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MY YEARS BEFORE THE MAST

 
 

Memoirs of Chesapeake Bay Waterman William T. Hooper

 

Rough Voyage on The Bateman

Chapter XI

 

Following my pre-Christmas voyage on the Bateman I became a regular crew member, and for the next several years from late Spring until early fall I served before the mast on this worthy vessel -- and enjoyed every minute of it.

The schooner Arianna Bateman was a busy lady. There were no barnacles growing on her anchors, since they spent very little time overboard. Capt. Avalon Simmons kept her sailing over local waterways and those of neighboring states on a variety of assignments. She hauled oysters and shells from Baltimore and the James River to New Jersey; soft coal from Baltimore and Norfolk to Carter's Creek and other points on the Rappahannock River; and journeyed up the York, James and Piankatank Rivers to load lumber, coal, railroad ties or whatever freight was available.

We delighted in our voyages on the Bateman. I spent some rough nights on the Chesapeake in this sturdy craft. The roughest one of all I believe it would have to be the night we sprinkled coal over Davy Jones' locker.

We had carried a load of coal from Baltimore to a fish factory at Carter's Creek, on the Rappahannock. The factory manager asked us to bring another load from Norfolk.

When we arrived in Norfolk to load, Avalon went ashore to take care of some business -- perhaps clearance papers. He left me to see to the loading operation. I told the loading gang boss our captain wanted no more than 140 tons on the boat. He insisted 147 had been ordered, and he was obliged to put it aboard.

This much weight did not dangerously overload the boat, but it put her scuppers near the water. A scupper is a hole, or gutter, at the side of a ship to carry water from the deck.

When Avalon returned and asked how much we had loaded I told him of my admonition to the coal company boss, which had been ignored. He said I was right not to get into an argument about the matter, but if he had been there he would not have allowed that much to be loaded. Half the cargo was on deck, so we could unload faster when we reached our destination -- Carter's Creek -- the next morning.

We got the vessel under way in the afternoon and left Norfolk for Carter's Creek, a distance of approximately fifty miles. As we neared Portsmouth -- a little below Norfolk -- we ran into a hard thunder squall, and had to run down all the sails and let go both anchors to keep from drifting into the dock. An old ram, also loaded with coal, anchored near us during the storm; she got under way and pulled out about the same time we did.

It was hard work getting the sails back on the vessel, and tugging the anchors aboard. But we were all sturdy men, and soon we were on our way again. By this time the wind had struck up to the southard, as it sometimes does after a squall has passed. Avalon said, "boys, we'll have a lively run up tonight." We all agreed. He had us set the topsail over the single reef mainsail, and put the flying jib on her; this made the vessel steer smoothly.

We came on out of Portsmouth, and the rain -- which had stayed with us since we weighed anchor following the squall -- stopped under Hampton Roads and anchored. The ram was a large vessel, with three masts. These boats were often referred to as "bald tops,, because they had no topmasts or topsails.

I was mate; others in crew included Everett Booze, a cousin of my wife's, and another chap named Wilson -- a combination cook and deckhand. Avalon came up to me as I steered the vessel and remarked that he saw no signs of more squalls on the horizon, and asked what I thought of continuing our trip. This in view of the fact that the ram, a much larger vessel, had decided to make for harbor, instead of braving the current breeze. It was my feeling that there was no reason to stop and anchor; it was just a nice stiff sailing breeze. I was very young -- and eager for excitement -- and, as my young grandson Thomas Leonard Hooper, once observed the dangerous way is the most fun.

We continued outside Hampton Roads and out into the open Bay. The wind hauled around a bit to the southwest. A beautiful night, with the full moon riding high and casting a greenish hue on the wind-churned water. There were no other voyagers in sight; nothing around us but sea and sky, but there was no sense of loneliness.

The wind kept picking up; a real humdinger of a southwester. Avalon and the others worked the deck and stood lookout; I continued at the wheel. We ploughed on through wind and wave and drove her into Carter's Creek just after midnight.

It was a rough ride. In fact, it appeared several times that night that the vessel would founder. Waves rolled over the deck that must have removed as much as a ton of that coal at one time. It would be safe to say that at least twenty-five tons of that coal were casualties of the sea. The next morning we noted that her scuppers were well above the water, and she was bend free -- that is, the rib that rimmed the deck and contained the scuppers was riding above the water.

The following evening we hit the bunks early; nobody slept the previous night. Avalon had us up at daybreak, anxious to get going. I asked him where we were going, and he said we were going home to Hoopersville to lay over and paint the boat.

