42 posts tagged Chesapeake Bay
City of Baltimore as she looked in the early 20th century. CBMM archives.
In the most recent edition of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s magazine, The Chesapeake Log, I wrote a story about a disastrous fire onboard a steamboat on July 29th, 1930. The ship, City of Baltimore, was a luxury vessel in the Chesapeake Steamship Company’s fleet, and had 40 passengers onboard blithely enjoying one of the line’s sumptuous repasts in the forward dining room as the steamer left the Patapsco bound for Norfolk. It was a fine night and as the ship steamed past Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse out of the Patapsco into the Bay’s main stem, a light breeze and clear skies held not a hint of foreboding.
The brochure for the Chesapeake Steamship Company advertising their “floating hotels of the most modern type.” CBMM archives.
Around 7:30 PM, a steward noticed smoke snaking up from the hold and set off the fire alarms. Fires onboard steam boats in this period were fairly common and some fire safety was in place- for suppression and for evacuation. The crew immediately responded to the alarms as they had been trained to do by reporting to fire stations, but when they began to unfurl the water hoses, they found to their horror the hoses were dry. The passengers, some still with napkins tucked into their collars, were moved to the fore and aft decks, farthest from the blaze, as the captain and crew tried desperately to quell the fire. It was a busy night on the Chesapeake, with many recreational sailboats and steamers about, and as the situation worsened, vessels began to come to the aid of City of Baltimore as horrified onlookers watched from the shoreline.
Images from the Baltimore Sun show the throngs of shoreline onlookers watching the blaze. CBMM archives.
Without any fire suppression, the flames soon created a holocaust of smoke and light visible for miles around. The captain and crew were running out of options. Captain Brooks attempted to beach the vessel, grinding to a halt on a sandbar before it could reach land. A following steamboat, Arkansan, attempted to come alongside the distressed vessel to rescue passengers and crew, but her forward momentum was so powerful she glanced ineffectually off the side of the City of Baltimore’s hull with a screech of steel-on-steel before retreating. Meanwhile, the metal of the ship’s railings and hull was heating up with the conflagration, and passengers were becoming increasingly desperate to escape. Skin was blistering and summer clothes were scorching in the relentless heat. As other vessels approached to rescue passengers, people began to leap overboard, encouraged by a brave young woman and her setter, Judy, who together made the first plunge off the reddening deck.
The City of Baltimore’s contorted hulk and salvage crews on the morning following the disaster. CBMM archives.
Eventually, all but 4 of the passengers and crew were able to escape the City of Baltimore, picked up by pilot boats and passing sailboats. The vessel was left to burn unfettered, and the hungry flames tore their way through the elegantly appointed staterooms, the dancing salons, the opulent galleries with their chandeliers and fine carved molding, blackening the sky with the char from the finest steamboat money could buy. Though burning of the City of Baltimore would ultimately prove to be a catalyst for the United States to create and implement legislation to improve fire safety on ships throughout the country, it cost 4 lives and the very public destruction of the steamboat in front of a crowds of thousands. Due to the visibility of her demise, The City of Baltimore's legacy would live on in the stories and photographs that shared the devastation witnessed by so many local Chesapeake families that night.
Horace Plummer’s aerial shot of the City of Baltimore wreckage. Photo courtesy of Bob Plummer.
Horace Plummer was one of those people. Upon the publication of this article, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum received an email from a man, Bob Plummer, whose father, Horace, had explored the wreck and photographed it the next day by airplane. He had a couple photographs and an artifact, if we were interested. And what treasures they are! In Bob’s pictures, the smoke from the husk of blackened steel hangs in the sky. Several salvage boats are pulled alongside, with Bob’s father, Horace, soon joining them. He found one item to save, a capstan cap inscribed with the ship’s name and its birthplace, Sparrows Point, which remained in his sister’s kitchen in Saluda, Virginia, for over 76 years.
Capstan cap salvaged from the City of Baltimore. Courtesy of Bob Plummer.
It’s a reminder of how much of the past is still in our present, here in the Chesapeake, and how many people and vessels have been lost below the Bay’s placid surface. It’s also a reminder of the power of objects and how much history and emotion can be contained by these tangible relics of the people, places, and vessels that knew the Chesapeake Bay long before we did.
