Watermen make their living harvesting the Bay’s finfish, shellfish, eels and crabs. Independent and self-employed, they own their boats and choose their catch. It’s a tough, physically demanding way of life, and it’s been going on for hundreds of years.
Their profession is as diverse as the Bay’s species. There are pound netters, crabbers (soft-shells and hard-shells, employing completely different techniques and gear), oyster dredgers, hand-tongers, gill-netters, clammers. Over generations, they have developed boat designs, gear and fishing methods unique to the Chesapeake.
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.
Total mileage: 62 (one way from Yorktown to Reedville)
Total travel time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
(The Reedville ferry to Smith Island takes approximately 1.5 hours. Visit www.campingfriend.com/ChesapeakeBayCamp-Resort to learn about ferry times, reservations, and rates.)
Yorktown, VA 23690
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.
The museum demonstrates the role that Chesapeake Bay watermen played in the shaping of the nation through a historical display of crafts and methods of their trade. Indoor exhibits include workboat models and displays that show the challenge and skills used in crabbing, oystering, clamming, and fishing during the seasonal changes on the Bay. Outdoors, you can view the workboats, try your hand at tonging for oysters and see the tools of the trade of the watermen.
Reedville Fishermen's Museum
Reedville, VA 22539
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.
The museum houses a collection of artifacts and historical material covering the history of menhaden fishing from its inception to the present. Unique models of fishing vessels and tools used for building and maintaining the fleet are on display. Museum exhibits also include a history of watermen's activities from early American Indian practices to those used today by oystermen, pound fishermen and crabbers. Part of the museum houses rotating exhibits and educational programs and a guided tour of the Walker House gives one a glimpse of life in a typical waterman's home of the early 1900's. The museum grounds and dock also house a public research library and a collection of traditional Chesapeake Bay watercraft.
Smith Island Cultural Center
Since you can only come to Smith Island by boat, you are, 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. Crabbing remains the island’s primary industry, while tourism here is growing.
Smith Island Center is a small museum in the tiny community of Ewell on one of only three Chesapeake Bay islands still occupied by working watermen and their families. At Island residents' busiest time--the crabbing season--the Center provides a spot for increasing numbers of visitors to learn about the Island, its history, economic and social life. The center includes permanent exhibits and a 20 minute film on: the history of the Island, working on the water, the interaction of people and the Chesapeake Bay, the role of women in Island life and the distinctive speech patterns which have developed on the Island.