We were soon on our way. Avalon told the cook (Wilson) and me to take her on home. He and Everett were going to clean out the hold. That soft coal had gotten wet in there and it was a mess. I was at the wheel, and Wilson was cooking dinner -- a bucket of fresh trout and bluefish provided by the captain of a fish steamer docked at Carter's Creek. Wilson also kept the pumps going, to keep the bilge pumped out; our two cleanup boys had the plug out of the centerwell.

Wilson's fried fish were a delight. He was a splendid cook, as well as a handy guy before the mast. Feeding us was his greatest satisfaction. I recall a special dessert he concocted and called a "raisin duff" with a sauce to pour over it. No, the sauce was not made of seaweed; it was a pungent mixture of vinegar, sugar and spices.

Our route took us on down past the Windmill Lighthouse, on the Windmill Bar in the mouth of the Rappahannock. It was blowing a stiff breeze from the northwest, and she was rolling the boys around below. This was a head wind, so we navigated by making a long tack and a short one. By nightfall we were abreast of Hollands Island. We entered Hoopers Straits on a flood tide, and the wind had moderated. After passing Hoopers Island lighthouse we were able to fetch on up Honga River to our anchorage in Hickory Cove.

A reverend Bozman had been holding camp meetings in a wooded grove back of Hoopers Memorial Church. The service was over for that evening by the time we came ashore, but the worshipers were still around, socializing. We joined them for awhile. It was good to be home again.

 

Lumber Cargo in a Strong North Wind

Chapter XII

 

Within a few days the schooner Arianna Bateman was resplendent in her new coat of paint -- inside and outside. Soon we were off again; this time to the small town of Walkerton on the York River to take on a load of lumber.

We finished loading in late afternoon, got under way, and came on out of the York River headed for the open Bay. The lumber was consigned to Baltimore.

It was a stormy night; the atmosphere full of squalls. We rode on by one harbor after another, with the thought that we would stop and anchor when the next one was reached. Soon, however, we had passed them all and were out in the Bay. Avalon said he felt we could make it safely, at least as far as Hoopers Straits. If the weather had not improved by that time we could stop by home (Hoopersville) and wait for more favorable conditions.

That was also a night to remember. The wind struck down after the squalls blew over, and bobbed that vessel around like a cork. The seas sloshed over that lumber piled on the deck time after time; how it managed to stay there is a puzzle to me even now. We had a reefed mainsail and jib on the vessel, and she sailed smartly; but what a rough ride that was!

We had reached Hoopers Island Lighthouse by morning. The wind was blowing the water up. Avalon decided not to press our luck further. I was at the wheel, as usual. He came to me and said, "Will Hooper, let's go home." I could not have agreed more heartily. He threw the main sheet off the cleat, ordered the centerboard retracted, and we headed back to the Straits.

The wind velocity had increased markedly since daybreak. It took us two hours to beat up Honga River with that load of lumber. Hickory Cove looked good to us that day.

We were harbor-bound for several days while that strong north wind blew itself out. Otherwise, the weather was beautiful -- clear with bright sunshine.

Finally, one afternoon the wind hauled around to the south in a gentle breeze. Avalon came for me; he said we would have a good run up that night, and we did.

By daybreak we were in Baltimore, in Back Basin, near Canton. Unable to remember exactly where we unloaded the lumber, but it was somewhere near there, possibly at the foot of Broadway. Most of the streets in South Baltimore, which ran north and south, extended down to the waterfront.

 

Near-Miss On A Collision Course

Chapter XIV

 

Another voyage on the schooner Bateman stands out rather avidly in my memory because of a near tragic happening.

We had landed a load of lumber that day at a pier on Back Basin in Baltimore and in early evening set sail to return to the York River for another load.

Jess Booze, Wilson (our cook, who doubled as a deck hand) and I were in crew. Avalon said he and Jess were going to bed; Wilson and I would have the first watch. Weather conditions permitting, the schedule was set up for four hours on duty and four off. Avalon instructed me to take the vessel on out, and call him if we needed help.

We drifted on down the Patapsco River, past Steelton. The Sparrows Point of today was known as Steelton in that era. As we moved on down past Lazarette lighthouse -- abreast of Steelton -- the light breeze we had started with began to pick up, and the vessel was responding vigorously. We were coming out stark light, bound down the Bay to load with lumber.

