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
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,
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.