Unique Craft of the Chesapeake

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Many Maryland residents made their living from the bountiful waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Many different types of work boats harvested of the oysters, clams and crabs of its waters. Still others brought that catch to market and return to the rural water communities with manufactured goods from the city.

In the 1800's and the early part of the 1900's, the primary transportation for goods and cargo in the Chesapeake Region was by water. Tobacco, lumber, produce and sea food was shipped to the major cities of Baltimore and Norfolk.

.Sailing ships at Baltimore Harbor Loading cargo for delivery throughput the Chesapeake Bay
Forest of Masts, Baltimore Harbor Maryland Historical Society

Shipping from all over the world picked up the tobacco and wheat and brought goods from the industrial European and New England manufacturing centers. Those goods were then transported back to the many towns and villages lining the tributaries of the Chesapeake.

USS Constellation, Baltimore Clipper, Clipper ships and 5 masted schooner
Naval and Merchant Ocean Vessels Maryland Historical Society

Many vessels from other regions sailed the Chesapeake's waters, but the many shipbuilders in the region were soon building long, tall fast ships as privateers in the early 1800's. Known as Baltimore Clippers (bottom right is picture above) these ships out-sailed and outmaneuvered many naval vessels in both the British and French fleets. Their success in capturing other ships led to Baltimore having a reputation as a "nest of pirates" and to the nearly disastrous Declaration of War against Britain in 1812.

The pungy was an adaptation of the marvelously successful Baltimore Clipper design to the needs of cargo merchants shipping perishable and luxury goods around the Chesapeake Bay region. The characteristics of the pungy reveal its ancestry: the full flaring bows, long lean run, deep draft aft, sharp floor, flush deck, log rail, raking stempost and sternpost, the main topmast sprung forward are all developments of its schooner forbears. The Lady Maryland is a replica of a Chesapeake Bay pungy based in Baltimore. The remains of an indigenous Chesapeake Bay watercraft identified as a pungy, were recovered from Watts Creek and placed under a shelter for exhibition at Martinak State Park in 1964 and 1969. The last pungy to sail the Chesapeake was taken to the Great Lakes and abandoned there in 1959.

Many of the vessels plying the shallow creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake were unique to the region, shaped by both the work they performed and the waters they sailed. Many were developed to harvest the bountiful oysters of the Chesapeake "Great Shellfish Bay". With the demise of those beds and the rigors of the waterman's life, nearly all these unique sailing vessels are gone now with but a few preserved as tourist rides and museum exhibits.

Chesapeake Log Canoe
Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe Wye River Models

One of the first unique Bay vessels is the Log Canoe. The Log Canoe is constructed out of 5 logs and then hand hewn into a dugout. This early vessel design was used by the indigenous Indians.

The log canoe was the original sail/ work boat used by non-mass oyster dredgers. As the oyster industry grew, the log canoes wee designed with larger hulls to make them more profitable. The typical log canoe was approximately 30-40 feet in length, with a fixed bowsprit, two raked masts, and a narrow open deck. Most oystermen worked on one masted boats. Later these canoes progressed into different alterations of the log canoes such as two masted schooners, pungies, clippers and most importantly the bugeyes.

Eventually the boat became a local racing favorite. The events became a heavy betting sport. One favorite bet for many years was Captain George Larrimour against the fleet - even money.

Chesapeake waterman
Captain George Larrimour - Mac McComas

There are less than twenty of these graceful boats left. They are only racers now and race in a circuit every summer in St. Michael's and Oxford.

Chesapeake Bay Bugeye
Chesapeake Bay BugEye Wye River Models

Bugeye comes from the Scottish word for oyster. A Bugeye is a two masted sailing vessel used for dredging oysters. Descended from the Log Canoe in a time when the need was for a larger boat, it became the workhorse of the Maryland dredgers. They were first built using 50-60 foot logs but later progressed into using plank on frame construction. The bugeye had a covered deck and a small cabin behind the main mast. At first they utilized tillers but later models used steering wheels. They were powerful enough to drag a dredge across the vast oyster beds and large enough to carry an exceptionally large catch to the Buy Boats. Bugeyes came into being around 1875 and became the mainstay of the workboat fleet during the late 19th century, when schooners of the day were too large and the log canoe was too small. Methods of construction were adopted from both. There are only a handful of these graceful boats left, including one at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and one converted to power at Calvert Marine Museum

Oysterboats and Steamer at Baltimore Harbor
Oyster Boats at Baltimore Harbor Maryland Historical Society

Chesapeake Bay Skipjack
Chesapeake Bay SkipJack Wye River Models

A wooden sailboat usually 40'-60' long built in the early 1900's that was used to dredge oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. A handful of these boats still exist and are still working the bay. Others ply the waters as tourist attractions for example out of Havre de Grace.

