Oyster Wars

New England
Elnicki Wade

If someone tried to take away your plate of fresh Chesapeake oysters, would you pull out a gun to defend your shellfish? Well, you wouldn't be the first person to react that way to an oyster thief. For decades, the Chesapeake Bay felt like the Wild West, where deadly boat chases and gunfights were commonplace along the shores. And all the conflict was over one innocent creature: the oyster.During the Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, says Jeff Holland, executive director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, oysters were so valuable that people needed artillery to protect them from pirates. It's astonishing that people would kill each other over a bivalve.For thousands of years, the bay was a dream breeding ground for oysters. English settlers in the early 1600s were amazed by 12-inch-long oysters and beds so large that ships would run aground on them. Captain John Smith ate them. George Washington relished them. And as America grew, so did oysters' popularity. By the late 1700s, Chesapeake oysters were served on tables from Norfolk to Boston.Things started getting nasty in the early 1800s, when over-harvesting in New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut depleted those oyster populations, and Northerners started licking their chops over the Chesapeake's bounty. When New England oyster boats floated into the bay looking for fresh waters to plunder, locals did not hang up a welcome sign. To protect their treasure of oysters from Yankee intruders, Maryland and Virginia passed laws that only allowed fishing by local residents.By the mid-1800s, a new steam- canning process meant that people as far away as the Pacific Coast and the Colorado gold mines were gobbling up Chesapeake oysters that were delivered long-distance by train. Baltimore became the country's oyster-packing epicenter, with more than 100 processing houses along its harbor.Sleepy waterfront towns such as Cambridge and Solomons turned into bustling ports built upon discarded oyster shells. When railroad tracks extended down the Eastern Shore to Crisfield, the town erupted with oyster shucking plants, brothels and saloons packed with thirsty workers and watermen. The bay and its rivers became jam-packed with skipjacks and boats of all shapes and sizes, and the oyster supply seemed endless. By 1875, a total of 17 million bushels of oysters had been removed from the Chesapeake, reports Dr. Henry M. Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City. Yet harvesting continued to increase. At its peak in the mid-1880s, more than 20 million bushels of oysters were taken from the bay each year, When a massive oyster reef was discovered in Tangier Sound, things started to really heat up. With such a plentiful resource, you'd think there'd be enough for everyone to be satisfied, but fierce clashes occurred over who could harvest oysters.In shallow areas, watermen leaned over their boats using long wooden tongs to lift their catch from the water by hand. In deep waters, large ships pulled dredges with iron teeth along the bottom making a clean swipe over oyster beds. Maryland allowed dredging as long as ships stayed away from the shore and riverbeds. When dredgers ignored the laws and invaded the tongers' space, big problems started brewing. To protect their oysters and livelihood, tongers appealed to Annapolis for help, but the lackluster response forced them to handle matters on their own. Gruesome gunfights and unruly water disputes became regular events.To make matters worse, the border between Maryland and Virginia wasn't clearly marked or well-defined. When Virginia watermen heard about the plethora of oysters in places like Tangier Sound and the Eastern Shore rivers, they felt they had a right to them. Maryland oystermen heartily disagreed. Violence and anarchy escalated to such a point that in 1868 the Maryland Oyster Police Force was formed, with Hunter Davidson elected as its first commander. He received a side-wheeled steamboat named Leila to restore ordernot a fleet of boats, just one. Imagine policing that expansive bay with just one boat.The Oyster Police were outnumbered but still put up a valiant fight, says the Annapolis Maritime Museum's Holland. In one incident, a dozen illegal dredging schooners chained their boats together and floated defiantly on the Choptank River. When this rag-tag flotilla prepared to shoot, the Oyster Police steamer barreled forward and rammed those schooners like a bowling ball. Two ships were sunk, two were taken captive.The Oyster Police added more ships and armed them with stronger firepower, but the oyster pirates remained bold and brazen. Dredgers moved through the Chesapeake with cold efficiency and shortsightedness. They stripped more oysters than the bay could produce and then plundered the tributary rivers. The Oyster Police caught some pirates, but many dredgers worked at night posting lookouts to watch for patrol boats. The Little Choptank River was especially hard hit and lost thousands of oysters a day to dredgers. When Cambridge formed a militia to defend its oyster bars, dredgers fired on the town and promised to torch the entire city if they met resistance again.By the 1890s, the bay's oyster population had fallen into steep decline, and in 1900 more oyster packing houses closed on the bay than opened. Over-harvesting brought the annual yield to around three million bushels in the 1920s. In 1942, decades after the bay's oyster population had plummeted, a vast bed was discovered on Swan Point along the Potomac. Maryland police had a tough time protecting their state's treasure from Virginia watermen, because many Mary- land boats were at the time being used in World War II efforts. By the late 1940s, oyster pirating kicked back into high gear, and Virginia dredgers”nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet”buzzed away from Maryland police in high-speed power boats. Gunfights and dramatic chase scenes ensued between Virginia daredevils and frustrated Oyster Police, now armed with rifles and machine guns.The final Oyster Wars skirmish took place in a quiet waterfront town called Colonial Beach. If you've ever cruised up the Potomac River, you might have noticed a funky border between Virginia and Maryland. Dating back to colonial times, Virginia's state line ends at the southern shore, and Maryland has the rights to the Potomac. That means oysters in the Potomac belong to Maryland. One night in 1959, a Virginian named Berkeley Muse decided to dredge oysters. When he realized he'd been spotted by a police boat, he sped toward the safety of Virginia's Monroe Bay. Maryland police took off after Berkeley, and bullets flew. Berkeley was hit in the chest and bled to death at dawn in his boat on the shore of Colonial Beach. His death proved to be the last straw. The two states worked out legislation that eased tensions, and after nearly a century of bloody conflicts, the Chesapeake Oyster Wars were over.CHESAPEAKE OYSTER RESOURCESIf you've got Chesapeake oysters on your mind and want to cruise around the bay to learn more about them, check out the following places and resources:Annapolis Maritime Museum723 Second St., Annapolis, Maryland; 410-295-0104, amaritime.orgLocated in the old McNasby Oyster Co. building, the museum is dedicated to Chesapeake oysters and houses an amazing relic from the Oyster Wars: a cannon from one of the Oyster Police steamships. Mariners Museum100 Museum Dr., Newport News, Virginia; 757-596-2222, marinersmuseum.orgThe museum's Chesapeake Gallery displays scores of artifacts and has hands-on activities about the bay's nautical heritage.Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association8218 Hell Neck Rd., Gloucester, Virginia; 804-694-4407, wmpeople.wm.edu Farming, not fighting, is the new wave in oyster production. Use this site to locate a Virginia oyster farm and see how the bialves grow.

