There once was a bar, docked inside the Harborview Marina, with all the ambiance of an abandoned amusement park.

Potted palm trees were left to wilt and pastel-colored paint chipped along its sides. Coated with years’ worth of sleepless and drunken nights, the Tiki Barge floated brazenly, its structure ragged but sturdy enough to look down upon the multimillion-dollar yachts swarming the marina.

People used to gather here. They tossed back drinks stuffed with crushed ice and brown liquor and waded across the vessel’s onboard swimming pool. To some people along the Inner Harbor, the barge was an oasis; to others, it was Gomorrah.

Then, on Dec. 14, the Tiki Barge was gone.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The bar had sat vacant since 2019. Attempts to rebrand as a site for the occasional Zumba class or afternoon vinyasa failed to distract the neighboring Ritz-Carlton residents from the ship’s pirate skulls and Crown Royal-stained wooden planks. Left unbought for nearly a decade, it quietly collected dust — until it disappeared.

It may as well have been an act of God. Harborview Marina management refused multiple requests for comment regarding the bar’s location, as did its former owner Dan Naor. I left notes atop 20 boats in the marina looking for anyone with information on the barge’s whereabouts. No one responded.

An image taken late last year by Alicia Tyrell, an avid kayaker and sailor of the Inner Harbor, shows the barge being towed into the horizon. While some believe the vessel reached its final destination at a scrapyard, nobody will say so on the record.

Debbie Schanberger, an employee for a barge, tug and equipment rental company in Curtis Bay named Smith Brothers, did not recognize the towboat. She also checked for recent invoices related to a barge — no dice. Tyrell’s image was blurry, but Schanberger’s colleague Keith Aschenbach said the tow looked small — too small to travel very far. He previously told The Banner that since a local scrapyard in Sparrows Point had closed, a barge of that size would likely need to be brought to Norfolk, Virginia.

So, I looked for scrapyards in Virginia.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Lyon Shipyard, Sims Metal and MHI Ship Repair & Services all appeared to be popular spots for boats to meet their demise near Chesapeake waters. After multiple calls, each with supervisors chuckling over the pursuit of a tiki barge, the vessel’s location remained a mystery.

But what if the barge never made it out of Maryland?

Bernard Dehaene, who lives on a boat in the Harborview Marina, has his own theory. He thinks the barge may have been sunk in Fairfield and suspects the marina’s owners planned to convert the 120-foot-by-40-foot structure into an artificial reef.

“I guess it went to become a playground for the fishies, you know?” he said of the barge, which was built in 1987 but popped up in its latest iteration in the summer of 2010.

When the barge opened with its safari-like greenery and vaguely problematic tiki huts, the business was hailed as “the biggest thing to happen to Baltimore’s nightlife scene this summer,” according to an article published in The Baltimore Sun. And its congregants soon earned a bad reputation among the ship’s neighbors: a liquor board petition signed by more than 40 neighbors in the months after the barge opened accused patrons of publicly urinating, nudity and “simulated sex with a potted palm tree,” according to the newspaper. (A petition in support of the bar that praised its “uniqueness” made the rounds, too.)

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The venture was controversial, and in the 15 years prior to the barge being towed into oblivion, the structure became dilapidated. Community members wanted it gone: Put on sale in the mid-2010s for $1 million, the barge’s asking price had plummeted to $40,000 as of August. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would be needed to care for the “monstrosity,” Dehaene said. Space along the waterfront is limited, and the boat needed plumbing, rewired electric and a new coat of paint to prevent corrosion.

“People wanted to reanimate it,” he said, but then would discover insurance for a swimming pool is up to $25,000 per year and lose interest. “It’s a heavy piece of metal to move anywhere.”

But even Dehaene was surprised to hear no one would tell us the location of the infamous ship.

“If no one’s talking, they must have a reason,” he said.

Deheane recalled plans to use the barge for a fish market, five container houses overlooking the harbor, or even an office space with the pool as a sunken living room. No idea took off like the artificial reef.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The concept was plausible: Maryland’s Artificial Reef Initiative funds the development of reefs across the state. Projects have used deck slabs, retired New York City subway cars, a steel Navy ship, recycled scrap concrete and more to build reefs.

But the Maryland Port Administration did not know of any sunken barge matching Dehaene’s description, according to Richard Scher, director of communications for the Port of Baltimore.

“I checked with our operations folks and they’re not aware. They’d be the ones who would know,” he said in an email.

Could the reef be somewhere else?

Gregg Bortz, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, appeared to think otherwise. Both police and boating units were unaware of the vessel’s location. Marina management spoke with the department’s artificial reef coordinator about using the barge, but “it was just general information on the process, not an actual plan to do so,” Bortz said. The coordinator was not available to provide comment.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And so, the mystery continued.

The Maryland Department of the Environment was not aware of the barge’s location. No tidal wetlands application, which is required to convert a structure into an artificial reef, was submitted. In fact, the department had not heard of any floating Baltimore businesses that have gone on to sink their property, according to Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department.

Even a man in the “scrapping community,” who declined to be named out of concern for his job, said he had been approached by the marina to discard the barge. But there’s no place in Baltimore to scrap a barge of that size, he said. To him, it was beyond repair: only trash and debris would come out of its disposal, instead of the metal and other recyclable material that could be used to pay for the project.

For a bar that made so much noise in the community, its ending was quiet. After weeks of digging, I came no closer to the truth, perhaps discounting how quickly a once treasured piece of the city’s lore could be discarded and forgotten.

But one day, if I’m lucky, I will see the barge emerge from its watery grave, or potentially, recognize its parts in thrifted furniture. And when that day comes, like nearly everyone who has spoken to me over the last week, I will say “good riddance.”

More From The Banner