Robert Walston came to the Annapolis Maritime Museum on a crisp winter morning looking for artifacts of his youth. He wasn't disappointed.
Flanked by his wife and granddaughter, Walston let out a whoop at an exhibit containing his own image: a large 1950s print of a dark-haired teen in the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis. A friend had tipped Walston off about this photo, now part of an exhibit on the maritime history of Eastport.
Eastport is a grid of walkable streets and quaint homes across the bridge from the tourist heart of Annapolis, bordered by Spa Creek on the north and Back Creek to the south. In the 1950s, Walton's Eastport was newly annexed to the city, but had thrived for at least 50 years earlier as a working class neighborhood, embedded with water-based businesses and immigrant families.
Walston grew up in Eastport, walking the shoreline of Back Creek without large docks, fences or homes blocking his way.
As a boy, he shuffled out of bed in the dark morning hours to cull oysters from the Chesapeake floor with his father. "I was 8, 9, 10 years old," Walston said. "We had to be back by daybreak because my father had to get ready for his job at the Naval Academy and I had to get ready for school."
The oysters Walston harvested ended up on the dinner table at a time when the oyster industry was fading. But Eastport, and Annapolis as a whole, were once consumed with the harvesting, processing, packing and selling of oysters.
"Oysters were a major industry here between the Civil War and World War II," said museum director Jeff Holland.
More than a dozen oyster packing houses once hugged the Annapolis harbor. The formal name of today's Ego Alley, where impressive boats congregate, is the Market Slip-the area where watermen docked to sell their catch.
Eastport, itself, was home to McNasby's Oyster Packing Company, which opened near the turn of the 20th century-at the height of oyster harvest in Maryland. It closed around 1987, earning historic note as the last oyster house to have operated in Annapolis and one of the last in the region as a whole.
Private operators, including a seafood cooperative, made use of the site but without lasting success. In 2001, the city purchased the property as part of its open space plans and leased it to the Annapolis Maritime Museum.
The Annapolis Maritime Museum, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, is devoted to celebrating the area's maritime heritage and reconnecting modern generations with the joys of the Bay.
The museum is a relative newcomer to Annapolis, but long overdue: It is the only organization to focus on how the Bay has influenced more than three centuries of Annapolis history.
"Historic Annapolis Foundation is doing a great job of preserving and interpreting these marvelous old buildings from the Golden Age of Annapolis, but where did all the wealth to build those fabulous buildings come from? It was from growing and shipping tobacco from this harbor across the Atlantic to London. It's because we're here on the water," Holland said.
Holland wants visitors, especially those from outside the area, to understand that Annapolis is more than a collection of colonial buildings.
Annapolis was founded in 1695. For roughly a century it enjoyed great prosperity as both a colonial capital and a shipping center for tobacco. Incoming ships carried coveted goods from Europe and helped to define the city as one of culture, hospitality and governance. But after the Revolution, large ships began to bypass Annapolis for the growing port of Baltimore.
"The oyster industry filled the vacuum," Holland said.
Smaller, shallower boats soon dominated the Annapolis harbor, bringing bushels of oysters so large, abundant and valuable that they were sometimes called "white gold."
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports that a peak of 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested in the state during the 1890s. The resource seemed endless, and rules seemed unnecessary. But the numbers changed quickly.
Within 30 years, the harvest plummeted to barely more than 2 million bushels, and it never recovered. The next decades continued to see an average annual harvest between 2 million to 3 million bushels. Then, during the same years that Robert Walston and his father brought oysters to their dinner table, disease took hold. Dermo was found in the Bay in 1949, and MSX was first reported in 1959. The full impact wasn't felt until the 1980s, when the harvest fell even lower. McNasby's fell with it.
The oyster industry left a vacuum that was filled in turn by pleasure boating. Holland sees nothing but continuity in this story. "Water ties all three of these centuries together," he said. "So we have three main stories to tell, but we've started with the middle one."
The museum's main hall is McNasby's former shucking room, now transformed into the Bay Experience Center. Portions of the building date to 1919. The doors open to a dock and a wide view of Back Creek as it joins the Severn River and merges with the Bay. A historic oyster bar stretches below the surface.