We were below North Point when the wind hauled around to the southwest and everything began to tighten, that is, the sails filled and strained at their moorings. Favorable breeze and absence of cargo made our vessel's sleek hull glide along at a brisk pace.

It was a beautiful night; clear, with a full moon riding high, muted rays splashing the sea around us with molten silver. On such a night Leander swam the Hellespont. So much for Creek Mythology!

I remarked to Wilson that we would have a pleasant run down tonight, and sent him forward as lookout. I was, of course, at the wheel. This was around the middle of August -- watermelon season. At that time of year just about every seaworthy tub the farmers could charter was ferrying melons to Baltimore and other Bay ports. On such a clear moonlit night we would often observe members of this motley fleet plying the Bay without side lights.

I told Wilson to keep a particularly sharp lookout; we were certain to have lots of company in the Bay on such a night. He assured me he would watch carefully, and pass the word to me so that we could keep a safe distance from our small fellow travelers. I was truing to watch the traffic too, but my station at the wheel afforded only a limited view over the bow.

By the time we sailed down past the Magothy River, fifteen or twenty of these melon-laden boats had passed us; in assorted sizes and types, they included sloops, bateaus, bugeyes and pungys.

The breeze came on stronger, and our boat was really cutting the water. She began to 'knock herself down' a little -- that is, list out to the side. I loved to steer a

boat when she was sailing in this fashion; I remember well the feel of that wheel in my hands. The Bateman carried her canvas well, and was known as a smart sailer; she could outsail most other vessels in her class.

Now and then I peeped under the boom in an effort to help watch the traffic. Presently, it occurred to me that I should take a good look around myself, to make sure all was well. I put the wheel in the becket and walked forward -- to the leeward. At that moment I was startled by a loud "powaaanock" (my word for the sharp slapping noise made by a wind-buffeted sail). A glance over the bow revealed we were on a collision course with a fair-sized bateau; she was almost under our bow.

I ran quickly to the wheel and swerved the vessel sharply off course; and the bateau had to jibe all standing -- that is, sharply in the other direction -- to keep from under our bow. If the Bateman had hit that boat she would have cut her in half.

After the bateau was safely by, and I had started to breathe again, I once more put the wheel in the becket and went to look for Wilson. He was sprawled on the bowsprit fast asleep, snoring. The bowsprit extends onto the deck six or eight feet and is a nice place to lay down.

I woke him and asked how long he had been asleep. He had no idea. Said he was tired and had just intended to rest a few minutes -- not to fall asleep. I told him of our close brush with disaster, and suggested he might as well go to the cabin and go to bed. A lookout asleep is worse than none at all. He replied "Capn. I couldn't do that; let me stay on deck and I'll stay on my feet and move around." I told him to stay where I could see him. He was alright after that; kept a sharp watch, and alerted me as soon as he saw anything approaching us.

We called Jess to replace Wilson when it was time for his watch, but I was not tired or sleepy, so did not call Avalon until we were down off Patuxent River that morning. He scolded me for not getting him up to stand his watch.

I told him of Wilson's nap and our near-miss with the bateau, but we decided to say nothing more about it. Wilson was a good, hardworking guy; he felt bad about the incident, and was not likely to repeat it.

Collision between a large and small craft is particularly lethal for the small boat and crew. The impact usually destroys the small boat, injures the crew and knocks them breathless into the water, where they are powerless to save themselves.

I recall that years after the above incident took place, a large sloop knifed into a power boat loaded with melons, just below Hoopers Island lighthouse one rough night. The power boat was torn apart; three of the four men aboard were lost.

 

York River Lumber Run: Symphony of Nature

Chapter XV

 

It would be near impossible to describe every voyage and experience during the years I sailed on the Arianna Bateman, but each was a new experience, none were dull. The late Jess Booze, my wife's brother, and their cousin Everett Booze were also fairly regular members of the Bateman's crew. We were young men then -- in our early twenties.

Jess and I worked together off and on from boyhood until fairly late in our careers. We owned boats in partnership. Sometimes each would operate a boat with a full crew. At other times we both worked on one boat. During those early years we dredged oysters from the time the season opened in the fall until it closed in late spring. Afterwards, all through the summer and into early fall, we sailed with Avalon as he plied the coastal freight routes in the Bateman. We came ashore just in time to prepare our boats for opening of the oyster season.