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Hurricane Hunters

Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.

Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.

Three Who Paved the Way for How We Track & Predict Hurricanes Today

Father Hurricane

When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.

The Aerial Acrobat

Len Povey

Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.

When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.

Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.

The Data Cruncher

One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.

Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.

Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.

In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.

Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.

Hurricane Tracking Apps for Your Phone

You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.


Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.


Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.


Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.


Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.


If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.


Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.

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How Hurricanes Get Their Names

Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.

In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.

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The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD

With its sandy beaches and boardwalk attractions, Ocean City is the quintessential family summer vacation destination. It’s also a popular spot for sport fishermen and boaters traveling up and down the East Coast. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Ocean City was established on a barrier island called Assateague that extended 60 miles from the Indian River Inlet in Delaware to Chincoteague, VA. The section of the island belonging to the State of Maryland had no outlet to the sea, and early visitors came to bathe in the surf and take in the fresh ocean breezes. These travelers arrived by ferry boat from the mainland until 1876 when a wooden trestle train bridge was built. 

In its younger days, Ocean City was half resort town and half fishing village. The fishing was “pound fishing,” a style I’d wager few people today have ever seen. It was practiced originally by Native Americans and became popular in the 19 century along the East Coast from Maritime Canada to the Carolinas.

Pound fisherman used wide nets attached to wooden poles to catch fish. They drove these tall poles into the ocean floor about a half mile from shore, creating permanent structures called pounds. When fish entered the open end of a pound, they were then corralled by the nets and couldn’t escape. 

With no passage into the Atlantic, crews of Ocean City fishermen needed to launch 40-foot boats from the beach directly into the ocean and row out to the pounds. To harvest the fish, the crew would remove the ends of the nets from the poles and pull them up by hand. The fish were then brought back to shore, carted across the island, packed in barrels of ice and shipped via railroad to fish markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

It was laborious work, and for years local businessmen petitioned state and federal agencies to create a manmade inlet to connect the bay directly to more fertile fishing grounds farther off the coast.

