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History on the Chesapeake

The Chesapeake Bay has borne witness to some significant historical events, including those which shaped its ecosystem, affected the marine animals within it and demonstrated the complex relationship of human activity and nature throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Published July 27, 2016

Oyster Wars

Oysters have been a popular menu item for centuries. So much so that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Oyster Wars were fought in the Chesapeake Bay over oyster fishing rights. 

In 1830, after Maryland experienced an influx of fishermen from as far as New England, government officials restricted fishing in the Bay to Maryland residents. Maryland also outlawed dredging—the towing of mesh scoops along the bottom of the Bay—to prevent damage to oyster populations, but nearby Virginia did not. This prompted officials to require the purchase of annual licenses to further restrain who could fish on the Bay.


"Oyster War," Harper's Weekly, March 1, 1884, Library of Congress. 

Following the Civil War, tensions on the Bay ran high with these new regulations. To circumvent policies and local enforcement, “oyster pirates” dredged the Bay at night to quickly obtain a large amount of oysters for personal profit. These ships, which could out pace and out maneuver the boats of the newly founded State Oyster Police Force, often exchanged gun fire with police and other oyster fishermen. 


"Maryland - The Oyster War," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, January 7, 1888, Library of Congress. 

Territorial feuds on the Bay continued through the mid-twentieth century until the introduction of many governmental agencies charged with protecting the region’s waterways. In 1963, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission was created to regulate not just oyster harvesting, but also recreational and commercial fishing, crabbing and clamming. Thus, bringing a formal close to the Oyster Wars.

Vacations on the Bay

At the turn of the twentieth century, western railroad builder Otto Mears set his sights on the Chesapeake Bay region as the end point of a rail system connecting Baltimore and Washington to the coast. The railway, which carried its first passengers in 1900, opened a new tourism industry for areas of the Bay that were previously inaccessible. 


Historic American Engineering Record, C. & Mears, O. (1968) "Chesapeake Beach Railroad Engine House, 21 Yost Place, Seat Pleasant, Prince George's County, MD," Library of Congress. 

Vacationers from across Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., flocked to Chesapeake Beach. Prior to the advent of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and rise of the automobile, this region was the closest and most accessible coastal getaway for those looking to escape the city heat throughout the summer months.


"Chesapeake Hotel," c. 1905, Henry Rinn, Jr., Library of Congress. 

Bridging the Chesapeake  

Upon his election in 1947, Governor William Preston Lane, Jr. fulfilled a campaign promise to construct a bridge spanning the Chesapeake Bay to connect the eastern and western shores. Formally isolated, this bridge allowed commerce to reach the rural Eastern Shore and opened new areas to tourism and trade.


Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum via Washingtonian

The opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952 hosted its first traffic jam, as former Governor Lane joined his successor, Theodore McKeldin, to dedicate the structure. Following the formal ceremony, the two led a parade which took more than two hours to cross the 4.3-mile bridge. Similar traffic jams have occurred since but for rather different reasons.

Read more stories about the history of the Chesapeake Bay from the Washingtonian here

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