Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum #2

…continuing with our late September exploration of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels Maryland back in 2023.  This is the second in a 3-part tour of the museum.

The Winnie Estelle is a ‘buy boat’ that was built in Crisfield Maryland in 1920.  She operated in the lower Chesapeake Bay for over 50 years, buying fish and oysters directly from regional watermen and then transporting the seafood to city markets or big seafood houses for packing.  The boat was named for the builder’s two daughters. 

In 1975 the Winnie Estelle was moved down to the Caribbean Sea to be used as a cargo carrier.  Shortly thereafter she was rebuilt for use as an island trader…carrying lumber from Honduras to Belize…and she was also used as a charter boat.  The 64 foot long Winnie Estelle was donated to the Museum in 2014.  As you can see, at the time of our visit the boat was in the boat yard being refurbished and refitted.  In the 9 years that she has called the Museum home, she has been utilized as an educational boat for school children and as well as a charter boat for guests.

The first photo shows the ‘Shipyard Building’ at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.  As mentioned in a previous post, the Museum’s working shipyard is intended to preserve the tradition of the working waterfront and to insure that the skills and techniques of early shipbuilders are maintained.  Shipyard staff interact with, visitors answering questions and explaining what they are doing.  In addition, apprentices are trained in the skills required for wooden boat building.

The boat shown above in the shipyard building is named Mr. Dickie. This boat with a scaled down (36 foot) ‘buy boat’ look, is actually new construction.  Work began in 2022 and it was completed the month after our visit.  It was built with heart pine, white oak, Atlantic cedar and western red cedar.  The owner had started building Mr. Dickie at his home in Virginia but when he decided that he needed help he turned the project over to the Museum’s shipyard staff.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has an impressive collection of large and small watercraft.  The Museum’s new welcome center (which opened in December of 2023) is currently featuring a long-term exhibition called “Water Lines: Chesapeake Watercraft Traditions’. 

I took this photo of the recreational sailboat Fly when we toured the “At Play on the Bay” exhibit adjacent to the Hooper Strait Lighthouse.  In addition to small sailboats like this, visitors could view an early 20th century canoe campsite, a boathouse, a 30 foot long Owens cruiser, a 1950’s tackle shop and a yacht club lounge.

This little sailboat was also found in the “At Play on the Bay” exhibit.  In 1932 Maria Wheeler asked a boat builder named C. Lowndes Johnson to design a sailboat that her sons could easily launch and sail on Chesapeake Bay.  The result was the ‘Comet’, an American sailing dinghy.  While the design has evolved and many are now built with fiberglass, this design has endured.  Over 4,100 sailboats based on the original ‘Comet’ design have been built.

At Play on the Bay examines the dramatic changes for Chesapeake Bay over the last century.  It started as a waterway for transportation, to a place to work in the fisheries and on to a place where so many come to play.  Historical moments are explored and the beginnings of tourism is examined, as is the role of sailboat racing and cruising.  Exhibits also include the founding of African American resorts as well as the mass production and marketing of motorboats.

We visited the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum during the ‘shoulder season’ but we did observe that some of the smaller watercraft from the Museum’s fleet were in use taking visitors on tours.  Reservations were required.  Looked like fun though…

The Museum is located on Navy Point in St. Michaels Harbor.  It first was opened in 1965.  When you consider that this area was once a jumbled collection of docks, workboats and seafood packing houses, you have to hand it to the visionaries who conceived of the Museum.

We found the exhibit focused on Chesapeake Bay’s Oyster industry to be quite compelling.  Looking at all those oyster tins, it’s hard to imagine just how many packing houses were operating at the peak of the industry. 

In the early 1600s, Capt. John Smith described oysters lying “as thick as stones”.  They were so abundant that their reefs neared the water’s surface, sometimes becoming navigational hazards.  Most oysters in the early days of the industry were ‘hand-tonged’ by watermen in small boats.  Then dredges imported from New England appeared, bringing about the “Oyster Wars”, a violent struggle between traditional harvesting and the dredgers. 

