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Archeology by Canoe

Richard Slattery & Hugh Stabler

The year was 1936, Hugh Stabler and I lived about one block from each other on the far outskirts of Washington, D.C. In fact, Maryland was just across the street from my house. We were just 18, and were dependent on Hugh’s father’s car, a 1932 Chevy, to transport us on various archeological exploits. For this one we needed a canoe. So who do you suppose had a canoe? Again, Hugh’s father! So now we were dependent on him to make our dream of a 100 mile canoe trip down the Potomac river, from Cumberland, MD to our planned destination of Seneca, MD. A high school friend of mine, named Fred, was happy to accompany us to Cumberland and drive the empty car back to the Stabler residence.

So it was early one morning, in the waning days of August that Hugh and I loaded the canoe on top of the Chevy and packed our camping gear in the back seat. Fred had arrived and was anxious to get going, so we began the long trip to Cumberland. This 100 or so miles was beautiful as we traversed the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains of Western Maryland. Once at our destination, we looked for an easy access to the main branch of the Potomac River. We quickly found a good spot to launch our canoe, loaded our gear and waved goodbye to Fred as he disappeared over a hill, leaving Cumberland for the trip back to D.C.

Hugh Stabler with the 1932 Chevy, canoe on top,
at the Point of Rocks Bridge, 1935.

It was with great anticipation that we pushed off from the shore and were finally on our way with thoughts of those beautiful mountains we would soon be paddling through. Our only concern was that the river was a bit low for canoeing for we were now in the headwaters of the Potomac. We passed that off, for we knew that feeder streams would soon alleviate that problem. We were still within the city limits when we rounded a bend in the river and to our HORROR saw, and smelled, a 3 or 4 foot diameter sewer pipe gushing untreated, raw sewerage full capacity right into the sparkling clear Potomac. Here we were, 100 miles from home in a canoe afloat in 80% raw sewerage with no way to get home but to paddle through this gray, smelly stuff!

It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened. Our canoe scraped on rocks in the shallow mixture. This meant that we had to get out of the canoe and push it off the slimy rocks, then get back in with our smelly wet tennis shoes. Just when we thought that things couldn't get any worse, we had to find a spot to camp before dark. There was no escaping the all consuming smell, so we beached the canoe at a reasonably level spot and whacked away enough weeds for a place to lie down for the night. We couldn’t use our sleeping bags, for our feet were so smelly from wading in the sewage.

I don’t remember is we tried to eat anything that night. In fact, we spent most of the night worrying that we were going to come down with some terrible disease, for the smell was everywhere. (Let me interject, here, that this was 70 years ago and I am certain that Cumberland, Maryland, found a way to clean its waste water long ago and dumping the polluted mess into an otherwise clean headwaters of a beautiful river is now a thing of the distant past.)

When daylight arrived, we packed up and got out of there as quickly as possible and paddled as fast as we could to get into more diluted sewerage. That day was bad, but somewhat improved over that first day. At least we were able to enjoy the mountainous scenery we were passing through and the smell had decreased a bit. That night we were able to use our sleeping bags. So far, no rain. That was good, for we hadn’t prepared for it. Yesterday we noticed that there was a little seepage coming through the canvas covering of our canoe. So, before we put it in the water, we patched the scratches and tears, from collisions with rocks, mostly occurring while we were admiring the scenery and not looking at what was ahead of us. We expected from the first day this would happen, so we had stopped at a little river town and bought a can of tar-like substance to seal the tears. This became a ritual each morning.

The third day, the river seemed to be a bit cleaner and the valleys were getting a bit wider as we began to leave the high mountains behind us. As we started out, it wasn’t long before we came to a field, just past Paw Paw, on the right side of the river. We pulled the canoe out of the water and soon found a few chips and a point or two. Just before leaving, I saw a large sandstone rock which turned out to be a cupstone. It had seven cups on one side and six on the other. It was nearly a cube, almost square and weighed some 20 pounds. (The photograph, shown on the right, is a good example of a typical cupstone.) We stowed it in the bow of the canoe and for the rest of the trip, the canoe was even lower in the water than before.

Photo of cupstones from Prehistoric Antiquities of Indiana, Eli Little, 1937.
Cupstone at Bloody Run site in Iowa. Photo provided by Kevin L. Callahan.

Cupstones are a puzzling artifact and are found widely dispersed in various parts of the world. I have personally found a couple of smaller ones in Maryland. In northwest Iowa, at the Blood Run Site (13LO2) in Lyon County, there is a very large, irregular glacial erratic, weighing tons, that is protruding from the ground some 4 or 5 feet and is literally covered with “cups” (See photograph on the left.) The surface is not flat or level with the ground and defies the use of these “cups” as holders for cracking nuts. At the time I examined this unusual display, no excavations had been attempted to determine if the multiple cups continue below the present ground surface. If such an excavation hasn’t been done by now, such would be a good project for the future.

