In the wake of the November Past is Prologue about skipjacks comes another class of Chesapeake working vessels— the scraper—the origin of which go back to to the Bay’s pre-colonial times.
A widely reprinted engraving by De Bry from the late 1500s, which is based on a painting by Roanoke Colony Gov. John White, shows an Indian fisherman at the stern of a canoe holding what could be a rake for retrieving oysters from the bottom. Specialized rakes are used even today in many East Coast estuaries for harvesting clams, and in the Chesapeake, there’s a reference to sending a man out to “rake up some oysters.”
While colonial literature does not dwell on harvesting techniques, at St. Mary’s City, MD, a sudden shift in the shape of oysters—from round to narrow—excavated from community refuse heaps offers some clues. Archaeologist Brett Kent interprets the shift as the petering out of the round, shallow-growing—or more easily gathered—oysters, and their replacement by narrow-shelled, close-growing channel oysters. This shift appears to correspond with the development of a deeper water harvesting technique, and may be the advent of the scissorlike hand tongs still used by the rare Chesapeake oysterman.
According to skipjack historian Pat Vojtech, tongs were the harvest method of choice in the Chesapeake until the early 19th century, when dredging under sail was brought into the Bay by New England oystermen who had used this technique to deplete oyster beds in Long Island and Connecticut. (See Past is Prologue, November 2004, March 2003, June 2001, May 2001)
At first, the New England oystermen worked the deeper waters in Tangier Sound, which were inaccessible to the local tongers, who could only handle these awkward, heavy tools to reach the bottom in depths down to about 20 feet.
While they were not in direct competition, the local watermen looked on with awe at the deep treasures being hauled up from “their” Bay. But a schooner in the shallower beds already being tonged threatened the livelihood of many in a short time.
At first, the Chesapeake watermen were not fishing from schooners large enough to pull the heavy dredge, so a smaller version—or scrape—was developed. Scrapes, which weighed only 70-100 pounds, could be managed from a smaller vessel. I found an abandoned one on the shore of St. Leonard Creek in the early 1970s that is now on exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons.
In the 1887 “Fisheries and Fisheries Industry of the United States,” George Brown Goode, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, and his associates reported that the 1884-5 Chesapeake oyster dredge fleet consisted of 700 skipjacks and other vessels and employed about 5,600 men. There were also 1,880 scrapers employing 3,000 men using a variety of bateaux, brogans and coasting canoes and yet another 1,825 canoes—mostly of log construction—employing 5,145.
This was a massive force compared with today’s remnant industry. In that winter of 1884-85, 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested. It was never to happen again and the decline began thereafter. “Dredging in Maryland,” Goode wrote, “is simply a general scramble carried on…[by] unscrupulous men, who regard neither the laws of God nor man.” Later, in his summaries, Goode wrote that “socially and morally, the scrapers are somewhat superior to the dredgers.”
In the 1870s, the small boats in this fishery, Vojtech wrote, were soon modified, using the cross-plank technique, which was popular along the East Coast. In the simplest sense, instead of using long, expensive bottom planks running the length of the vessel, short planks were nailed crosswise to the keel (center) and chine (outside edge) of the hull. Planks near the bow were necessarily short and were less boards than chunks of wood nailed in place and trimmed flush.
Vojtech said this method was first used on the Maryland Eastern Shore about 1883, when two large vee-bottom dredge boats were built at Tilghman Island by J.L. Harrison.
The technique is so simple that any reasonable carpenter could build such a hull, upside down, in his back yard. Boatbuilder Jim Richardson said that after setting up the keel—with a flattened transom in the stern and a near-vertical stem in the bow—one just bent the principal side planks using a few stretchers to determine the vessel’s shape, then fastened them to the stem and stern.
The limit in size was only how big a boat the builder and his neighbors could turn right-side up at the proper point in construction.
The positioning of the main side planks determined how much deadrise or vee-shape the hull would have in cross section. Boats working in very shallow water were built almost flat with very little deadrise and could be prone to pounding as they sailed upwind in a chop. Some builders called these boats “flatties.”
