A 500-year-old bronze relic may be at the bottom of a Dundalk marina—or maybe not
Published: June 6, 2012
Tom Karle is telling the story of the shipwreck he’s been “trying to give away since 1995.” Sitting on the front porch of his modest, nautical-themed home in Essex, Karle has gray hair under a Ravens ball cap, thick fingers, a strong, nasal voice, and a cadence perfect for stoop stories, oft-told. “So my brother shows up at the house,” Karle says. “You never see him unless he wants something.”
It was the spring of 1980, mid to late May, by Karle’s recollection. Make it a Tuesday. Karle, a construction worker and later a contractor, had just gotten home from work. His older brother, George Karle Jr., was a fine carpenter too, but, Tom Karle says, less interested in work than in what he could find with his boat, fishing and diving in the bay. So on this particular sunny day, with his truck parked halfway up Tom Karle’s lawn, George Karle Jr. says, “I want two of those chokers,” meaning half-inch steel cable devices, 10 feet long, used for hoisting and hauling things like engine blocks, telephone poles, and steel I-beams.
Tom Karle pointed to his garage.
“On Wednesday he comes back: ‘You have some slings?’” Karle recalls. Karle lent his brother two big canvas slings, which he also happened to have in his garage. On Thursday, George Karle Jr. came back again, this time for some truck-tire inner tubes Tom Karle had handy. It was then Tom Karle finally asked his brother what the hell he was doing.
“He says, ‘I found a wreck down at the Key Bridge,’” Tom Karle says. “‘It’s got a 12-foot bronze cannon.’ He says, ‘I’m gonna move it to Dundalk.’”
As we sat on the porch in late April, I was hearing Tom Karle’s story for the second or third time. He had called City Paper a few days before, drawling loudly into the receiver: “I just want to do something with this shipwreck. I been trying to get someone to help me with it for years and years.” He promised to prove his story with state documents. On that first day, the cannon was solid bronze, and 24 feet long—“maybe from the 1500s.” Later he allowed that it was maybe from a British ship that fought in the War of 1812. Karle said that his brother had left the cannon in a Dundalk marina to hide it from scavengers, and then died in 1992 before he could sell it himself. It was an unlikely claim, but Karle was adamant.
What if it was true? What would it mean to Karle’s family, to the marina’s owner, and to the state if there really were a historically significant war weapon at the bottom of a little marina in Dundalk?
“I’m not in this for the money,” Tom Karle says. “I don’t want anything out of it. I want my brother to get credit for it and his kids maybe to get something.”
As it would turn out, under the law, it doesn’t work that way.
The Karle family has deep roots in East Baltimore. Tom and George Jr.’s father, George, was a contractor, and Tom Karle followed successfully in his footsteps. “I used to do modular homes,” Tom Karle says. “My best year, I did 13 or 14 of them. I made a million dollars. I claimed a million. I made more than that.” Tom Karle’s two daughters are professionals (one is the “head bookkeeper” for Dewalt Corp., Karle says). And Tom Karle Jr. owns more than 1,000 rental properties in Baltimore, according to his father.
But George Jr. was always a bit eccentric. “I think it was the diving,” Tom Karle says. “He was the kind of guy, he’d go and buy a $1,000 shotgun and put it on the dining room table and dare anyone to touch it.” The discovery of the shipwreck and what happened afterward was one of George Karle Jr.’s signal achievements. Over the years the story, told and retold on back decks and at family reunions, became part of family lore.
Tom Karle Jr. calls a few days after my first meeting with his father. He tells me not to be put off by the seemingly fantastical claims about the cannon—that it’s all bronze (or brass?) and 500 years old, for instance. “He gets his facts a little off,” Tom Karle Jr. says of his father. “It’s not brass, it’s iron. They found it at Fort Carroll. They found some cannon balls too. They got those out.” Tom Karle Jr. personally vouches for the authenticity of the find. “I’ve been in the water with it,” he says. “I dove on it. My one cousin, he was involved with floating it over. He was a skin diver.”
Tom Karle Jr. says he’ll ask other family members to talk about the shipwreck and the cannon, and show me some of the eight cannon balls his uncle pulled from the depths. But he does not return subsequent phone calls made over four weeks, and his father later tells me the artifacts—including the cannonballs—were given away “years ago.” Throughout the spring, Tom Karle Sr. calls many times with detailed yet maddeningly useless bits of recollection about the find. (May 21 voicemail: “I found out another thing. The three guys that helped my brother, one of them moved to Key West, one moved to Maine to work in a lumber mill. . .and the other committed suicide.”)
As we chat on his porch, Karle tells me what his brother told him that sunny day three decades ago. “He says, ‘I’m gonna take the cannon back to Dundalk at the marina, where I keep my boat at,’” Karle says. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just leave it?’ ‘No, I’m gonna get that sumbitch, it’s worth something,’ he said. ‘If I can’t sell it I’ll junk it.’ I saw him two weeks later. I said, ‘How’d you make out?’ He said, ‘Good. It took me two weeks to get it back there.’”