A Fierce Storm Carves Out a New Inlet

In August of 1933, a hurricane came ashore in Norfolk, VA, and then tracked up the center of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing up to 10 inches of rain per day and flooding the back bays to the west of Ocean City. Oceanside, wind and waves destroyed homes, hotels and businesses on the town’s boardwalk. 

When the storm subsided, the railroad bridge and fish camps had been washed away, replaced by an inlet 50 feet wide and eight feet deep that formed when built-up water driven by high tides rushed east over the barrier island from the swollen back bays to the ocean. Mother Nature did what governments wouldn’t do, and it changed Ocean City forever.

It didn’t take long for officials to take advantage of this event and enlarge the inlet to ensure its permanence. As a result, a commercial harbor, marinas and docks began sprouting up around the inlet and across the bay on the mainland. Most fishing was commercial in those immediate post-hurricane years, but a few captains realized the recreational fishing potential in the shoals and fertile canyons offshore that were teaming with billfish and other species. During World War II, a lack of fuel and the presence of German U-Boats in the Atlantic virtually shut down offshore fishing. Things picked up after the war, and by the late 1950s and 1960s more and more fishermen were coming to Ocean City. 

But it was the white marlin that really put Ocean City on the sport fishing map. A challenging fish known for its beauty, the white marlin wows anglers with its speed and jumping antics. These fish travel in packs and are prevalent in Maryland waters in late summer and early fall. 

Sport fishermen have been chasing white marlins off the coast of Maryland since 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt visited and caught two of the feisty billfish. To celebrate this exceptional fish and attract more attention to Ocean City, local fishermen launched the White Marlin Open in 1974. Fifty-seven boats entered that first year. By contrast, the 2021 Open drew 444 boats, more than 3,500 contestants – including NBA superstar Michael Jordan – and awarded $9.2 million dollars in prize money making Ocean City the undisputed “White Marlin Capital of the World.”

Ocean City today counts eight marinas, 20 fishing tournaments and numerous charter boats. According to the city council, boating and sportfishing are significant economic drivers bringing tens of millions of dollars annually to the local economy. 

So, whether you’re a hardcore sport fisherman, casual angler or a boater who simply enjoys a cocktail dockside at sunset, there’s something for everyone “Goin’ downy O, Hon!” as native Marylanders like to say about a visit to their beloved Ocean City.

Check Out Three World-Class OC Fishing Tournaments

Ocean City Tuna Tournament
July 8-10, 2022

Entering its 35th year, this has become the world’s largest tuna tournament with more than 100 participating boats and a record payout that eclipsed $1 million in 2021. 

White Marlin Open
August 8-12, 2022

First held in 1974, the WMO is inarguably the highlight of the Ocean City fishing tournament calendar. Now the biggest and richest billfish tournament in the world, the WMO drew 444 boats and 3,500+ contestants last year.

Poor Girls Open
August 17-20, 2022
Launched in 1994, this is the largest ladies-only billfish release tournament benefitting breast cancer research. Despite its charitable overtones, the tournament is all about the fishing, and the hundreds of boats and hundreds of competitors take it very seriously.

The Orange Crush: A Cocktail Born on the OC Docks

Orange Crush | Susan Elnicki Wade

The Orange Crush is a staple cocktail in most Maryland bars. It’s basically a screwdriver with a shot of triple sec and a splash of lemon-lime soda. The secret to a good one, though, is fresh-squeezed orange juice. And there’s no place better to try one than the Harborside Bar & Grill in Ocean City where the cocktail is said to have originated on a slow night in 1995 when a couple of bartenders were bored and playing around with a bottle of orange-flavored vodka.

Harborside is a wooden establishment whose backside opens onto the commercial harbor in West Ocean City. Gritty is the word that comes to mind. As you would expect, the sign out front boldly announces the home of the Orange Crush, as do newspaper articles framed on the walls and t-shirts for sale. Inside, people pound crabs and watch the Orioles play baseball. Ceiling fans whirl, and it smells of Old Bay and French fries. White lights strung across the ceiling add a festive touch. It doesn’t get more Maryland than that. 

To try your first Orange Crush, visit Harborside Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, MD, 410-213-1846.

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