Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter Three – Activities Along the River” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

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In the late ‘2Os the shipment of petroleum products began to increase. Big storage tanks and oil distribution yards were built at various points on the navigable rivers and motorized oil tankers were used to bring the petroleum products to these distribution points. Three big oil yards were constructed along the Choptank in West Denton and these became distribution points for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (later divided into several companies including Exxon, American Oil Company (Amoco), and Sun Oil Company (Sunoco). I became acquainted with the men in charge of these oil companies and found opportunities to work in the yards as I will describe in more detail in Chapter 6.

During the early part of the twentieth century many handsome steamboats provided a link between Baltimore and the little towns on the Eastern Shore rivers. With the new drawbridge over the Choptank at Denton, built in 1913, the advent of the automobile, and the building of a new railroad crossing the county through Denton, fewer and fewer steamboats served the towns along the rivers. I do remember, however, the steamboat “Joppa” which came from Baltimore once or twice each week and tied up at the wharf directly across from our house. The big event of the week for some folks, young and old, was meeting the steamboat. Sometimes there were mule teams with lumber carts, horses, carriages, or wagons loaded with livestock or chickens, all with wares destined for the city markets; or there may be empty conveyances awaiting the arrival of merchandise. Sometimes the steamboat was off of its schedule and needed to move on hurriedly, other times it seemed to have no particular schedule to meet and the crew seemed happy to visit with the county people.

I distinctly remember the time that my father went over to the freight warehouse on the wharf upon the arrival of the “Joppa” when I was about six years of age and returned with a small red and yellow wooden express wagon for me directly from Baltimore. Was I a proud youngster: It was so new that the paint in several places was still sticky.

The steamboat was discontinued around the closing years of the ‘2Os. A group of Denton citizens hoped to revive it and organized a company to do so, purchasing a steamboat that they named “The City of Denton.” During the years 1930 and 1931 it operated for about a year, but it didn’t last … other more modern means of transportation had replaced the majestic, handsome, and mystifying old steamboat.

During the oyster season there were always one or two oyster boats tied up along the river bank with oysters for sale in the shell by the bushel, half bushel, or tomato basket. People would stop by, purchase whatever quantity they needed, take them home and prepare them for eating. In case the customer did not want to bother with shucking them, the boatman would shuck out a quart, half gallon or a gallon for which he could get a better price.

A gallon of shucked oysters would sell for $2.50 or $3.00 Today they would more than likely be $25.00 or more a gallon. A half-dozen oysters on-the-half-shell at a restaurant will cost about $3.50 or $4.00. More than once I have sat on the side of an oyster boat, shucking oysters and eating them from the shell. The oyster boat would stay around for a few days until all of the oysters were sold. Once out of the water, oysters will not keep very long in the shell without spoiling unless refrigerated. Thus, the boatman had to dispose of his boatload quickly. If at the end of several days, sales had not been good and quite a few oysters were left, they could be purchased for bargain prices.

For the first part of the twentieth century many of the roads on the Eastern Shore were top dressed with oyster shells. When spread on the road surface several inches thick, they would eventually become mashed into small pieces and thus form a hard surface on what would otherwise have been a sandy or muddy road. Occasionally, boatloads of oyster shells would be brought up river to be spread on the roads by the county employees.

It was a rare occasion, but always interesting, when a pile driver came to the river to engage in a pile driving job. This would happen around Denton at lease once in every two or three years. A pile driver was a barge with a derrick mounted at one end. A piling (which was a large tree that had been processed and waterproofed) would be placed into the derrick and driven into the river bottom by means of a heavy iron weight which operated up and down a track within the derrick. The weight was lifted with a windlass and allowed to fall by gravity, thus pounding the piling blow by blow into the river bottom. Later, a diesel-driven hammer was substituted for the iron weight.

Wharves and piers were built on pilings, drawbridge passageways were buffered on each side and river banks were shored up and reinforced with pilings and logs. Pilings were also used as pillars upon which to build warehouses along the river banks. At several places along a wharf and even along river bank pilings were driven and allowed to extend from three to six feet above the surface of the wharf or river bank for use in tying up all kinds of boats. The process of contracting for a pile driver to place a number of pilings was an expensive one and therefore used only on occasions when the job was large enough to justify the expense. If only one or two pilings needed to be driven or replaced, this job would usually have to wait until a driver was brought in to do a larger job. A pile driver carried its own crew, so there was no employment for local people – just a form of entertainment for those who had time to watch.

Barges were sometimes towed up the river for transporting materials that were difficult to move in the holds of a sailing vessel, such as oyster shell or stone. My most memorable occasion involving a barge occurred when a very large one loaded with stone sank shortly after it had been tied up along the river bank and open lot in front of our house. The stone was to be used in building a concrete road near Denton.

It was later determined that under the barge, four or five feet from the river bank, there was a broken off piling, previously not known to be there. It apparently had not been a hazard to other boats, but the broad bottom of the barge, low in the water, could not miss it. The barge had been tied up at high tide and had just barely eased over the top of the submerged piling. As the tide went out the barge dropped lower into the water and came to rest upon the top of the piling. The weight of the stone caused the bottom of the barge to yield to the broken-off piling creating a hole that soon allowed the water to rush in and sink the barge. Fortunately, the river was somewhat shallow along this bank and the barge was not completely submerged.

It took some intelligence and ingenuity, however, to figure out how to recover the stone from underwater and to eventually float and save the barge. The whole process took several weeks. Mules and leveling pans like they used in that day to move and level soil were used. The work was done mostly at low tide when most of the stone was visible and could be dragged from the deck of the barge. Men would drag the pans from the river bank onto the deck of the barge, wade into the water, sometimes waist deep, and guide the pans so that they would self-load as the mules drug them back to the land.

Today any number of soil moving machines could make short work of the whole process. Eventually, enough rock was removed so that the bottom of the barge came off of the submerged piling far enough that it could be patched. Then the remaining water was pumped out and the barge salvaged. Local residents never forgot the location of that submerged piling and made it a point to warn other captains seeking to tie up at that point.

There was some commercial fishing on the Choptank also. At least two families in West Denton made a living by fishing on the river. In season they would go down the river daily in their boats and use their nets to fish for shad, herring, rock fish and carp. The nets, about four feet in depth, would be suspended in the water by floating corks and were usually placed so that they covered the distance from shore to shore. As one fisherman rowed the boat, the other one would “pay out” the net hand over hand until a continuous net approaching a half mile long would cross the river diagonally. Then came the process of gathering it in, removing the fish, and folding it layer upon layer so that it was ready to be “payed” out again. Much care had to be taken to prevent tangling and to make it easy to “pay” it out and gather it in time after time. In the winter months, they would spend much time repairing their nets or making new ones, as well as repairing and painting their boats.

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