During this period the standard wage was $18 per month, a $3 increase over my first berth on the Annie Hodges, I was 'experienced' by then. Plenty of good food and a firm bunk in the cabin were our fringe benefits. There was no such thing as an eight hour day; during a busy run, or in heavy weather, it could be three times that long. The word 'overtime' had not yet been coined.

Avalon was a fine considerate captain, and it was always a pleasure to sail with him no matter how rough the trip turned out. Although $18 per month was the standard wage, when payday came he always gave us $20.

I can remember many episodes from our voyages; memorable, but not altogether uncommon, just interesting to remember and pleasant to think about. There were, for example, the long slow but fascinating passages down the York River to Walkerton, Virginia, one of our most frequent ports of call to load with lumber.

In order to reach Walkerton, it was necessary to navigate a narrow section of the York River which extended up into the land for ten or twelve miles. The river was very narrow in spots, but deep. Tall trees grew close to the river's edge. In the very narrow sections we would have to pull in the main sheets and the booms to prevent large tree branches from damaging the sails and riggings.

It was a difficult passage to navigate under the best of circumstances, but particularly so at night, when visibility was restricted; also, heavy stands of timber allowed only the lightest breeze to penetrate.

Although it was a slow and tedious run, the beauty and tranquility of this sheltered route more than compensated for the inconvenience. On either side thick carpets of wild flowers grew in colorful profusion to delight the eye. Sometimes our schedule would require us to run the passage at night -- although we tried to avoid this. At such times we would be favored, and those off duty kept awake, by a chorus of bird songs, frog croaks and various other sounds from creatures happy and vibrant just to be alive. I was awed by this joyous symphony of nature; it reminded me of the lovely Scriptural passage "let everything that hath breath praise the lord."

One night darkness overtook us as we attempted to negotiate this tight waterway, and to make matters worse we were completely becalmed. Avalon was worried that the sails and riggings would be damaged if we drifted too close to the tall trees. He asked Jess and me to launch the yawl boat, a sturdy craft of eighteen or twenty feet, with two sixteen foot oars, and row awhile. So we climbed in, and using one oar apiece pulled that big vessel along just enough to keep steerageway on her, to keep her from drifting into the trees. Steerageway is the headway necessary to make a vessel governable by the helm.

After pulling on those big oars for two hours our arms were a trifle numb. Avalon told us to come back aboard, and the vessel could safely drift along with the flood tide. We had almost reached our destination.

On arrival that morning we took on a load of lumber consigned to Baltimore. On the way out, past York Spit Lighthouse, in the mouth of the York River, a severe thunder squall forced us to lower all sails except the jib -- and that almost pulled the mast out of her.

It was one of those violent southeast squalls, full of fury but quick to pass over. We put the sails back and drove her up the Bay. It's a long way from York River to Baltimore, but we were there before dark.

 

Father's Voyages on The Bateman

Chapter XVI

 

My father, Samuel Thomas Hooper, also sailed in the coastal freight trade in his youth. In later years he enlivened many long winter evenings for my wife and me as we listened to tales of his voyages. Two of these stand out vividly in my memory.

For a time father sailed as mate aboard the Kate McNamara, out of Hoopersville, under the command of Capt. Henry Meekins, my mother's brother. The McNamara was a two-masted main topmast schooner, well known on the Bay very smart and seaworthy. She had a varied career: in the fruit trade to the Bahamas; in service as a buy boat in the Honga River oyster trade; but, mainly she plied the coastal freight routes.

During the month of April, 1865, the McNamara was consigned to ferry coal from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Washington, DC. They landed a cargo on the 14th, and the next day were returning to Havre de Grace to reload when they were intercepted by a navy gunboat, ordered to heave to and anchor at Piney Point, and remain there until further notice. All other vessels sailing the Potomac River in that vicinity were likewise halted and detained.

Later that day, officers from the gunboat boarded and searched each vessel, then ordered the captain to get under way and depart at once. President Abraham Lincoln had been shot the night before, and they were searching for his assassin. Another voyage father described sounded rougher than any of mine, and was made on my favorite vessel, the schooner Arianna Bateman, when she was a spanking new craft -- years before my time.

The original owner, Capt. John H. Simmons, had the Bateman built at the Joseph Brooks shipyard at Madison, on the Little Choptank River. This yard also built many of the large well-known area schooners, among them the Levi B. Phillips, the Maggie A. Phillips, and the Laurena Clayton. One of these met a tragic end. The Levi B. Phillips, out of Hoopersville, under command of Capt. Warner Parks, and the Maggie Phillips, out of Deals Island, under Capt. Johnny Jones, left Baltimore in ballast bound to the Bahamas to load fruit.

