Bay Journal

Longtime Chesapeake Bay oyster grower crosses the bar

  • By Kent Mountford on March 01, 2009
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Jack Crockett Northam circa 1995 (Margaret Northam) Jack Crockett Northam with his dog, Texas, circa 1945 (Margaret Northam) Jack Crockett Northam as a child, circa 1910-11 (Margaret Northam) Solomons Island today viewed from the Thomas Johnson Patuxent River bridge.  (Kent Mountford) An eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica, is opened to show its internal organs and the muscle meat. (Kent Mountford)

In 1907, the year that Jack Crockett Northam was born, Maryland's winter oyster harvest was 6,232,000 bushels.

His mother, Nettie, took the steamboat to Baltimore to have her baby in a hospital with a physician as she did not want to give birth at home. After Jack's birth, she returned to their home on Solomons Island, MD, where her husband, William, was in the oyster business

Solomons-close to productive beds on both sides of the Chesapeake and convenient to Northam's packing and shipping operation 13 nautical miles up the Patuxent in Benedict, MD-was a major center for the oyster business. Every winter, scores of skipjacks would crowd into Solomons' harbor to unload oysters and their crews passed some time ashore before the next voyage.

William Northam was born in 1870 on Barren Island, an offshore community on the Eastern Shore that was eroding into Chesapeake Bay. In 1877, the island covered 582 acres and included a store, school, church and 13 family properties. A Dorchester County atlas of the time reported 11 farms on relatively fertile land. The houses were on the island's eastern side, facing the narrow and shallow Tar Bay, which separated it from the Hooper Island chain.

By the time he was a young man, families were beginning to barge their houses across Tar Bay to resettle on the Hooper Island chain, which at the time seemed to be more stable ground.

But William Northam moved in the opposite direction, to Solomons Island off the Western Shore. About 1865, Isaac Solomon had bought what was then known as "Sandy Island" and started a major oyster business there. The 80-acre island was already thriving and attracting boat builders and ship chandlers by the time Northam arrived.

In the years bracketed from 1875 to 1893 the annual Maryland oyster harvests ranged from 9,945,058 to 15,000,000 bushels. Virginia did not record its harvests until 1957, but in many subsequent years they were greater than Maryland's.

By the time Jack was born, there were five stores, supplied not only with local goods but cloth, hardware and countless manufactured items transported by steamers.

A road offered access to the mainland from Solomon Island, albeit through a shallow gut at high tide, and the steamship lines provided weekly communication to and from bustling Baltimore. A road trip from Solomons, to the county courthouse in Prince Frederick was a slow day's journey before-and after-the advent of motor vehicles. Crossing the boundaries of one farm after another, 20 gates had to be opened for passage, then securely shut again. The exercise had to be repeated coming home.

The steamer route was preferable and the Northams made many trips away from Solomons this way. Jack would describe how noisy it could be aboard. In spring, calves destined for market would be driven aboard and bawled incessantly for their mothers until driven off to a worse fate at Baltimore. More were added at other tributary and mainstem landings all the way up the Bay, along with tobacco hogsheads, which were rolled, noisy as thunder, down the deck for stowage until the ship reached port.

On the return trip, the steamers would carry goods for Bayside communities, including ice transported in 300-pound tubs in the days before refrigeration. The ice sat on the ship for a full day and overnight in hot weather, and was considerably diminished when it reached outlying villages like Solomons, or even more distant Benedict. (Calvert County would not receive attention from the Rural Electrification Program until Jack was out of college and well into his 20s.)

Jack was a bright student in primary school, and by high school, he had outgrown the small rural school in his home county. During the winters, he and his mother lived in a Baltimore apartment, so he could attend more advanced technical classes. Northam attended Johns Hopkins University and after graduation in 1929 he became a professional engineer. Maryland's oyster harvest in his last year of college was 2,260,898 bushels.

He got a job as engineer with Worthington Pump and spent his entire career there and rose to the position of vice president for marine and government affairs.

In Northam's early years at Worthington, steamers cancelled their stops at Solomons and other remote locations, although the more profitable routes were still running. Northam often had to travel to Newport News, VA, or Norfolk, VA, from his office in the District of Columbia. The fare for the Old Bay Line or Chesapeake Bay Lines was about $5. Because it was only a dollar extra, he took his car with him.

In cold winter weather, Northam said there was often pan and pack ice on the route, and the ships, by then steel-hulled, crashed through these obstructions, making a terrific noise. In the warm dining salon, which was at deck level in the ship's hull, Northam said that "you could hardly hear yourself talk."

Jack loved his work at Worthington and his family joked about how he made a number of stops to look at pump equipment during his honeymoon in 1971 with his second wife, Margaret Glessner, whom he married at age 64. (His first wife, Mary, whom he married in 1940, died in 1966.)

In the 1940s, while Jack Northam was working for Worthington, his father acquired oyster grounds in Punch Island Creek on the Eastern Shore. His operation at Benedict drew from oyster beds yielding 30,000 bushels annually. In 1945, Marylanders harvested 2,436,133 bushels.

William Northam's home on Solomons was almost next door to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. While the house has been torn down and its property is now part of the laboratory. The nearby summer cottage and garage is still in the family.

By the time William Northam died in 1959, Jack, always interested in the oyster business, became a de facto oyster grower, although he still worked as a professional engineer. Northam retained a local man, Capt. Winnie Adams and his three sons Lehman, William and Harold, who had worked for his father, to manage the Punch Island and Honga interests on his behalf.

