St. Michaels, MD - Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era (Maryland Paperback Bookshelf)
Museum keeps Chesapeake’s maritime history in shipshape
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network / By Karl Blankenship - Bay Journal

When John B. Harrison set out to build his seventh “bugeye,” the 24-year-old boat builder took to the woods: He needed 10 straight logs, each roughly 4 feet in diameter and 60 feet long.

When he found the right trees, he cut them, squared them, pinned the logs together, and ultimately hollowed them out — not unlike a giant dugout canoe. A bugeye, after all, is essentially a dugout schooner, a boat unique to the needs of the Bay’s watermen at the time.

The final thickness of the hull, cut from the 4-foot-timbers, would range from 2.5 to 7 inches. From the cutting of the trees to the final bit of paint, the building of the Edna E. Lockwood took about 9 months.

When it was launched in October 1889, half of Tilghman Island showed up to cheer. Harrison, a well-known builder of his time, sold the boat for $2,200 — dugout boats were cheap when milled wood was scarce. He made about $100 profit.

Back then, the typical Bay workboat had a 20-year life expectancy. But through a few twists of fate and good luck, the Lockwood is around today. The old bugeye, a larger cousin of the more familiar skipjack, was donated to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1973, where it was restored by experienced craftsmen.

Today, the museum is home to the largest collection of Chesapeake Bay boats in existence. And the Lockwood, now a National Historic Landmark, is the last sailing log-bottom bugeye on the Bay — maybe in the world.

The story of the Lockwood illustrates one of the key missions of the museum, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. The museum, in St. Michaels, MD not only preserves boats of the Bay’s past, but part of the way of life that evolved around them.

The museum’s 18-acre grounds not only include a lighthouse and exhibits about the Bay’s history and resources, but also contains a working boatyard, which helps to ensure that the Chesapeake’s wooden boats don’t become a thing of the past.

In the boatyard, visitors can see everything from the “marine railway” used to haul boats out of the water to the wide range of gauges, rulers, axes, adzes, saws, planes, drills, caulking and rigging tools needed to build and maintain wooden boats.

Often, those tools are in action. Visitors can watch the museum’s master shipwright and his apprentices work side-by-side with boat captains to maintain and restore the handful of wooden workboats that survive out of a fleet that once numbered in the hundreds. (On the day of my visit, they were even working in the snow.)

The museum last year began a campaign to raise money, mainly through grants, to help pay for the work.

“The boats are expensive to maintain. That’s why we started our ‘Save the Skipjack’ campaign, to help the captains keep them working” said Pat Piposzar, of the museum staff. “We’re not only preserving the fleet, but keeping the skills alive that are needed to work on wooden boats.”

The museum holds 85 vessels dating from the 1880s through the 1970s, including wooden sail, power and row boats. It is also working to document, through photographs and oral histories, the vanishing culture in the communities that surrounded those vessels.

That interest in the way of life around the boats becomes evident as one explores the museum’s more than a dozen exhibit buildings.

Visitors learn about the oystermen who, in the days before rubber gloves, would nick and scrape their fingers so much doing their job that when they got up in the morning, they would have to pull their fingers apart — then go do it all again.

Visitors also learn about isolated lighthouse attendants, who earned only five days off a month and whose families could visit for only two weeks a year.

The museum recreates the past with more than 7,500 artifacts, from the fine china and silver once used for serving meals on luxury steamboats, to huge “pipe guns” with 2-inch barrels that were once used to recklessly blast waterfowl from the region’s sky. Giant floor-to-ceiling photos offer a “you-are-there” experience of oyster shucking houses from the past or waiting for a steamship at a rural wharf.

Perhaps fitting for a maritime museum, its oyster exhibit is in a building that was built around a fully operational skipjack, the E.C. Collier. Visitors can board, and explore, both the ship’s working deck and its living quarters below.

Today’s oyster harvests are at record lows. But the museum recreates an era when shucking houses surrounded the Bay, canning oyster meat into 1-gallon containers under dozens of brand names so the Chesapeake’s oysters could be shipped to such far-flung places such as the gold camps of Cripple Creek, CO.

Reprinted newspaper articles tell of the ancient oyster wars on the Bay, fought at various times between oystermen from different states, between different groups of oystermen, or between oystermen and the state. It also tells of oystermen fighting for the Bay: In the 1890s, they had so much political clout that they forced Baltimore to construct a modern sewage treatment plant to protect water quality.

Just as the oyster exhibit is built around a skipjack, the steamboat exhibit building was built around a working steam engine, El Toro. The exhibit tells the story of steamboats, which were once the main form of transportation on the Bay. The first commercial steamboat on the Bay, appropriately named Chesapeake, went into service June 12, 1813, offering one-day trips between Baltimore and Annapolis.

Soon, steamboats were offering fast transportation through the Bay, and up and down today’s rivers. Communities that had been largely isolated because of poor roads were suddenly able to trade with major cities; the wharfs became focal points for communities.

Multideck steamboats became common. Some offered passengers a chance to travel in luxury, dining on china, with silver place settings. By 1850, it was possible to travel by steamboat from Richmond, up the Bay, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, to Philadelphia. By the 1960s, they had vanished, pushed aside by automobiles, highways and the Bay Bridge.

The waterfowl building features every major type of gun ever used for hunting ducks and geese on the Bay, including the multi-barreled battery guns and huge shotguns — one so big it was called a “headache gun” by its owner — that led to the overharvesting of the birds in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Visitors also see a gunning boat that hunters used to silently float among flocks of ducks.

Visitors can climb to the top of the Hooper Straight Light House, built in 1879, abandoned in 1954, and moved to the museum in 1966. On the floors in between, they learn about the sometimes perilous, but mostly dull, life in the houses, which once dotted the Chesapeake. Their scheduled drudgery: 30 percent standing watch; 25 percent painting, 15 percent handling boats; 10 percent scrubbing, cleaning and polishing bras sand filling lamp; 10 percent visiting minor lights nearby; and 10 percent recordkeeping, picking up mail and supplies.

The Bay comes to life during the summer months as visitors to the museum’s crab shack can get their hands wet pulling eel pots, tending to a shedding tank and baiting a crab pot. Throughout the summer, tall ships make regular stops at the museum docks.

Many of the exhibits are designed with children in mind. During warm seasons, they can board the miniature skipjack, Spat, and workboat, Katie G., which contain all the features of their bigger relatives. In the lighthouse, there is a keepers uniform for children to try on.

St. Michaels was once home to six shipyards, which were the birthplace of the famous Baltimore clippers.
In the late 1800s.

Tolchester Beach resort, the famous Kent County resort that included an amusement park, which — in the days before cars and bridges made the Eastern Shore easily accessible — was a popular destination for steamboat excursions by Western Shore residents. Its bandstand is now on the museum grounds, and features musicians and other events in the summer.

Those days are long gone. But the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is doing its part to give visitors a sense of what they were like.


The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is located in St. Michaels, MD on Mill Street along the Miles River.

It is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the spring and fall, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors and $3 for children ages 6-17.

For information, call 410-745-2916, or visit its web site, www.cbmm.org, or the Gateways Network web site, www.baygateways.net

Karl is the Editor of the Bay Journal.

Museum keeps Chesapeake’s maritime history in shipshape
Article from Bay Journal, March 2002

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