|Driving Tour: Watermen in the Southern Bay|
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This tour visits three sites in the lower half of the Chesapeake to explore the history of the men who followed the menhaden fishery, the culture of traditional Virginia watermen, and an island community built around the watermen’s life.
The Virginia Watermen’s Tradition
The Watermen’s Museum, Yorktown, Va.
Geography and catch help Bay watermen decide what boats and techniques bring them the greatest harvest. What works in Virginia may not work in the northern Bay. So when you come to this museum on the York River and see the 100-year-old log canoe from Poquoson, Va., that once carried bushels of oysters to market, and a pound-netting batteau that helped raised tons of fish, you can begin to understand how watermen from different regions came up with variations on a basic theme. Though connected by the Bay as a whole, each community of watermen developed their own traditions. Standing along the beach in front of the museum you may be fortunate enough to see watermen at work crabbing in summer and gill-netting during other seasons. Inside, skiffs, hand “hung” nets, crab traps and boat models help translate the story of their hard daily work.
Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, Reedville, Va.
This small, vibrant museum tells the story menhaden fishing—once one of the Bay’s most lucrative businesses. Begun in the 1870s by Captain Elijah Reed, the Bay’s menhaden fishery by the turn of the century had made Reedville one of the wealthiest towns in the nation. In the early 1900s, more than 60 boats steamed from Reedville daily all summer in pursuit of menhaden, which were processed for oil and “guano” (fertilizer). Their crews hand-hauled purse seine nets loaded with tons of fish, singing chanteys to help them pull. Over time, the equipment changed, though the methods have remained basically the same. Today, Reedville is home to one of the two remaining menhaden plants on the East Coast, and local fishermen still captain and crew the ships that head out every spring. Using photographs, equipment, oral histories and restored boats, the museum documents this fishery’s evolution and its impact on Reedville and the Bay.
An Island Community
Smith Island Center, Smith Island, Md.
Whether you approach from the east (Crisfield, Md.) or the west (Reedville, Va.), you can only come here by boat, and so you will be, for a moment at least, in a waterman’s boots. Approaching the ferry dock at Ewell, you will see the boats, peeler sheds, workshops, churches and tidy homes that comprise the fundamentals of the waterman’s life. Smith Island at its heart is a waterman’s community, born of the Bay and unique to it. Though struggling, crabbing remains its primary industry, while tourism here is growing. Most locals lack the time to drop everything and explain to visitors what they’re doing. So the Smith Island Center uses photos, boats and gear indigenous to the island’s crabbing industry, as well as other exhibits to reveal the island’s history, economy and way of life. You may even get to meet Jennings Evans, a lifelong resident and wellspring of island stories and history.