Capt. Jones took the Maggie out an hour ahead of the Levi B., which made him run about thirty miles to the south of the other vessel. (This was the maiden voyage of the Maggie, owned by Capt. Luther Phillips, and named in honor of his wife). They ran into a hurricane and, presumably, the angry Gulf Stream swallowed up the proud Maggie Phillips and her five man crew. They failed to reach their destination and were never heard from again. Capt. Parks kept a spanker mainsail on the Levi B., and through a fantastic feat of seamanship brought his vessel to port. Captain and crew gave a harrowing account of their voyage.

Now to return to my father's rough voyages on the new Bateman. Capt. Johnny Simmons put Us new vessel (the Bate man) in service with uncle Henry Meekins as mate. After one season Capt. Johnny told Uncle Henry he was tired of life on the water, and was going ashore and build a general store at Hoopersville (in continuous use since it was built) and leave the Bateman to him. Father came aboard as mate.

As father remembered, Uncle Henry was a venturesome man, and my rough voyages in the Bateman years later were joy rides compared to some of his. Uncle Henry drove the vessel hard, in all kinds of weather. Even during heavy squalls they would seldom slacken the canvas, that is, take the sails in. One tempestuous night was particularly memorable. They left Baltimore in company with the big flying jib pungy Southern Beauty. She was bound out to sea -- to the Bahamas to load fruit. They both beat down the Bay in a strong south wind; both vessels carrying all their canvas.

The Southern Beauty was reported to be the fastest boat on the Bay. But the Bateman stayed with her as they tacked from one side of the Bay to the other in that strong head wind. By nightfall they were down off the mouth of the Patuxent River, and the Southern Beauty tacked on in and anchored.

The wind was picking up and father pointed out that the Southern Beauty, a much larger vessel, had found the going too rough. Uncle Henry remarked that Capt. Johnny had told him not to allow any barnacles to grow on the anchors. He had also told Uncle Henry that he could not make the Bateman leak.

He wanted to use the trip down the Bay that night as the acid test. The farther down the rougher the ride, and the boat continually dipped her leeward waist under. Father was bringing home three pigs, and had to lash the crate to the windward rail to keep it on deck, and keep the animals from drowning.

Finally, Uncle Henry ordered the crew to slack the flying jib down. There it rested on the guy ropes (rope hammocks to catch the lowered sail). The boat rolled and pitched so wildly she dipped this cradled sail in the water repeatedly and it was as high from the water as a two story house.

Father informed the captain that none of the crew members would venture out to tie up the lowered jib; he, himself, felt this was too dangerous an undertaking. Whereupon Uncle Henry ordered the jib to be put back on the vessel. It was a rough and rather frightening ride -- but a very fast one. Shortly after midnight they arrived in Hickory Cove, anchored and went to sleep.

When father awakened he was astonished to find seven or eight inches of water in the hold. The Bateman was not a leaky craft, but vibration from the severe pounding the boat's hull endured on that voyage was bound to force some water inside. This did no harm; actually, it helped to tighten a vessel this new.

Anxious to see Uncle Henry's reaction, father woke him and led the way to the hold. He glanced inside and exclaimed "damned if we didn't make her sweat a little bit."

 

Cold Climb up a Dredge Line

Chapter XVII

 

One season Jess Booze and I decided to take the two boats we owned -- the skipjack Skippy, and a two-masted bateau named Defender to the Potomac River for part of me oyster season. Current reports had indicated that oysters were in better supply there than they were locally.

Jess worked the Defender with Ransom Tyler as mate, and two other crewmen. Aboard the Skippy with me was my mate John, and another crewman whose name escapes me. He doubled as cook aboard the boat, so for this small narrative we can just refer to him as Cook. I had three in crew at the start, but one became ill and had to return home to Baltimore.

One bitter cold day just before Christmas we had hit a clump of oysters that were prime specimens, big as my hand. I had stuck a pole at one end of this choice area. When we dragged over it, however, one dredge ploughed through mud instead of oysters.

John was steering and Cook was on the quarterdeck trimming his oysters; that is, shoveling them onto the pile after they had been culled. I was sounding out; that is, using a sounding pole in an effort to get a better fix on the geography of the area so that we could let go both dredges on the oyster rock instead of having one of them rake up mud. I had instructed John to steer toward the spot where I planned to stick another pole; then, hopefully, when we dragged the area between the poles we would be solidly on oysters.