Tom Karle says his brother put “five or six” truck inner tubes on the cannon to float it and then towed it to the marina, where he sunk it in his slip. “C’mon, I’ll show you where it is,” he says.
We drive a few miles to the Star Marina, park on the grass outside the locked gate, and walk in. The dock is right there, and there’s George Jr.’s old slip, empty with the sun glinting off the wavelets. While we wait for someone to notice us, Karle gives me a copy of the “Archaeological Find Reporting Form” from the Maryland Department of Planning, which describes the shipwreck find. An aerial photograph features a white circle next to the pier, depicting the cannon’s alleged location. We knock on some doors, I leave a business card, and we leave because we are, technically, trespassing.
Then I called Troy Nowak, whose name and phone number are on the bottom of Karle’s form. Nowak is the guy you end up talking to when you call the state of Maryland to report a submerged shipwreck. He writes down what you tell him and files it. When I asked about Karle’s cannon, he was guarded but kind, explaining that he can’t really say much about anything unless given permission through official channels. He says, however, that Karle’s cannon—if there is indeed a cannon—should not have been moved in the first place, and in fact is probably more of a liability to the marina’s owner than an asset to Karle or anyone else.
John G. Coleman Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning, provides a bit more information about the ins and outs of shipwrecks. “There are numerous state and federal regulations that apply to situations involving archaeological sites on public lands,” a statement (actually written by Nowak) he sends via e-mail begins. “It is important to note that unlike terrestrial lands, almost all submerged lands in Maryland are publicly owned and under the jurisdiction of the state or federal governments.”
It goes on for a couple of pages, covering the broad points of the Maryland Historical Trust Submerged Archaeological Historic Property Act of 1988, the Maryland Historical Trust Act of 1985, and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Permits are required if you’re going to be moving these items, or digging into the seabed around them. And if you want a permit you better have the appropriate Ph.D.—or hire someone who does.
The piece concludes: “Shipwrecks and other submerged archaeological historic properties should be left undisturbed for the public to enjoy, and scientists to study and share the secrets that they contain.”
In a follow-up phone call, Nowak answers some hypotheticals:
Whose cannon is this? “Ownership is case by case, but it’s not finders keepers.”
What happens if the marina owner needs to dredge? “If the marina owner applied for a dredging permit it would go through a series of reviews,” he says. “If we had a report that there was something there [which, in this case, he does], there would be a possibility that we would request a Phase One Identification Survey.” If such a survey were requested, the owner of Star Marina might be obliged to hire an archaeologist to handle it, Nowak says. But these kinds of obligations are rare; such surveys are done on less than 1 percent of the permits sent to MDP. And in this case, “we could maybe take a look if it was just, ‘maybe there’s something in this boat slip,’” Nowak says. “But for dredging an entire harbor, we would not have the resources to look at that.”
Nowak is not at all convinced that Tom Karle’s report of a cannon means there is a cannon. He says it could be a piece of a bridge or other scrap metal. “Could be a piece of I-beam,” he speculates.
Then again, it is not out of the question that George Karle Jr. found an uncharted wreck—even a very old one. National Geographic sells a map called “Shipwrecks of the DelMarVa,” charting more than 2,400 wrecks, with dates, class of ship, and other details. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) “Wreck and Obstruction Survey” for just the Chesapeake Bay (region 6) runs more than 530 pages. The word “cannon” appears only three times in the NOAA database.
I wondered what a 24-foot bronze (or 12-foot iron) cannon might be worth on the open market, so I sent an e-mail to the proprietor of the “Antique Cannon Superstore,” a web-based enterprise that claims relevant expertise and sells big ol’ cannons for prices ranging from $2,000 to $30,000. The response: ”Would need to see photos and have measurements to tell you anything about it. I am in SE Asia buying antique cannons in a remote area of Borneo and only have satellite Internet connection, so calls are out.”
Star Marina features two houses, a big garage for boat-engine work, and about 50 slips on a new wooden pier. A couple of vending machines line the wall of the harborkeep’s house and a nearby picnic table is shaded by a roof held aloft by rusty I-beams. It’s mid-May, and I’ve come back to talk about the cannon at the invitation of Dan Koch, the marina’s affable owner. “I’ve heard the story from multiple people who have been there for years,” says Koch, who bought the marina two years ago after a failed auction. He said he never tried to find the cannon because “I don’t want any problems with DNR [Department of Natural Resources]. . .kicking up the dust, so to speak.”
Today Koch has arranged for one of the guys who has had his boat here since the old days to relate what he saw and heard the day George Karle Jr. brought his cannon home. “He was a cantankerous old soul,” Mike Byer says of George Karle Jr. He says Karle ran a 30-foot Trojan called Southern Cross. “I was working on my boat one day,” Byer, who owns a 32-foot vessel called Wanderer, says. “And what a commotion there was over by the ramp. Best I recall, they drug it out on land over here.” He points to the forlorn-looking boat ramp. A concrete pad where the marina’s former owner kept a 12-foot-high steel crane for pulling engines from big boats sits nearby.