Boats with greater deadrise would make better sea vessels and have a deeper hold for cargo, but would also draw more water, limiting their usefulness on the shallow shoulders of Chesapeake’s sounds. The deadrise hull, incidentally, has carried over into the age of power and one sees its characteristics in high-speed fiberglass hulls popular with fishermen and watermen alike.
Many versions of the deadrise scrapers evolved on Smith and Tangier islands as well as the Eastern Shore mainland, at Jenkins Creek, Deal Island and lower Hooper Island. The late Smithsonian curator Howard Chapelle said that a variety of sailing rigs were used on scrapers, with the bateaux having a sloop rig of mainsail, jib and an aft-raking mast, similar to the skipjack. One such vessel, built in the early 1900s, is on exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD.
While scraping was done under sail, the boats’ freeboard (distance between the waterline and the uppermost deck) had to be high enough so that when it heeled under sail, water did not immediately come over the rail, threatening to fill the cockpit. In almost all sailing vessels, with enough wind, the rail eventually goes under water, and the cross-planked scrapers had side decks or waterways, separated from the cockpit or interior with a raised rim to turn back water.
These side decks also provided a level and stable platform for handling the dredges. A portable culling board spanned the two sides of the vessel and was used to sort the oysters from debris and dead shell.
As engines became widely available after the turn of the 20th century, boats no longer relied on wind to haul the dredges across the rough oyster bottom as it filled with a heavy load of shell. Scrapers, therefore, no longer had to rely on a high sides to keep out the water. In the central Chesapeake sounds and embayments, freeboard was reduced to a foot or less, to ease the labor of bringing a filled dredge aboard. The relatively high, sharp bow to turn aside a nasty chop was retained and the hull’s profile developed a distinctive curve that naval architects refer to as a “springy” sheer. The graceful stern of the sailing hull was often retained, even on boats converted from sail.
As the size of engines increased, ships would move faster under power than under sail, and as a result, would squat down at the stern. Watermen found that a flat platform, at or slightly below water level and completely across the stern, artificially lengthened the waterline and prevented squatting until significantly higher speeds were reached. Thus, the older boats could be made faster.
This feature has been modified through a sequence of experiments and incorporated into today’s square, blunt sterns. This allows useable space in the boat to be carried far aft. Today’s massive motors also provide speed 10 times greater than that of the old scrapers.
A sound working boat built by skilled men, though, does not guarantee a bountiful harvest, and oyster populations decreased, in fits and starts, through the 20th century.
Crabbing was turned to as an alternative fishery. Crabs were believed to be endlessly abundant and many watermen harvested them with a vengeance.
There has been a targeted fishery centered around the wide and lush grass beds, which until the 1970s stretched from the Honga River down the central Chesapeake islands from Bloodsworth to Tangier. Scrapes similar to those used for oystering were modified to work in the grassy underwater meadows and remove crabs, especially the vulnerable soft crabs. Bob Orth and his colleagues at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimate that there are 30 times as many crabs in underwater grass beds than on adjacent open bottoms.
A crab scrape, sufficiently unique to impress the attorneys evaluating it, was patented in 1898 by Lewis C. Dize, of Smith Island. It had none of the oyster dredge’s iron teeth on its leading edge. A twine-netting bag was fitted with spreaders to keep it open in dense grass and a heavy cord to stop the mesh from distorting and parting the twines. It glided over rather than dug into the grass beds, leaving more of the plants intact than a toothed dredge, allowing the next batch of shedding crabs to find shelter.
While Chapelle still found some sailing crab scrapers in the 1940s, by midcentury, these boats were mostly power-driven and had evolved into graceful, efficient harvesting machines. Paula Johnson, Chapelle’s successor at the Smithsonian, in her book, “The Workboats of Smith Island,” offers several examples of the scraper’s hulls. They run from 22 to 30 feet or more measured on the deck.