As usual, I repeatedly warned John and Cook to keep down -- to keep the boom from knocking them overboard when it swung around. Cook was bending over with his rear end stuck in the air, but he assured me "alright Capn. I'm keeping down." He had scarcely closed his mouth on the words when the boom struck his bottom and sent him hurtling over the side. I dropped the pole, ran quickly to the side and tried to reach over and grab him as he flailed around in the water. But he had landed too far away, and in reaching I lost my balance and tumbled overboard too. Nearby, the dredge rested on the roller (the fixture over which it is pulled back aboard). I grabbed the dredge as I fell, pulled it overboard and went to the bottom with it.

The dredge, a heavy metal frame with teeth, and metal chain pouch attached, took up in the mud and stopped the boat in much the same way an anchor would, and I climbed up the dredge line. Meanwhile, Cook had surfaced in the bite of the buoy line. Each dredge has a buoy attached so that should the dredge line part, the dredge may be easily retrieved.

When I finished my long cold climb to the surface I heard Cook hollering "John, take me in." John said, "no, I take Capn. in first" He paid no attention to my order to get Cook first. A large, powerfully built man, he lifted us aboard as though we were babies although we were both big, strapping fellows.

Cook had a fire going in the forepeak and dinner on the stove. After John had helped us into dry clothes, Cook spread the waterlogged $157 from my pocket in two large lard tin lids and put them beneath the stove to dry.

Jess and his crew in the Defender were working about a hundred yards away. I told John to steer towards them. As we drew near Jess asked John where Capn. and Cook were, and he replied "Capn. and Cook drowned." Jess stood there dumbfounded, speechless, colorless. Then John added "not drowned, pretty near drowned." I stuck my head from the door and told him what had happened. They stayed alongside awhile, recovering from the shock.

Fortunately, there was only the slightest breeze going that day, which is the reason the dredge took up in the mud and caused the boat to stop; my weight on there helped too, of course. In even a moderate wind we likely would have drowned, as the boat would have sailed away from us, and we were weighted down with heavy boots and clothing.

It was near Christmas, so we stayed in the Potomac only a few more days after that. We brought out boats home -- back across the Bay in a storm. We did not return to the Potomac that year, but worked the remainder of the season in Honga River.

 

Icebound: The Long Walk Home

Chapter XVIII

 

One winter my Friend Jess and I had been dredging our bateau Defender when bitter weather set in early, and the oyster fleet was already icebound in harbor by the middle of December.

Jess and I were unmarried, and still young enough to be a little reckless with our money. We decided to take the steamer to Salisbury -- the Eastern Shore's largest 'city' at that time -- and buy some new clothes for the holidays.

Hoopersville was a regularly scheduled port of call for Bay area steamers. A boat that size and type could get through ice that would stall the largest sailboat. The liner Virginia had no difficulty making her way up Honga River to our steamboat wharf in Hickory Cove. We hopped aboard and were off on what was meant to be a pleasurable trip.

Compared to the rough accommodations on our work boats, the Virginia and her sister ships were floating palaces. The trip to Salisbury was an overnight one, so once aboard we headed for the mens' cabin and went to bed. The mens' cabin was a communal sleeping room equipped with multiple bunk beds and other conveniences, and cost only a fraction of the price of a private stateroom. There was also a ladies' cabin similarly equipped.

We were up early to begin our shopping spree in Salisbury. The temperature continued to drop. So much ice formed so fast that the Virginia was unable to make her way back down the Wicomico River. Jess and I found ourselves in quite a fix -- stranded sixty miles from home by land. Overland transportation on the lower Shore in those days could be pretty rugged, as we were soon to find out for ourselves.

Within twenty-four hours they were skating on the Wicomico River, and the Virginia was locked in solid. Capt. Ned Johnson, master of the Virginia at that time, and Louis, his fine cook, did everything they could to lessen the hardship of their stranded passengers. Sleeping quarters and meals were provided aboard the steamer without charge.

To digress a little: several years later, the steamer Virginia, on a run from Baltimore to Hoopersville, got into trouble as she rounded the lower end of lower Hoopers Island (Applegarth). One stormy night, with gale winds, she somehow got too close to the lower End Bar -- a shoal water area jutting approximately two miles into Hooper Straits -- and ran hard aground. A warning beacon on the end of the Bar was easy to miss on such a night. There were no injuries, and no damage to the vessel.