Back to the canoe; we paddled on down stream until we stopped at another corn field, where we found no more artifacts but a kind farmer who gave us a nice, ripe watermelon which we immediately enjoyed and then continued on. It was getting late now and we began looking for a place to camp for the night. It was not long before we heard the click of a fishing reel followed by a man running out of the woods to grab a fishing rod and reel in the attached fish. Seeing a couple of young men (the term “teenagers” had not been coined yet) in a canoe in this lonely part of the river was quite unusual indeed so he shouted out to us, “What are you doing?” Our reply was, “Looking for a place to camp,” The man shouted back, “You can camp with us.” Well, this was 1936 and all the things that we are so afraid of today were not so prevalent back then, so we agreed and beached our canoe on his side of the river. We soon saw that the fisherman was not alone but there were several other men obviously camping with him. We looked the camp over and saw a railroad track right behind their camp and then realized this was a “hobo jungle” (a common sight during the depression). It was obvious that they had been there for some time for they had several hammocks made from barrel stays hanging from the trees. It was evident that the camp was made to accommodate a larger group for they quickly offered us hammocks to sleep on. I don’t remember dinner for we must have eaten our own grub. But after dinner we listened to stories about the towns they had visited, and experiences they had, many of which I can’t mention here. For breakfast I will never forget the coffee that they sweetened with wild honey including the bees, nor will I ever forget those barrel stay hammocks. I must have had red stripes across my back for days. Hugh has a different story to tell for he said that he always sleeps on his stomach.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and thank-you’s, patched our canoe and disappeared around the bend. It wasn’t far before we saw the reason we had not been wakened the night before by a passing train. The train trestle had been washed out and only the concrete pillars remained. They were very high, perhaps 30 feet and only emphasized how high the flood waters were in the past spring of 1936.
We traveled on and soon were in swifter water and trying to keep our eyes fixed on any rocks that were too shallow for the canoe to negotiate when we heard a voice from the left shore. He was saying, “Do you want some minnows?” We had no interest in minnows at this time so we said, “No thanks.” The man on the shore kept up with us, repeating his offer several times, all the time walking fast to keep up with us. We decided that he was trying to coax us to come ashore for a no good reason so we paddled faster and left him and his bucket far behind.

Richard Slattery on the bank during the 1936 canoe trip.
The next important landmark on our trip was the mouth of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Here the valley opened wide as the two rivers met. The South Branch, nearly as big as the main Potomac, joined at nearly at right angles forming a wide flood plain. The clear waters of the South Branch were a welcome sight and completely washed away any memories of those first few days of our trip. We beached our canoe on the left bank of the main Potomac so we could check out this large flood plain at the junction of two rivers, which appeared to be a promising location for prehistoric occupation. The large field was cleared of corn and it only took us a few minutes to verify our suspicions as we began to pick up pottery shards and other convincing evidence of previous occupation. As with other similar finds we marked the location on our topo map and paddled on.
The canoe was beginning to leak pretty bad now, in spite of our repairs each morning. This required one of us to bail frequently as we traveled on down stream ever keeping our eyes on both shores for more likely archeology sites. We hadn’t gone far until we spied a field of standing corn in a location that seemed promising, so we pulled ashore and commenced walking the corn rows. It wasn’t long before pottery fragments and an arrow point or two were found. After I had collected a hand-full I came across a watermelon patch hidden in the corn field. I wanted to ask Hugh if he wanted a watermelon and was about to shout to him but Hugh was somewhere in another part of the field. I didn’t know where, so I held off till I saw him. A minute later I suddenly came to the end of the corn field and there stood a rough looking man with a shotgun in his hand! “What are you doing in my watermelon patch!” he shouted, still holding the shotgun. Well, let me say it was a good thing that I had a handful of artifacts and was not carrying a watermelon!
After that, we boarded our canoe and headed down stream at a quickened pace. The next stop that we made was at Hancock, Maryland, where there was a corn field strip between the railroad track and the river. It was a narrow strip, but worth checking out. After a bit of searching I looked in a small eroded spot and there lay two atlatl weights, both made from soapstone, one round and the other square. Each was about one and a half inches in size with a one quarter inch hole.

Back in the canoe, we had free paddling (no rocks) but our canoe was leaking badly. With one of us bailing we made it to Williamsport, Maryland. Here we stopped by our first dam. This meant a portage to get further down the river. It didn’t take long to decide it was futile to think of taking a leaking canoe further, so we reluctantly decided to end our trip here and make that phone call home.

Here it is, 70 years later and that canoe trip rates as an important part of our long lives. The experience was both good and bad. The sewage was bad, but it didn’t rain, and that was good. There were other parts that you have just read that were both good and bad, but isn’t that what life is all about?

Richard Slattery provides the lunchtime lecture about his trip during the 2003 Field Session at the Winslow Site, 18MO9.

Footnote: It is appropriate to mention that all along the trip Hugh Stabler also found artifacts and recorded them as did I but we did not co-mingle them. Today, years later, we only recall the artifacts that we alone collected and cataloged. However, all experiences were shared equally. My maps and artifacts were donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Hugh later donated his collection to the Maryland Historical Trust.