To read the full article on the City of Baltimore, check out an online version of CBMM’s Chesapeake Log here: http://www.cbmm.org/ab_communications.htm
Nothing says summertime in Maryland like a steaming pile of crabs piled hot and high on a newspapered picnic table, ringed by cold National Bohemians and a throng of hungry people impatient to pick. It’s a slow process, meant for whiling away the long, humid July afternoons with friends and family. Hands around the table are busy prising the white lumps of flesh from their thin crab compartments and mouths are full with the delicate taste of fresh crab meat alternating with the peppery bite of Old Bay. Wash it all down with sips of beer or lemonade, sigh, and start all over again. It might take a few hours to tackle the pile, and even by the end, you might not be full. It doesn’t matter, though- satiation is not really the point, it’s all about the process, the savoring, and the conviviality of a summer gathering. Crabs are a symbol of the best Maryland tradition that represents so much about what’s great and unique about life here; a slower pace, seasonally working the water, and a close connection between the brackish tide and the dinner table. All these things are embodied in those gorgeously red and viciously clawed apples of the Chesapeake Bay’s bottom.
The translated Latin name for the Chesapeake Blue crab, callinectes sapidus, hints at some of the other, more subtle characteristics symbolized by our native sideways swimmer: “Beautiful Swimmer That Tastes Good.” There, right in the name, is the first, obvious thing we all immediately recognize- that crabs are food. Good, tasty food. The food most commonly asked for by visitors to Maryland, summertime or no. But the ‘beautiful swimmer’ can seem like a bit of a misnomer until you poke around under the Old Bay. There’s a lot more to crabs, the process that got them to your picnic table, and the customs surrounding how we enjoy them, than most of us ever consider or imagine. Crabs are a symbol of pleasant living, sure, but they are also a modern-day survivor of much older Chesapeake traditions, history, and the Bay environment of the past.
First off, take a closer look at a live blue crab sometime if you want to observe an animal whose form directly reflects the Chesapeake environment. Sure, the red cooked carapace is pretty (and rings a Pavlovian hunger pang in most of us), but that rich, vibrant blue of the claws, the Bay-toned camouflage of the top shell, and the glistening white of the underbelly are some sort of tidewater firework. Color- coded to be invisible from the top, and pearly white where they touch the Chesapeake’s sandy bottom, the blue-green kaleidoscope of their tinted shell perfectly lends to the crab’s Bay habitat. The construction of a blue crab’s form is another example of their beautifully-evolved functionality. Powerful front claws defend, menace, and form a sort of directional tiller, while the powerful backfins propel the crabs tirelessly from the mouth of the Chesapeake, where they start their lives as zooplankton, to the shallow grassy river bottoms that serve as their sparking spots and marriage beds.
‘Beautifully evolved’ also describes the relationship watermen have developed over centuries of working with crabs, observing their life cycles, their eating and mating habits, watching them scoot off in the water when they see a shadow, or how they’re drawn in by the smell of a mature male or female of their ilk. Watermen have refined their technique by noting even the smallest physical changes that indicate a window for maximum profit. Looking for ‘the sign’ is a classic technique, wherein a waterman looks for an impossibly thin red line on a crab’s backfin that shows up when a crab is about to near the end of its molting cycle. This “sign” also indicates that hard crab, worth maybe $1 to $2 retail, is about to transform into a soft crab, doubling their value to $3 to $5 dollars. It’s a bright red little hairline of pure profit to a waterman who knows where to look, and it reflects generations of working summer after summer surrounded by growing bushels of grabbing, waving, scrabbling crabs.
The techniques surrounding the crab harvest can be things of beauty, but so are too some of the traditions developed around how we enjoy eating them. In particular, adding flavoring to a pot of crabs while steaming is an old custom- older even than the widespread trend of crabs as ‘the’ go-to Maryland seafood, which started in the early 20th century as the availability and prevalence of the oyster market declined. Beer and cider, for example, are a frequent addition to the water for steaming, a foodways holdover from the 18th and 19th centuries. No batch of Chesapeake blue crabs are complete without the classic Old Bay spice mix generously frosted over the whole lot while in the pot, so that it comes off the red shell in thick sheets as the biggest crabs are unearthed from the mound on the table. Named after the “Old Bay” steamboat line, Old Bay was trademarked in the 1940’s by Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant from Baltimore. At the time, crabs were so plentiful and ubiquitous that bars frequently offered them to patrons for free, and salty, spicy seasonings like Old Bay were served on crabs as a means of encouraging the customers to buy more beers.