Several other marina regulars join the conversation, beers in hand. The group speculates that George Karle Jr. and his crew must have used the crane to pull out the cannon. “I never saw it,” Byer says. “I never got off the boat. To be honest, he wasn’t my favorite person.” (Byer says one day in the late 1970s he was docking his boat when the propeller snapped off. He made an insurance claim for a new one. Meanwhile, George Karle Jr. picked his old prop off the bottom, and two days later, with Byer’s boat undergoing repairs, offered to sell him back his own propeller for “half price.”)
“A bunch of people were looking at [the cannon],” Byer remembers. “Someone told me it was smoking.”
Donald Starliper would remember, Byer says. He owned the marina then—he and his father. He lives in Delaware. (Messages left with a Donald O. Starliper in Delaware who, according to land records, bought the marina in 1984, were not returned. Attempts to find relatives of the person who owned the marina before him were unsuccessful.)
“I remember, [George] caused a lot of commotion that day,” Byer says. “The guy was a knucklehead. He was off the charts.” Byer and Koch have walked around to the ramp now, and the discussion turns to what Karle allegedly did with the allegedly smoking alleged cannon. Byer thinks he pushed it back in the water at the boat ramp and maybe sunk it a few yards from there, between the ramp and the dock. That would put it right at the edge of the circle on Tom Karle’s aerial map.
Koch has another reason to believe the cannon is not in the slip.
“Two years ago we put new pilings in,” he says. “It could have crushed it right in half.”
The process of pulling out old telephone-pole-sized pilings and driving in new ones involves a barge with a backhoe on it, plus some other heavy equipment. The barge anchors itself by dropping four huge metal tubes 15 feet down in the muck. It does this, Koch says, every time it places a piling, again and again, a few feet at a time. Koch thinks that if the cannon were there, the likelihood of the barge hitting it—either with its own anchor pilings or with a new piling for the dock—is pretty high. “If it was where he said it was I think there’s a good chance it was hit.”
Koch says he spoke with Tom Karle about his brother’s cannon when he was getting ready to do the work. “I said, ‘I got a barge, I’ve got my permit. If you know where it is, I can pull it out for you.’” He says Karle never got back to him. (Karle says he’s not sure why he didn’t follow up).
Koch looks out over the marina, past the mouth of the river, into the bay. “If that cannon’s here, it would be a nice conversation piece,” he says.
On May 23, Chaz Kafer’s day off, he arrives at Star Marina in a pickup truck and dons a dry suit with a lead belt. He’s ready to dive for loose cannons. He says he usually gets $600 a day to go in the water, but for City Paper the next hour in the murky green water is gratis, provided we mention his shop—Diver’s Den, 8105 Harford Road—in the story. He won’t take beer—“I don’t do that.” So there’s the plug, with our compliments.
With overcast skies and the smell of a fish kill in the air, Kafer wades in, bites his regulator, and disappears in the greenish water just off the main dock. He is right in the circle on Tom Karle’s map. (Karle, meanwhile, is on his way but stuck in traffic.) Koch arrives and says a boat owner has told him of a “hump” just off the edge of the dock: “At very low tide, he sometimes felt like he was hitting something.” Koch says he had contractors look there during the piling replacement and found only glass. Bubbles break the surface in the slip in front of us as Kafer feels his way across the bottom with gloved hands.
After more than a half-hour, Kafer surfaces. “I found a big piece of something,” he says. “But it ain’t a cannon. It’s a piece of steel. H-beam.”
Mike Byer is sipping a cold one. “This place has been here forever,” he says. “That [H-beam] could have been put here 40 years ago.” Someone points to the spot where the “hump” was reported, behind Kafer. Kafer dives once more and resurfaces 10 minutes later: “You just got a big debris field of junk out here,” he says. “Logs, junk, bottles.”
Kafer says there are “a whole lot of logs” on the bottom, sunk into the 18 inches or so of gelatinous muck that rests on the “hard mud” below it: “The area I covered has nothing but beer bottles, logs, and that beam.” He says he can be very sure about this, because of the shallow muck depth. Then he dives one more time and in a minute or two comes up with a white hunk of PVC drain pipe.
Then Kafer is out of the water, pulling off the heavy suit. I ask if there is any chance he missed the cannon. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “I found a 9,000-pound anchor in 18 feet of mud in the Inner Harbor. If there was a cannon down there, I would say that the way that bottom is structured, you’d have found it.”
To be sure, he says, you’d have to grid the bottom and search more carefully. We did not prove that a huge, historically significant antique cannon is not there. Tom Karle, who never makes it to the marina that day, doesn’t think the dive negates his story. “He was a cautious guy, worried about people stealing stuff out his truck and all,” he says of his late brother. “He might have moved it somewhere, near the ramp.”
Karle asks when the story is coming out. It is important documentation.
“For 30 years, people think I’m bullshitting,” Karle says. “Even my son, he’ll say, ‘What detective work are you doing today, Dad? Is it the ship[wreck], or the cannon?’ I really want people to see the story, so I can shove it up their ass.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.