The steamer was stuck there for several weeks. One day, following a strong northwest wind that forced the tide to an abnormal low, we were tonging in the vicinity where she was grounded. The bottom of her free side was well above the surface; we walked around her in our hip boots. Eventually, they brought down a heavy dredge, dug a channel and refloated her.

Back to our freeze-up in Salisbury. After a week, with no relief from the weather in sight, we decided to try to make it back on our own. We took the train to Cambridge and checked in at Cator's Boarding House for the night. Next morning we went to Phillips livery stable to hire a horse and buggy for the other thirty mile leg of our journey home. Mr. Phillips told us we were among the dozen or so who had been there that morning for horses. He said no horse could make it down that section of the county in such weather.

We knew, of course, that we had some rough terrain to travel. Some roads in that section of south Dorchester County were made with oyster shells; others were just widened paths through marsh or woods. Gum Swamp -- an area between the Catholic Church at Golden Hill and Great Marsh Bridge -- was nothing more than a little dirt road, so low and poorly drained it was mud up to one's ankles in wet weather, unless the ground was frozen. Frozen at that time it surely was, for the weather continued bitter cold.

A man could walk over this frozen trail without difficulty, but the weight of a horse would drive him through the ice and cause cuts, bruises, or worse, to his hooves and legs.

It was too expensive to live in a boarding house and wait for a thaw. Our only alternative was to walk home. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at Mr. Cator's, we began our thirty mile trek home. Our new finery and other purchases compounded our woes, since we had to carry all those packages.

We walked along at a normal gait, stopping at intervals to rest, usually on a tree trunk. The only fellow travelers encountered in the twenty miles from Cambridge to Fishing Creek (Upper Hoopers Island) were a few stray cows nibbling on the scenery. No other humans were using that road, either on foot or wheels.

By mid-afternoon we had reached Applegarth's store, on the south side of Fishing Creek bridge. After a stop there for rest and a refreshing drink of apple cider, we set out on the last lap of our journey, the ten remaining miles to Hoopersville, and arrived home before dark. My sister Zella, who kept house for the family after our mother's death, and who later married Romie Booze, had a good supper cooked. I ate like there was no tomorrow.

An hour later Jess walked in. I had expected he would be in bed by that time. When he suggested we go see the girls, I thought it a great idea. The girls were a couple of cute chicks about three miles up the road. So off we went to add another six to our day's mileage. Neither of us felt tired.

During those early years we were healthy, strong and vigorous, with exceptional endurance. Our lives were uncluttered and uncomplicated. We lived close to nature, and were full of the joy of living.

 

Crabbing The Old Ground

Chapter XIX

 

Sometimes a great deal of time and work went into operations that brought pitifully small reward. Crabbing -- the taking and handling of crabs -- early in the century was for the most part, a very unrewarding pursuit.

Crabs were scarce, and the demand for them modest. Crab meat had not yet become the favored gourmet cuisine it is today; few had the yen that now prompts crab cake and imperial lovers to pay $4.00 a pound for backfin. Because the market was so sluggish, the crabber made very little profit -- even if he could catch the critters. Sometimes we had to go quite a distance to find some. One lean season Oscar Nelson and I, still a couple of young bachelors, teamed up for some crab scraping quite a ways down Honga River, on an area of flat bottom just below Bishop's Head -- between Bishop's Head and Holland's Island called the Old Ground. We were working his two-masted bateau Defender, which Jess and I later bought from him.

Perhaps we should explain the crab scraping procedure. This method of crabbing is similar to dredging for oysters. The crab scrape has a metal frame like the dredge -- only not as heavy, and without teeth. The big difference is that instead of the six foot long metal chain pouch into which the oysters are forced as the dredge drags the bottom, the bag of the crab scrape into which the crabs (if any) are forced, is made of stout twine mesh. I believe modern methods of crabbing, notably by crabpot, and to a lesser extent now by trotline, have made the crab scraping procedure obsolete.

The Old Ground was too far away for us to commute, so we stayed down there Monday through Saturday. I recall that we caught quite a few crabs, but received a small price for our catch. Word had gotten around about this fruitful spot, so a number of others had gotten the same idea, which accounted for the very low price, a glutted market.

During the week we ate and slept aboard. There were crude sleeping accommodations in shanty's ashore, for those whose boats were too small for living aboard, at a cost of about $2.00 per week. Simple meals were also available.