The tradition of using spices to add ‘heat’ to your crabs goes back even further than the 1940’s, however, and one particular flavoring, fish peppers, can even be traced to a specific Bay location and culture. Fish peppers bear a striped fruit that pack quite a wallop of heat. Developed by Chesapeake African Americans in the Washington D.C. area in the 19th century, fish peppers were used primarily as a spice for seafood- and when crabs went into the cookpot in homes along the Potomac during the 1800’s, a fistful of these vengeful little peppers got tossed in as well. Over time, this piquant and delicious custom transcended cultural lines and was adopted throughout the Chesapeake. Old Bay and other fiery crab seasonings reflect the blistering influence of the fish pepper, and today is one of the reasons we prefer our crabs to not just be served hot, but to taste hot, as well.
Crabs are not just a food in the Chesapeake Bay, but the conveyance of a venerable series of traditions that underscore the fundamental place that seafood and the Bay itself have in our identity, our culture, and our stomachs. So, the next time you turn over your basket of piping hot crabs on a picnic table, dislodge the biggest and fattest, and aim that claw meat dusted with Old Bay towards your eager mouth, think for a moment about the icon that is the Chesapeake Blue crab. Perfectly constructed to swim from the ocean to a river near you, plucked from its eelgrass habitat by a watermen who knows just how it’s done, cooked up in a brine that our colonial predecessors might have enjoyed, and sprinkled with an intense peppery seasoning influenced by the foodways of slaves, the ‘beautiful swimmer’ truly reflects the legacy of the Chesapeake and its people.
This article by CBMM director of education Kate Livie ran in the Chesapeake Log in June, 2012.
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is a place that feels intensely and seductively timeless. As you move away from the clutter of Kent Island’s Route 50 corridor, the land opens up expansively into vistas that haven’t changed much since the colonial era: wide fields criss-crossed by tough osage hedgerows, dropping their yellow, brain-like fruits into the corn below. Small river towns of peeling clapboard houses with front porches sagging hunker in the humidity, their only concession to the passage of time marked by the direct tv dishes that bristle on their roofs. By and large however, this feeling of the past-as-present is an illusion- modernity has touched every part of this rural landscape. DSL and 24-hour Taco Bells and any store with a “Wal” in its name sidle incongruously with 18th century farmhouses and drug stores where they still make sodas by hand.
Corn crib at Wye House, Library of Congress.
Which is why the true time capsules are all that more rare and remarkable. Wye House in Talbot County is one of these places- a refuge of an elite past Chesapeake, largely untouched and so much richer because of its stasis. Owned by the same family for over 360 years, Wye House is the insect in amber of the Eastern Shore ruling class in its heyday: luminously beautiful from a distance, but with a dark center composed of human sweat, blood and flesh.
Wye House’s long approaching drive and formal facade. source
As you drive to Wye House, each turn down wooded and corn-field-fringed farm lanes seems to husk away another layer of time until your tires on dog-day asphalt could be wagon wheels clattering over dust. The giant oaks and cedars cast deep shadows, almost meeting overhead as you pass beneath, just another of the millions of people who have traveled this way since the Lloyds put down their roots here in the 1650’s.
At the vanishing point of the looped gravel drive, the manor house spreads wide, pillared and hyphened in elegant Palladian rigidity. Around it are gathered tidy outbuildings and barns like chicks flocking to a yellow brood hen. It is prosperous and peaceful, it is seductively old- in short, it is everything we like our history to be: clean, affluent, and seemingly innocuous. But this too is an illusion. It is a monument to the Lloyd’s that owned it, certainly, but just as importantly it is a testament to the slaves that built, maintained, staffed and and farmed it. Like all American history, there are many facets to the past of Wye House and the Eastern Shore property it dominates, and not all of them are appealing.