Chesapeake  Bay Buy boat
Chesapeake Bay Buy Boat Wye River Models

A buy boat is a large vessel (usually 50' or more) that went up and down the Chesapeake Bay and bought the daily catch from the Skipjacks and other working boats. The buy boats would then take the catch to the market as middle men of the water. This practice enabled the other working boats to stay out on the waters longer. These boats still work today, but they also carry seed oysters out and plant them for the state, and sometimes take classes or tour groups out for hire. Some have been converted to private yachts and lovingly preserved.

Hooper Island Draketail
Hooper Island Draketail Wye River Models

The "Hooper's Island Draketail" was named after the small island located in the lower half of the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern shore. In the early 1900's, when the internal combustion engine first appeared, watermen were trading the sailing rigs for the engines and the local boat builders were looking for new ways to build better and more efficient workboats. One such builder noticed the torpedo boat destroyers pass by his home, and he thought that the hull design would be good for a workboat. He copied the hull design and built a boat with a V-bottom. The boat was fast, good looking and because of the narrow beam and sleek lines, it was relatively inexpensive to build. The design caught on and the boats sprang up everywhere. The boat acquired the name "draketail" because the stern resembled the back of a duck's tail. A few years later, a new box stern type became popular, and the draketail became old fashioned. Eventually, the full name was shortened and now most people only know them by the name "ducktail". Today, not many of these beautiful boats exist. But through the passage of time, the boat has become a classic.

Chesapeake Bay Box Stern Work boat
Box Stern Work Boat Wye River Models

A "box stern" workboat is the most widely used type of workboat on the Chesapeake Bay. It is called this because the stern of the boat is square. This design allows the boat to have more room and is also more stable on the water. Most of the newer boats are fiberglass, but there are a lot of old wooden ones still working the bay.

In the nineteenth century, the Chesapeake Bay proved to be an ideal body of water for steamships. the trade from Baltimore and Norfolk and their environs furnished the backbone of that business. Dozens of boats served towns along Bay tributaries on both the Eastern and Western shores.

Chesapeake Side Paddle Steamer Emma Giles
Side Paddle Steamship Emma Giles Maryland Historical Society

Several companies ran steamships on various routes on the Bay. The first regularly scheduled steamer Chesapeake ran from Baltimore to Annapolis in 1812. The most prominent company was the Baltimore Steam Packet Company established in 1840 affectionately known as the Old Bay Line after 1865. Their first ship was the side wheeler Georgia. She ran from Baltimore to Norfolk at a stately six and one half knots, burning 2500 pine logs, a fuel in good supply at the time.

While early steamships afforded on "his" and "her' dormitory accommodations, the trip was the fastest and most comfortable way to travel between Baltimore and Norfolk. By the 1850's a typical vessel was 235 feet long, 31 feet of beam and 11 feet deep. The fully outfitted cost was about $170,000.00

Freight was as important a source of revenue as passengers. By 1854 speed had increased so that just two steamers could serve the Baltimore to Norfolk run, each making the trip daily and passing each other in mid bay. During this period numerous other steam freighters served settlements around the Bay transporting tobacco, grain, seafood, general cargo and some passengers. In 1880, the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad built a line down the eastern shore all the way to Cape Charles. The more efficient railroad quickly took over most of the freight hauling opportunities to the Eastern Shore communities.

Bay Steamer President Warfield
Bay Steamer President Warfield Maryland Historical Society

In order to continue operations the steamships enhanced their appeal to passengers as well as freight. Built larger and faster, the first iron hulled freighters appeared in 1860. In 1877 the Virginia and Carolina entered service. These vessels afforded a swift and very comfortable passage with private cabins, plush salons, gold filigree ornamentation and electric lights. The latter were installed well before electric lights were used in the White House.

Postcard Bay Steamers at Light Street Baltimore

Ten years later saw the first voyage of the Georgia, with an iron hull, screw propellers, electric lights, steam assisted steering, and gleaming brass spittoons. Diners were served with fine napery and included oysters, crab, steak, quail and terrapin. Dinner was $1.00 and a one way fare was $3.00 with round trip $5.00.

The Old Bay Line ran one boat each way every day except Sunday. Service was suspended in 1914 when the government requisitioned the vessels. They were not returned until 1920 in a very poor condition.

The State of Maryland and The State of Virginia were built in 1922. These vessels carried 600 passengers, 700 tons of freight and could steam at 20 knots. They departed at 6 PM and arrived at 6 AM each way. Now passengers could enjoy a sumptuous dinner, a good nights rest and partake of a fine breakfast before going ashore to their destination. With this schedule only the two ships were needed, so most of the old and smaller ships were sold. Some of the fleet that had served the Bay wound up in Canada, California, Alaska and as far as the Philippines.

Dining Room of steamer State of Virginia

With the increasing number and efficiency of the trucking lines, automobiles and the airplane, the passenger, freight and mail volume diminished to the point that the end of the steamship era on the Chesapeake came to an end in the 1950s. Fortunately many accounts and pictures of the great steamers of the Chesapeake remain.

Many of the vessel types depicted here can been seen at the Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival or the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Model kits of many of the working vessels can be purchased from Wye River Models or Jean Preckel Models.




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