Oscar and I had agreed he would do the navigating and see to the housekeeping chores about the boat, and I would do the cooking, since I was rather good at this. Before dawn one Monday morning we got under way and again headed for the Old Ground. Oscar was tending the boat and I had started preparing the bread for our breakfast, mixing the flour and other ingredients by hand. I brought the bread pan to the cabin doorway and placed it on the deck near the entrance, so I could sniff the brisk, clean morning air, and enjoy the beauty and peaceful scenery of our early morning sail down the river while I raked the bread.

The poet has said "the dawn comes up like thunder," but it has never seemed that way to me. This blazing birth of a new day I was so often privileged to behold was a spectacle whose radiant serenity always washed over my spirit like a cleansing tide.

On this particular morning I was gazing around, drinking in the beauty of the morning as I briskly pawed through the mixture of flour, yeast, salt and lard in an effort to homogenize it. I had not noticed that Oscar, up wind from me, was shaking dried grass (seaweed) from the crab scrapes. When I glanced down I was dismayed to see that a sizable amount of dried seaweed had blown into, and been mixed with, the contents of the pan.

I called to Oscar to look what he had done to our bread. He was unperturbed; "hell, a little seaweed won't hurt us; get it baked, I'm hungry." I picked out as much as I could, but quite a few fragments remained. It would have been inexcusably wasteful then to throw out the mixture and start over. So I baked the bread to a golden brown and we ate it with gusto, seaweed and all.

 

Aground in The Moonlight

Chapter XX

 

Once Brady Dean and I took a load of oysters to Salisbury in a small bateau named Venus. The Venus was an open boat, no decking, just washboards -- but she was widely built, and very able.

The vessel was owned by Capt. Johnny Clayton (John M. Clayton) who loaned her to us for the trip to Salisbury. There was no charge for the use of the boat, but Capt. Johnny gave us an order for some lumber to be purchased from the L.E. Williams Company. He also asked us to bring various other items, Including feed for his livestock.

Capt. Johnny, a fine gentlemen and a pillar of strength in the community, was endowed with considerable business acumen, and his interests were varied. He established a seafood processing plant here at Hoopersville in 1890, the first in the area; still operating In Cambridge, Maryland, under the name of J.M. Clayton Company, it is one of the oldest plants in the United States picking crabs commercially. He owned and operated various commercial vessels, Including the schooner Laurena Clayton named in honor of his wife.

We had a nice trip to Salisbury in the Venus with our load of oysters. It was easy to sell oysters along the Wicomico In those days, since there were few good ones up that way; perhaps a few around Mount Vernon or Dames Quarter.

On the return trip, Capt. Johnny's large order, and the various items purchased for ourselves loaded that small boat to capacity. I was a little concerned about this, but Brady felt certain we could carry it all safely.

We left Salisbury in the afternoon, sailed down to White Haven, and anchored there for the night. White Haven was a good sheltered harbor in which to lay over for the night. Early next morning we had breakfast, got under way and came on out. The day was mostly calm, scarcely any breeze at all, so the trip took all day and into the night.

Our route was up the Wicomico River to Fishing Bay to Hooper Straits and into Honga River. It was dark before we reached Bishop's Head -- a peninsula that juts out between Fishing Bay and Hooper Straits. A big expanse of flat bottom, generally known as "the flats" extends out from Norman's Cove (a harbor on the eastern side of the Straits, just above Bishop's Head). When uncertain about the state of the tide or your boat's draught, the wiser course is to sail around this area. However, sailing across it shortens the distance to Honga River.

I warned Brady, who was at the wheel, that he had better steer clear of the flats because of our heavy load, but he was certain the Venus would go over without any difficulty.

My concern proved to be well-founded. The tide was lower than he thought, and the Venus ran aground. Our vessel had been stuck there on the edge of the flats for several hours when the wind started to pick up into a stiff breeze and waves commenced to break over her. I asked Brady if he thought he would lose the vessel, but he remained optimistic. Finally, on the flood tide, she jumped off and floated free, and we were again on our way. This forced detention had caused her to take In a little water, but after she was pumped out we could find no evidence of damage.

We knew that section of the bay area bottom as well as the fish did but this, of course, was an extremely dangerous situation, and we should not have allowed it to happen.

Once free, we sailed on up the River to our anchorage in Hickory Cove. The Venus had no side lights on this trip, but the bright full moon furnished all the light we needed. How could we be sure clouds or stormy weather would not deprive us of the moon's guiding light? We who follow the water soon learn to read and interpret the signs of the elements, and usually know what kind of weather to expect.

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