To this day, a Lloyd family descendant owns the property, which has been handed down, generation after generation, breaking away from its original, vast 20,000 acreage to its current (and still considerable) 1,300 acres today. Land patents of this immense size were not unheard of in the 17th century Chesapeake. It was an era when tobacco cultivation was the economic lifeblood of the region and most farms had huge fallow tracts in states of recuperation from the nutrient-leeching tobacco crop. Tobacco not only needed rich soil to sap, but many human hands to tend- and the Lloyd family, of great influence and puritanical religious leanings, had plenty of ready capital to equip their immense estate with the slaves needed to tend the “16-month crop”.
Names of slaves from an 1805 century ledger kept at Wye House. source
By the turn of the 18th century, the plantation was centered around the grand manor house that remains today, with scores of specialized outbuildings and expensive follies, huge fields and orchards and gardens, fleets of schooners, all staffed, maintained and serviced by 700 slaves. In the 1820’s Frederick Douglass was among them, owned by Aaron Anthony, chief overseer of the Lloyd farms. Douglass lived in one of these dependencies called “the Captain’s House” with Anthony and his family, and was part of the daily life that centered around Wye House, its slaves, and its inhabitants. He later wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom:
"Just such a secluded, dark, and out-of-the-way place, is the "home plantation" of Colonel Edward Lloyd…it is far away from all the great thoroughfares, and proximate to no town or village. There is neither schoolhouse nor townhouse in its neighborhood, for there are no children to go to school, the children and grandchildren of Colonel Lloyd were taught by…a private tutor…The overseers children go off somewhere to school; they bring no influence from abroad to embarrass the natural slave system of the place…Its blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, weavers, and coopers, are slaves."
Exterior and Interior of the Captain’s House, Wye House Farm, from the 1930’s survey of historic American buildings, source
Douglass found Wye House to be the location of some of the most formative experiences in his young life: the place where he witnessed whippings, starvation, and brutality by overseers, and escape attempts by Wye House slaves to North and freedom. He was chosen to be the companion to the young master of Wye House, too, and was introduced to white men of power and influence, inspiring Douglass to ultimately question his place in Wye House, in society, and the existence of slavery itself.
The Orangery at Wye House- a rare,18th century greenhouse, heated by wood fire and a system of hypocausts that supplied Wye House with citrus fruits and hothouse flowers year round.
About the house itself Douglass wrote:
"There stood the grandest building my eyes had then ever beheld, called, by every one on the plantation, the "Great House". This was occupied by Colonel Lloyd and his family. The occupied it; I enjoyed it. The great house itself was a large white wooden building with wings on thee sides of it…The great house was surrounded by…kitchens, wash-houses, dairies, summer-house, greenhouses, hen-houses, turkey-houses and arbors, of many sizes, all neatly painted and altogether interspersed with grand old trees… that imparted to the scene a high degree of stately beauty… These all belonged to me, as well as to Colonel Edward Lloyd, and for a time I greatly enjoyed them."
A map by Henry Chandlee Forman of the Long Green at Wye House, location of the outbuildings and activity referred to by Douglass in his autobiography. Source
As in Frederick Douglass’ accounts of Wye House, it remains today a very beautiful, yet very dark reminder of a terrible time in our collective Chesapeake past. The current Lloyd family descendants who own Wye House understand this, and the value the property holds today as a rich repository of physical information that can deepen our understanding of slavery, history, and the foundations of Chesapeake culture. The estate, with their permission, has been the site of ongoing and intensive archaeological digs through the University of Maryland and other partners to uncover some of the secrets interred around and within Wye House. Much of their work is focused on the physical remnants of slavery, which have been obscured by time, vegetation, the slow march of decay. Their digs have unearthed the foundations of slave cabins, charms secreted to ward off spirits in the greenhouse and attics, and the buttons, dishes, broken tools, nails and personal effects discarded, forgotten, and now uncovered.
The Orangery interior, the current site of archaeological investigation by students from the University of Maryland.
Wye House persists, a reminder of the nature of the Chesapeake’s history, at turns both lovely and harrowing. It is our own history, as well as Douglass’ to understand and internalize. The foundations of the country, the Eastern Shore, and Wye House itself were created on the backs of men like Douglass, his family, and his forebearers- a terrible truth, with beautiful, conflicting results nationally, locally, and on a quiet cove on the Wye River. Douglass understood this strange, haunting, captivating quality Wye House possessed. Though it was the place of his enslavement, and was created by a system he spent his adult life trying to destroy, he still said of the house and grounds in his autobiography: “Nevertheless (Wye is) altogether…a most strikingly interesting place, full of life, activity and spirit.”