At the end of the 1800s, it is estimated that over 15,000,000 bushels of oysters were being harvested each year, just from the Maryland portion of the Bay.  Today’s harvests are about 1% of that total!

This photo of oyster-shuckers posing on an oyster shell midden was taken near a Crisfield Maryland packing facility ca. 1891.  It had to be tough work…monotonous too!  Injuries had to be common.  I can’t imagine just how many people were involved in the packing business.  In Baltimore alone, the center of the industry, close to 30,000 people were employed.  During that period as much at 160 million pounds of oyster meat was harvested every year.  An oyster cost just about a penny at retail…or the equivalent of 25 cents each today.  Oysters were on everyone’s menu.  It’s estimated that each resident of New York City ate around 600 oysters a year.  Today, the average American eats about 3 a year...

This boat, or actually a two-sail bateau, is 52 feet long.  The E.C. Collier was built in Maryland in 1910 and she is one of the 35 or so surviving traditional Chesapeake Bay ‘skipjacks’.  She belongs to the group comprising the last commercial sailing fleet in the USA.  The Collier was built mostly from Eastern Shore loblolly pine and white oak.  After 80 years on the water and with the oyster industry in steep decline, she retired from dredging and spent most of her time at a dock on Tilghman Island.  She was fully retired in 1985.  The E.C. Collier was donated to the Museum in 1988 and she is on permanent display.

I took this photo of Bonnie and Laurie on the E.C. Collier as they explored the working world of the Chesapeake Bay watermen.  The exhibit includes everything from harvesting equipment to an examination of the “Oyster Wars”.  The overall theme is about how the Bay’s oyster fishery shaped the area’s history, culture and landscape. 

Note: Did you know?

         ·         Oysters purify the water as they filter it for their food.  A single adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water each day.

         ·         Sediment and nitrogen cause problems in the Bay.  Oysters filter these pollutants by consuming them or shaping them into small packets which are deposited on the bottom where they aren’t harmful.

         ·         At one time the oysters in Chesapeake Bay could filter the equivalent of all the water in the Bay (19 trillion gallons) in a single week.  Today it would take the remaining oysters a year to filter this much water...

One more boat… This 41 foot long ‘dovetail boat’ was built in 1834 at Bishops Head Maryland.  She is named the Dorothy Lee.  She was built for oyster tonging as well as for trot-lining for crabs.  Her long narrow hull and light displacement made it a fast workboat.  These boats were equipped with gasoline engines and they have a stern the looks more like a motor racer.  The watermen really appreciated the speed these boats provided.

This photo is titled “Tonging Skiff Gypsy Girl 7”.  It was taken by Robert de Gast and it is on exhibit at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.  This 1969 photo shows Tilghman Island waterman Ben Gowe carefully following the Maryland state icebreaker leading him back to a safe harbor after a day ‘tonging’ oysters during a cold snap.  It was a hard way to make a living!  During icy winters, the state deploys small icebreakers to help watermen return to port.  The photo was taken in preparation of a book entitled “The Oystermen of the Chesapeake”. 

In the early days fleet of locally made log canoes would venture into the Bay for a day of tonging.  Commercial hand tonging has been largely replaced by more efficient means of harvesting.  However, recreational tonging remains an ideal way to gather enough fresh oysters for a family or for a party.  All you need is a small boat, tongs and the location of an oyster bar or reef.  Both Virginia and Maryland have an open season for recreational oystering.  No license is required but the legal harvesting methods are via use of tongs or by gathering by hand from open rocks.  Maryland allows residents to gather 100 oysters per day and Virginia permits a daily catch of a bushel.

One more tour of a mixture of varied exhibits and themes explored during our visit to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum will follow…

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. I wonder why people always give a ship or boat a name, but not with cars. Didn't know that oysters purify the water...really amazing.

  2. Curiso museo. Me gustaría visitarlo. Me gusto saber más sobre las ostras. Te mando un beso.

  3. Unfortunately, we seem to have gotten too efficient at oyster harvesting.