When I first came to the Patuxent River community of Benedict in 1971, it was my pleasure to look outside my office at a lovely little boat moored to a piling in the river. While the Miniature was clearly of the crab scraping genera, it inexplicably was a third smaller in all dimensions than the working scrapers.
I was just as intrigued to find, in 1973, a near duplicate at a Solomons Island pier. She was owned by Tom Wisner, today widely regarded as the “Bard of the Chesapeake,” but then a youth educator and publicist for the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, a part of the Natural Resources Institute of Maryland.
He had bought the boat from an island family, the Kelloggs, and was told she had oystered around the Patuxent some winters before, tonging. Her capacity was reported as 17 bushels. This was a respectable catch for one man likely to be working alone. Because she was not a skipjack, under the modern rule of law, she could not dredge.
Wisner had a vision—this is 30-odd years ago—that there should be a boat, maybe a fleet of boats, to enthrall young people and teach them about the wonders of the Bay. He was ecstatic about the thick grass beds, abundant fishes and even sea horses that were right outside the harbor. If only he could get the kids out there in a boat to appreciate them, he might translate this vision into action by the next generation.
His timing would have been perfect; the environment he saw was all pre-Tropical Storm Agnes, and before the collapse of the Bay’s underwater submerged aquatic vegetation beds, the decimation of the rockfish population and the fishing down of crabs and menhaden. There were still dozens of skipjacks working the Bay.
The lab administration, though, deemed concerns about the licensing of a captain, safety and insurance for children out in wooden boats in open water—to be insurmountable. The yard bills were building up, and maintenance for a little boat not part of the institute’s dedicated research fleet simply wasn’t in the cards. Wisner, not the laboratory, was left holding the bag, and with Wisner’s approval, I paid the bills, and became its owner on Nov. 1, 1973. (History has proven Tom Wisner’s vision correct. Many of the skipjacks, buy-boats and other surviving members of the fleet, are all over the Chesapeake teaching the public about the Bay’s history and natural resources.)
With the boat out of water, we began making her sea-ready so she could be moved to another berth. I ruefully found that many of her planks had shipworms, from too long a period in saltwater without a thorough covering of anti-fouling bottom paint containing copper.
I cut out some of the long and pencil-size worm galleries, ground by these boring mollusks with their vestigial, drill-like shells and found that they rarely crossed a seam into a second plank. Filled with epoxy putty, I thought, there would be several years in the little ship yet.
My wife, Nancy, while sanding and scraping the topsides, made some interesting discoveries: Letters and ornamentation were emerging from many layers of white paint. Like an archaeologist, she picked away flakes of paint, preserving the colors and details and a name, on both bows was discerned: GEDA. On the stern, two more letters emerged: a cryptic F.D. on one corner of the transom. These mysteries were clues that could be followed in the future.
We mixed the proper bright-colored paints and re-emblazoned Geda and the enigmatic initials where they were found. It would be a long time before we would know their significance.
In the long months at the pier in Solomons, Geda had often been set low by accumulating rainwater and leakage through her seams and propeller shaft, but its engine had never quite submerged, so there were hopes that it could be resuscitated. Jim Schultz at Harbor Island marina took one glance at it and shook his head.
A simple waterman’s remedy, never applied, could have saved it. The upturned end of her exhaust-pipe, positioned so as not to blow fumes at someone in the cockpit and to deflect vertically the sound of a single cylinder internal combustion engine was her mechanical Achilles heel. Rain falling directly into the muffler had made its way into the cylinder and valves, in time corroding them immovably.
The waterman’s remedy to this design feature would have been to always drop a bucket or coffee can over the exhaust pipe when one got into port. Geda’s engine was consigned to the county landfill and a small Briggs and Stratton air-cooled engine was mounted in its place.
With winter approaching, it was time to take Geda to Benedict, where we could care for it.
The saga of Geda—its builder, life on the Western Shore and ultimate resting place—continues in next month’s “Past is Prologue.”