For more on the ongoing archaeology at Wye House, check out: http://www.aia.umd.edu/
A wonderful resource, “The People of Wye House” compiles all the records of Wye House’s slaves into a searchable database: http://wyehousedb.host-ed.me/
From the cemetery at Cold Spring Church.
An article in the New York Times this morning explores the discovery of the Griffin, at 16th century French sailing ship lost in Lake Michigan and its reemergence from the sediments at the bottom of the inland sea. Headed by up a man arguably described as ‘obsessed’, this find has all the makings of a classic treasure hunt story- the devoted but slightly-crazed explorer, a ship full of treasure lost in mysterious circumstances, red tape, international intrigue.
Sunken ships and buried treasure are not sole property of the Great Lakes, or Outer Banks, or the coasts of Maine and Nantucket. The Chesapeake certainly has a slew of her own. Notoriously shallow, shoaled with sand and oysters, and difficult in which to discern bottom soundings, the Bay’s reputation in the 17th and 18th centuries was labyrinthine and deadly.
Scuttled WWI wooden steamship at Mallows Bay, Potomac River. source
According to Don Shomette, who worked for National Geographic in 2011compiling data regarding all known shipwrecks into a map, as many as 2,200 may exist as sand-covered ghosts on the bottom of the Chesapeake’s Bay. His results, published through the National Geographic Press as the Shipwrecks of Delmarva, document the lives and vessels lost forever to the Chesapeake’s capricious tides, wind, and weather. The tiny symbols that thickly pepper the map, each representing a sunken schooner or steamboat, is a reminder that the Bay is a treacherous place, regardless of its placid surface.
Closeup from the Shipwrecks of Delmarva map detailing wrecks at the mouth of the Patapsco River.
While many of the map’s shipwrecks are unidentified, there are plenty of famous wrecks, tantalizingly known and accessible- though the largest challenge to would-be treasure-hunters is the Chesapeake’s notoriously turbid water. Some of the most famous, like the Peggy Stewart, are also made memorable by the fantastic stories of their demise (burned by the owner to quell an angry mob, in that case). But even the less spectacular wrecks are getting attention, thanks to modern methods of bottom sleuthing, like side scan sonar. Amateur underwater archaeologists and hobbyist shipwreck seekers can combine historic charts and state-of-the-art technology to uncover vessels long obscured by thick black sediment, as exemplified by a recent post on Shawn Kimbro’s blog, Chesapeake Light Tackle.
Image from Chesapeake Light Tackle.
Kimbro dug into the historic background of a known shipwreck off of Sandy Point, the Herbert D. Maxwell. A four-masted schooner bound for Maine with a cargo of fertilizer, she was sunk initially in a 1910 collision with the steamer Gloucester that took the lives of four men. She was sunk again (or rather, deeper) by the US Army Corps of Engineers 1912, as her masts and other wreckage were blocking the shipping channel. Since then, she’s faded from view and memory, until resurrected in a series of spectral images by Kimbro’s side scan sonar unit.
Images from Chesapeake Light Tackle.
Like sepia photos in a shoebox, or discovering your grandma’s cache of cigarettes in a 30-year-old raincoat, these scans are tangible connections with a past that, as Faulkner once said, “is not even past.” It’s what makes them so fascinating- and in general, why we are so interested in shipwrecks. Time capsules, buried by sediment and protected the same water that ultimately drowned them, these vessels powered by steam, sail, and oar linger in brackish purgatory. Their treasure is rarely gold- more often, it’s detritus of a distinctly human scale- ivory toothbrush handles, copper coins, pierced lanterns, nails, canteens, and dice. They wait, lurk, dinosaur bones of a bygone era. Often nameless, these shipwrecks contour the Chesapeake’s bottom by the thousands- which means though many can claim knowledge of their whereabouts, the fresh excitement of new discovery is yours for the taking. All you need, it seems, is a decent depth-finder.