by Lorraine Eaton
At the apex of oyster season there’s much to dispute. Raw or roasted? Seaside or bayside? Who slurps the last one?
Never mind all that. On and around the Chesapeake Bay, real “oyster wars” raged for a century, complete with cannons, machine-gun fire and Maryland and Virginia “oyster navies” attempting to keep the peace.
The catalyst was something ostreaphiles know well: the rich, sensuous flavor of a Chesapeake Bay bivalve. By the 1800s, millions of bushels were being shipped as far as California, Paris and China. In Norfolk alone, workers packed more than 1.3 million bushels, according to an account in The Norfolk Virginian newspaper in 1879.
Laws governing who can harvest oysters, where and how, predate the U.S. Constitution. As the industry exploded, so did the ire.
Tongers came first. They plied inlets and creeks aboard shallow-draft skiffs, prying oysters by hand with scissor-like rakes. Later came dredgers, dragging metal baskets behind vastly larger vessels and raising their bounty with mighty winches. Dredging, which can be destructive to oyster colonies, was restricted to deeper parts of the bay at first. But by 1870, as oyster stocks dwindled because of massive demand, dredgers from both states began poaching the shallows, often crossing the state line.
“Plainly put, Maryland and Virginia watermen despised one another,” wrote John R. Wennersten in his book, The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay.
In 1889, an Onancock oyster dealer hired a tugboat to rout poachers from his leased grounds. When the captain spotted a Maryland dredge, he rammed the schooner at midships, and then he rammed it again, sinking the vessel.
This Wild West, maritime mayhem continued well into the 20th century. “NORFOLK TROOPS ORDERED OUT IN OYSTER WAR” blazed the front page of The Virginian-Pilot in January 1928, when three National Guard units were dispatched to Mobjack Bay – complete with tents and a field kitchen, and armed with rifles and automatic weapons. Their mission: to restore peace following a night of violence when tongers from Gloucester – allegedly harvesting illegally – fired seven shots at a state patrol boat.
“Only 50 miles from Washington men are shooting at one another,” reported The Washington Post in 1947 during the post-war oyster boom. “The night is quiet until suddenly shots snap through the air. Possibly a man is dead, perhaps a boat is taken, but the oyster war will go on the next night and the next.”
For residents of Colonial Beach, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, cat-and-mouse chases between the oyster-patrol boats and invading dredgers became a spectator sport. One Saturday night in December 1956, hundreds gathered to watch two Maryland police boats and a seaplane chase down Harvey King, a brazen Virginia oysterman caught dredging in Maryland waters. King spotted the law and rocketed off, dumping illicit oysters in his wake and employing an evasion pattern that “would have sparked the envy of men experienced in naval combat,” wrote Wennersten.
At one point during the 90-minute chase, King attempted to ram the seaplane. At another, the Virginia patrol boat attempted to ram the dredger. Maryland police fired rifles and pistols, some pocking the dredge, others splattering the shore where spectators crouched behind cars. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but the incident exacerbated the tension between Maryland and Virginia officials.
A few weeks later, a Maryland police boat rammed a Virginia dredger so hard the stern fell off.
The closing chapter of the oyster wars came on a misty morning in 1959 when King was spotted just before dawn dredging oysters in Maryland territory. The Maryland oyster police fired shots at the unarmed boat as it zoomed toward the Virginia shore. One bullet fatally wounded crew member Berkeley Muse, a popular Colonial Beach character.
By then, both states had had enough, and the battle resumed in the legislatures. An agreement was finally reached Dec. 5, 1962, aimed at maintaining peace and regulating the Potomac River fisheries. Signed by President John F. Kennedy, it signaled the end of the Chesapeake Bay oyster wars, although Maryland and Virginia still maintain “oyster navies,” now called marine patrols, to keep law and order on the bay.