Workboats: Working the Water
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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Crab fisherman, Rock Point, Maryland, 1930s.

The lives of many watermen centered in farming, with fishing being a part-time or seasonal affair - in spring seeking eels, shad and herring, crabbing in summer, oystering in winter. Following Native tradition, some watermen used oysters as currency. In one Maryland town, the owner of the local newspaper accepted the shellfish as payment for subscriptions.

Oystermen braved the most brutal conditions. Cramped vessels housed rats, lice and bedbugs alongside the crews, and the winter weather could force dredge crews to work in icy winds that froze their Bay-soaked clothing. Waking hours were spent operating a dredge or culling through waist-high piles of oysters. In the 1880s this arduous toil earned about $11 a day.

The introduction around 1900 of gasoline-powered winders for hauling in dredges eased some of the labor, but the watermen's life was chancy physically and financially. Ashore, oyster shuckers averaged $6 a week, crab pickers two cents per pound. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, an oysterman might garner the grand sum of forty cents a bushel.

African Americans - young and old - have long been among the ranks of Chesapeake watermen. In 1860, a Federal census listed more than 2,000 blacks working Bay waters. After the Civil War, blacks formed thriving communities in many places around the Bay, often combining farming and occupations as oystermen, crabbers, crab pickers, oyster shuckers and dockworkers. Others prospered as boat builders, caulkers and workboat captains.

The following graphic illustrates the diverse boats and techniques for harvesting the Chesapeake.


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