Tongers, Dredgers, and the Oyster Police
In the mid-1800s, Chesapeake watermen hauled in millions of bushels of oysters to meet the national demand. The harvest peaked in the 1884-85 season, when 15 million bushels were taken from the bay.
Competition among oystermen was fierce. Tongers used long-handled tongs to pry oysters from the bottom a few at a time. They were up against much larger vessels that used the most efficient harvesting gear available—dredges. Separate oyster grounds were designated for tongers and dredgers. Yet by 1868, the situation had become so dangerous that Maryland organized the Oyster Police to keep the peace on the oyster grounds.
Log Canoe, late 1800s
In shallow waters, oystermen worked out of small boats, including canoes built of logs hollowed out and pinned together lengthwise. Chesapeake watermen used log canoes well into the 20th century.
This model is rigged with hand tongs. The tonger lowers the baskets into the water and pulls the handles apart. Using a raking motion, he works them back together until the baskets are filled. He then lifts the catch to the surface, hand-over-hand, and swings the baskets aboard. Imagine doing this in a rocking boat in the middle of winter, and you’ll know why oyster tonging was a dangerous occupation.
Bugeye Lillie Sterling
First built in the 1860s, bugeyes were unique to the Chesapeake. They were large, decked-over versions of log canoes. They ranged in length from 30 to 65 feet and carried three sails on two masts. Worked by a captain and crew of six, bugeyes were used for dredging oysters in winter and hauling produce in summer.
Skipjack Gertrude Wands
First built in the late 1800s, skipjacks—one-masted, V-bottom vessels—gradually replaced bugeyes in the oyster dredging fleet. Their simple rig and hull design proved easier to build, operate, and maintain. Like other watercraft, some skipjacks were built in established shipyards, but many more were built by carpenters and watermen in small communities around the bay. This dredge boat was named for a little girl who lived in the community of Inverness.