about a dozen abandoned crab pots. 

“We didn’t find a lot of the massive, huge, sexy things, such as large shipwrecks or historical artifacts, but we did find a lot of debris, garbage, and trash and that’s very troubling because that’s all caused by human interaction,” Dulude comments about the results of the scan.

The wealth of debris found in the creek takes years, decades, and sometimes centuries to decompose and can have serious ramifications for wildlife and residents.

“It disturbs the wildlife there, and other boats can hit or snag it. If people end up swimming in there, they can end up getting cut on decaying crab pots or old refrigerators and other things that we found,” says Dulude

In addition to debris, McKinzie says, “One of the big things we noticed was that there were some sandbars that come out of nowhere, so that plays an important role to people with sailboats with large keels.”

While the AAFD Dive Team and BCC scientists and volunteers did not uncover what they had aspired to find, the sonar scan provided them with valuable knowledge and understanding of what lies at the bottom of Back Creek.

BCC is hopeful for the future of the creek, with the next steps including further scientific inquiries and studies about the chemical composition of the creek’s sediment ridden bottom and water configuration.

The Mattie F. Dean was finally discovered when local historian and marine industry veteran, Fred Hecklinger, pointed the team in the right direction. The boat was found on the eastern shore of the creek in the woods, degraded by the tides and wind, but with feasible remnants of the hull, several intact drift pins, and shell plating.

by Chelsea Co

Find here more information about the Back Creek Conservancy and how you can help.