Inside, exhibits are appearing for the first time since the arrival of Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003. The storm dealt severe blows to the local landmark. Volunteers saved most of the artifacts, but 8-foot tidal swells ripped enormous holes through the cinder block walls. Holland saw one of his desk drawers cruising down the street two blocks away and peeked into the building at safe interludes.
"It was like looking inside your washing machine on the rinse cycle," he said.
At the time, the Annapolis Maritime Museum enjoyed a small but growing community presence, with Holland's part-time leadership. The disaster threatened its future, but founding member Peg Wallace predicted that the storm would ultimately bring good fortune. Holland wasn't so sure, but Wallace proved right.
For five years, the museum ran programs from the Barge House, a small building adjacent to the main hall, while massive amounts of volunteer energy raised $1.2 million for the renovations from city, state, corporate and private donors. They also built relationships that gave the museum a stronger core. Three full-time employees are now at work and a full-time educator is on the way. The number of volunteers leaped from 25 to 250, and the annual operating budget rose from $30,000 to more than $300,000.
A crowd thronged for the grand re-opening in December, complete with local dignitaries. The renovations preserved the building's character but added features to help it withstand the next hurricane. The wallboard is designed to handle moisture and the insulation won't absorb it. Scuppers-drain holes-are installed at the perimeter of a raised and leveled floor. Exhibits will be modular and easy to evacuate. "Basically, the rest of the building is submersible," Holland said.
The modest exhibit on Eastport history helped to mark the museum's re-?opening, and a larger interactive oyster exhibit will be installed over the coming year. Children will be able to inspect the gooey interior of a larger-than-life oyster model and crawl under a viewing dome to look inside an oyster tank. They can try their hands at shucking oysters and pose by a stand-up image of Mr. McNasby himself.
For now, though, the emphasis is on events and education. The museum offers winter lectures for adults and runs an energetic, after-school program that has kids on the water (some for the first time), building boats and learning to be photo-journalists. They've charted a walking tour of Eastport, which remains a spirited, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. Space is also available to launch a canoe or kayak.
This spring, the museum will launch a third season of tours to the Thomas Point Light House, a gritty Bay adventure to the last screwpile lighthouse still standing and operating at its original position in the Bay.
"It's so powerful to be there and hear the silence or the sounds of fisherman catching rockfish from the boats at your feet," Holland said.
Old-fashioned fun and water play are a big part of the picture. The museum is a favorite spot for concerts and oyster feasts. At the vernal equinox, the museum is host to a cherished springtime ritual known as the Burning of the Socks-when boating enthusiasts and others set fire to their winter socks and celebrate warmer days ahead.
"Our work is about the Bay, but it's also about culture and heritage," Holland said. "If we lose that, we become homogenous, and we might as well be someplace else."
Annapolis Maritime Museum
The Annapolis Maritime Museum is located at 723 Second St. in Annapolis. Those planning a visit are encouraged to call 410-295-0104 or e-mail email@example.com to check on the museum's hours.
Tours of the Thomas Point Lighthouse Tours resume on Sundays beginning in June. The fee is $70 per person. Height and age restrictions apply; reservations are required. Call 410-295-0104 or visit www.amaritime.org for details.
For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
Maritime Seminar Series
The museum's 2009 Maritime Seminar Series covers a range of topics commemorating Annapolis' maritime heritage. Seminars run 7-8:30 p.m. The schedule is:
- Feb. 12: Chesapeake Wildlife - Stories of Survival and Loss
- Feb. 19: Smugglers, Pirates & Nelson's Blood - A History of the Rum Trade
- Feb. 26: Terror on the Chesapeake - The War of 1812 on the Bay
- March 5: Ospreys on the Rebound
- March 12: Deadrise & Cross-Planked - The History of the Wooden Deadrise Boat Building
- March 19: Chesapeake Songs & Stories
- March 26: Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay
- April 2: Beat the Heat! Chesapeake Bay Excursion Parks
Admission is $95 for the series or $15 per seminar. To register, call 410-295-0104.