Chesapeake Bay Workboats Docked In Tilghman Island Maryland
Experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of Tilghman Island Maryland today is still like a journey back in time. To a first time visitor it may seem that most of what one might come across within the town limits appears to be a bit disheveled or worn out in a rural country kind of way while the sight of unused or forgotten objects left where there must have simply been an open spot for them I'm sure might be unusual. The possible exception to these first impressions one might conclude stands nearby - everything is in close proximity on Tilghman Island, by the sight of the Volunteer Fire Department and Elementary School buildings.
It is to these same visitors that I suggest taking an opportunity to learn more about this Eastern Shore community of watermen so as to better appreciate how over many years it has defined not only the character of its people and their way of life but also the singular ambiance of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay region that they have traveled far to experience.
Knapps Narrows Bridge • Tilghman Island Maryland
One’s journey into Tilghman Island proper begins by crossing over the Knapps Narrows Bridge. Said to open more than 10,000 times each year it is the definitive landmark connecting the Chesapeake Bay and Choptank River used by watermen and pleasure boaters alike. During my time spent ‘on island’ that day the bridge horn sounded off more than 2 dozen times at least.
It should be said at this point that I wasn’t there to photograph, which I actually did a few times no less, nor to learn more about the bridge much less its place in the daily lives of the town’s residents. No I was there so as to take a closer look at the Harrison Oyster Company building. For you see on my many trips to the ‘island’ over the years I, like most other drivers, would often catch but a glimpse of it while passing over the bridge. In the last couple of years I have become more familiar not only with the role that it once played in the Tilghman Island economy but also with those who had worked inside of it.
Harrison Oyster Company On The Knapps Narrows • Tilghman Island Maryland
Let me say that I do not know if the Harrison Oyster Company even operates out of this building today, if so it seems to be not on a regular basis. Still it stands along side the Knapps Narrows channel a seemingly perfect location for Bay work boats to deliver their day's catch as it has been for years. Today there are still remnants of the equipment and processing platforms used by workers to unload, sort, weigh and move the day’s harvest from the waterfront bulkhead to inside the building for processing.
A large metal plate like those used on a warehouse loading dock, sans any ‘legs’, is still set at the bottom of a wooden ramp that made for the moving of product from or into the building smoother. In front of the garage door a thick vinyl mat, similar to ones found in an office set beneath a desk or perhaps behind a service counter, remains in place as well. The only aspect on the front of the building that I was unsure of was the second floor door. Without any obvious signs of former steps or porch supports on the siding I must assume that it had been used to toss things outside whether that was waste from the seafood processing or the product itself.
Harrison Oyster Company Sign • Tilghman Island Maryland
It was while standing there in front of the building that I began to think about what I had learned that used to go on inside of it during the days when oysters where processed as soon as they arrived on the boats. As is the case today proficient crab pickers and oyster shuckers are a vanishing breed. Commonly made up of local workers, with a number of them shucking since childhood, most were women. A good shucker could sort and open hundreds upon hundreds of oysters over the course of a day's work.
Paid by the pound and type of oyster shuckers labored in what most would consider rough working conditions today yet did so mostly for the lack of employment opportunities in an area that offered few other jobs. They sat at tables half surrounded by buckets on the floor that indicated the type of oyster that they had just finished shucking. Their actions consisted of thrusting a short flat knife into each oyster so as to unhinge its shell in order to then carve out the succulent meat that was inside and finally tossing it into the designated bucket. This process was then repeated over and over again throughout the course of the work day. At their feet would lay the accumulated waste from the opening of numerous oysters throughout their shift which surely emitted a smell that would have been less than pleasant I would think, that is until one becomes accustomed to it.
Older watermen have told me of the times they remembered pulling alongside the docks of Eastern Shore crab or oyster houses with their catches and could hear the sounds of gospel like songs emanating from the nearby buildings that were being sung by the workers inside. “The sounds of them singing like that would make me feel like I was late for church” one boat crew member recalled to me.
Dockside Hoist At Harrison Oyster Company • Tilghman Island Maryland
Of course I wasn’t surprised to see the way that the equipment or work areas around the oyster house looked, as is the case with most things on Tilghman Island, they seemed frozen in time. I did take heart when I took a closer look at this waterfront hoist and saw the condition of the ropes on it. No worse for wear and not at all weathered looking for they showed signs of being used recently but by who though I could not tell. From what I had learned over the years locals respect each others property but like an abandoned crab cage, discarded metal tooth or chain from an oyster dredge someone coming along and using this hoist was a possibility.
Even though this bulkhead platform appears cobbled together, what with that piece of stud wood nailed diagonally to it for stability, along with the slightly rusted metal table set at the end of it overall this is indicative of what one will find scattered about the grounds here at the oyster house.
Discarded Oyster Shells On The Ground At Harrison Oyster Company • Tilghman Island Maryland
The first contact with discarded oyster shells that day was when I got out of my car stepping down into a mixture of shell fragments and dust bonded together by standing water. It was no surprise seeing that the entire lot was filled with puddles from a recent rain storm. Scattered along all three sides of the concrete deck at the front of the building, piled underneath, around and on top of the outside work tables oyster shells were everywhere. I’m sure that I had at least a half pound of fragments and dust on my floor mats by the time that I returned home. It was all over the undercarriage of the car and the tires were caked with it, as were my shoes as well. In spite of this being a fairly obvious thing to anticipate I was still amazed by just how much the oyster shell debris set itself into everything.
Writer’s Note: I left Tilghman Island that day with a continued appreciation for not only its residents and their community but also with an ongoing sense of admiration for those who spent their lives laboring in the oyster, crab and seafood houses of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As to the future viability of those remaining industry concerns and their workers that mostly depends on a stronger commitment to the environmental well being of the Chesapeake Bay as well as the region’s ability to continue to sustain this important part of its economic base.
G J Gibson
Note: This article was first published on Medium
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