Workboats: Oyster Boom
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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The skipjack Robert L. Webster dredging oysters. When this
photograph was made in 1953, the 60-foot boat had been working
Bay waters for 30 years. Photograph by M.E. Warren

In 1850 miners digging California gold could stop in San Francisco and stock up on tinned Chesapeake oysters. By the 1860s the Bay's seafood county had become a hugely valuable commodity. Ravenous demand for oysters in Northern cities led the way. Leaving depleted New England oyster beds in their wake, northern boats had sailed into the Chesapeake shortly after 1800 bringing large iron dredges capable of gathering virtually every oyster in their path. Maryland and Virginia legislatures soon outlawed dredging and restricted oystering to residents, but the die was cast. Bay watermen already proficient in tonging and "scraping" oyster beds flouted regulations and added dredges to their outfits.

By the 1880s Chesapeake Bay was the nation's main oyster producer and a rich source of crabmeat, clams, fish and fish products such as fertilizer and oil. Hundreds of workboats and thousands of watermen competed for the richest hauls. An 1880 government report tallied nearly 49,000 people directly employed in Bay fisheries, harvesting over 250 million pounds of seafood and generating the then-princely annual revenue of more than $8.3 million. Over the winter of 1884-1885, Maryland oystermen alone hauled aboard 15 million bushels. It was an astonishing take, but never again would the Bay produce so many oysters in a single season.

For more on oysters, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program website's section on the American oyster.

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