Maryland's oyster harvest that year was 2,114,899 bushels.

Bureaucrats soon took notice of Northam because he was an articulate writer and spokesperson, writing letters on behalf of the oysters to whatever government official or scientist he thought could make a difference.

In the early to mid-1950s a destructive plague had brought Delaware's oyster industry to the brink of collapse. Scientists Thurlow Nelson and Harold Haskin began a desperate study of the problem, which was traced to a virulent, hitherto unknown protozoan parasite they called "Multinucleate sphere X." This was later shortened to MSX. The organism was isolated and eventually given the scientific name Haplosporidium nelsoni, but the MSX appellation stuck. In the 1955-56 season, Maryland's oyster harvest stood at about 2,799,788 bushels.

One of the tragedies of human exploitation of natural fisheries is our penchant for messing up the system's ecology. It was almost certainly a University of Delaware biologist who introduced MSX by planting a parcel of Japanese oysters into the bay adjacent to his laboratory. The eventual effect was devastating. Is there any wonder we are wary today about introducing another oriental oyster to the Chesapeake? The disease was to spread far and wide, again partly abetted by oystermen moving boatloads of "seed" (juvenile) oysters back and forth through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Northam and the Adams brothers began seeing problems with their Punch Island Creek oysters as well as in the adjacent Honga River in 1965. That October he went out with Adams and two of his sons to sample oysters. They found large mortalities of both large and small oysters. As Northam (much later) wrote to then-State Sen. Bernie Fowler, he was greatly troubled by MSX mortality in the leading harvest crop from Chesapeake Bay, which in his words "outranks all other seafood catches combined." The oyster harvest that year was 3,561,800 bushels, but it had been more than 5 million only six years earlier.

Northam watched MSX and a second oyster disease, Dermo, sap the strength and vitality from his oysters. Trying to understand this, he got to know many of the principal players in the advocacy for Chesapeake Bay. He also realized that the breadth of the Bay's problems exceeded those of the oyster alone. In 1983, he joined watermen on the Patuxent in opposing a development-driven proposal to allow a sewage plant to discharge into the lower river.

The proposed outfall location, just downstream of Point Patience, was right in a circular-flowing gyre that would have bathed some of the river's best oyster beds with recirculating effluent. The difficult and largely untried option of disposing effluent on land was eventually adopted, and is still functioning 26 years later.

Northam was also aware that sewage treatment plants around the District of Columbia, where he lived during the work week, would frequently discharge untreated effluent into area tributaries. He cited these mostly combined storm-sanitary sewer overflows, saying the Anacostia had received this insult 85 times, the Potomac 60, and Rock Creek 17 times in the recent past.

His was one of the voices during a time of public outcry, resulting in Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes' meeting with the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia with the ultimate objective of rehabilitating the Chesapeake.

Northam was free with his opinions and his pen in struggling for the Bay's future. Hal Haskin and his colleagues at Rutgers had studied the MSX problem for a little more than 30 years in 1983, when Northam wrote to Rita Colwell, the Maryland Sea Grant director at that time, pointing out that no one had found the mysterious life stages of MSX, it had never been successfully cultured in the laboratory, and scientists still did not understand how MSX moved about the Bay infecting new sites. His assertions are still mostly true today.

In December 1981, he wrote a thankful letter to Patrick Noonan, president of the Conservation Fund, praising the purchase into public ownership, of Barren Island, where his father, and as it turned out all of the Adams brothers, had been born. He was pleased this happened before the old hunting lodge was lost into the Bay. (See "Past is Prologue," April 2003.) The lodge survived only a short time and is now long obliterated. Barren Island, once more than 500 acres, has shrunk to 200.

Northam also wrote Lee Zeni, then tidewater administrator for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, in 1985, recommending the oyster season be started later in fall. The meat quality, Northam argued, is better in cold months when oysters have had a chance to rebuild muscle tissue weakened by spawning. He also believed that watermen should return oysters that were larger than the minimum legal size to the Bay, giving the species a better chance to grow and reproduce. The 1985 oyster harvest in Maryland was 1,557,091 bushels.

In August 1986, Jack and the Adams brothers surveyed their Punch Island Creek beds and reported that 50 percent of the oysters died of disease. The Maryland harvest in 1986-87 winter fell below a million bushels to 976,162 bushels for the first time since harvesting records began in 1870.

In the fall of 1992, Northam predicted, writing in The Waterman's Gazette, that "the oyster season 1992-3 will be the worst yet as far as the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake is concerned." He was unfortunately correct at 123,618 bushels.

The Bay Program did not escape Northam's pen. During my years there, I was several times given the task of crafting replies to his always incisive inquiries.

Northam developed macular degeneration and eventually went blind, a devastating blow to a man who loved words. Nevertheless, his son-in-law Michael Caughlin, noted that he was "still sharp as a tack."

He continued to write letters, with his wife, Margaret, acting as secretary and reader for him.

He died Jan. 10 at the age of 101, with his family around him. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, his daughters Emily and Margaret, and his stepchildren Patricia and Bobby.

In 1983, Northam, in a letter to Joe Mihursky, then acting director at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, had written, "Presently, I do not think the Bay will ever be cleaned and I seriously doubt it can be stabilized in its present condition."

He appears to have been right. The latest oyster harvest figures-for 2007, Northam's 100th year-are about 100,000 bushels, just 1.6 percent of the harvest in the year of his birth.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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