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An unassuming white cinder block building sits at the terminus of a residential street that abuts Back Creek in Eastport, Maryland. The brackish water laps the back of the building – or maybe it’s the front, if you arrived by boat. The space, once owned by businessman William McNasby Sr. and operated as a bustling oyster packing plant in the early 20th century, now houses the Annapolis Maritime Museum, serving as an educational diorama of the industry that formerly existed within its walls. The place provides visitors with both a tour through another time and an urgent call to protect one of the Chesapeake Bay's most vital inhabitants.
Watermen would dock their workboats at the McNasby Oyster Company's creekside door. McNasby would weigh the product by the bushel and purchase the harvest. Oysters were harvested in winter, and the building was not heated. Workers pried open shells and plucked out their meat from 4:00 a.m. until noon, making 25 to 35 cents per gallon bucket. The sturdy wooden stands upon which the workers stood to help keep their feet dry are now on display in the back of the museum next to the stainless steel rinsing sinks, shucking tools, tables, and bushel buckets. Historic photos show the plant at full working capacity and show how the equipment was used.
Men with heavy shovels and wheeled carts scooped up the vacant shells from the work floor and piled them out back to be trucked away for fill and fertilizer. I try to imagine that at one time forty employees worked here shucking, cleaning, and packing oysters in cans labeled “Famous Pearl Brand Oysters.” McNasby's shipped product as far away as Iowa.
Much has changed since the plant was in full operation. The footprint of the museum building was expanded slightly after it was flooded by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The interior walls have been painted a crisp white, and the natural wood trim, reminiscent of a fine wooden boat's finish, has been sealed to protect it from damp weather. An adjoining event space displays a maritime photographer's vibrant artwork.
A deadrise sits in the center of the museum floor now. The low-profile vessel used for harvesting oysters has been cross-sectioned by exhibit designers into thirds and retrofitted with plexiglass to display the insides of the boat. All three pieces are built for hands-on exploration. Climb aboard, and shift the steering stick back and forth from the aft. Watch your head as you dip into the bow's tiny dark cabin.
Native Chesapeake Bay creatures populate a round fish tank on the port of the deadrise. Rusted hydraulic patent tongs emerge from the tank's surface almost reaching the ceiling. A touch screen near the tank helps visitors explore oyster ecology or identify Bay life by their physical traits, like whether or not the creature has legs or fins. Answer the “yes” or “no” questions on the screen to identify a new favorite critter or a recent catch on the Bay. Perch, rockfish, and crab navigate over and around a reef of oyster shells covering the bottom of the 850-gallon tank.
Three more examples of work boats are in dry dock on the museum's side yard. The museum recently acquired a Chesapeake Bay skipjack made in 1940 by famous boatbuilder Bronza Parks. The Wilma Lee will dock at the museum and serve as an educational vessel, a charter cruise boat, and a pleasant wedding photo backdrop.
The museum takes visitors back through time when oysters were plentiful enough to create jobs and industry, but also reinforces a larger message of how devastating the depletion of the oyster population has been to the Chesapeake Bay. Overfishing, disease, pollution, and loss of habitat have contributed to the depletion of a once bountiful natural resource and an industry's lifeblood. Large-scale replenishment efforts are often afoot, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that current oyster populations are at about one percent of historic levels.
Young and old alike can learn about the importance of preserving and restoring Bay life and the environment it needs to thrive. The museum offers a winter lecture series, school trips, and summer camps. A range of affordable tour options are available for individuals, families, and groups.
Knowledgeable docents are available for spontaneous questions 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. The docks and benches skirting the waterside of the museum belong to the City of Annapolis, but are open to the public for fishing and small craft launching. A donation made to the museum's front desk for boat launch and fishing use is appreciated. All local fishing and boating regulations must be obeyed.
The Annapolis Maritime Museum is dedicated to preserving and commemorating the maritime heritage of Annapolis and the neighboring waters of the Chesapeake Bay and features rotating exhibits celebrating the area's unique maritime heritage.