An era ends, another begins

Published 4:11 pm Tuesday, June 19, 2018

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All things nautical have fascinated me since my earliest days, particularly those things associated with the James River and Chesapeake Bay.

Printed on this page today is one of my favorite old photos — a view of Jones Creek at Rescue. It’s special to me because it happens to be dated the month and year I was born — October 1945. But I also love it because of it stands at the end of one era and the beginning of another.

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Anyone familiar with the Chesapeake Bay is also familiar with the Bay’s ubiquitous workboat, the deadrise. These wide-beamed, sleek, fast vessels are used for all manner of commercial fishing activities. The deadrise is, quite appropriately, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s official boat.

But here’s where the photograph comes in. The powerful and popular deadrise, in the form that we now know it, was popularized largely after World War II, and for that reason, there’s not one in the photograph.

Up until the early 20th century, the log canoe was the individual waterman’s vessel of choice for bodies of water like the James River. Powered by sail, these beautiful double-ended boats were the much-evolved offspring of single log canoes that colonists found being used by Native Americans 400 years ago.

Larger versions of the log canoe, known as bugeyes, were hewn from as many as nine logs. The boats were massive, considering their construction, and were used in the open bay, primarily for oyster dredging.

Then, in the late 19th century, the Chesapeake Bay skipjack came on the scene. A much lighter alternative to the bugeye, it was built from planks rather than logs. It had a V-shaped bottom, beginning with a sharp V forward and flattening near the stern.

As gasoline engines became available in the early 20th century, watermen understandably placed them in their previously sail-driven boats. Numerous log canoes received engines, cutting the labor and time to and from fishing grounds dramatically.

Engines were generally small, many of them single-piston affairs known as “one lungers” that gave a distinct “pop, pop, pop” sound when underway.

Boats were also built to be powered by engines rather than retrofitted, but their engines were also small and boats weren’t expected to “plane” under power. Among them was the famous and beautiful Hooper Straits “draketails,” which had a reverse and rounded transom.

As more powerful engines came on the market, boats were built to accommodate them. Sterns were widened and flattened. Before long, the modern deadrise came into being. Gasoline-powered automobile engines were the standard propulsion until they were replaced by diesel.

But back to the photograph: There are no modern deadrise boats are among those pictured. What are shown are examples of the evolution. Tied outboard from the dock, stern to the viewer, is a lovely log canoe that has been retrofitted with an engine. Inboard of that is a V-bottomed vessel that appears to be a small skipjack-style boat converted from sail to power. It may have originally been a large crabbing skiff. The boat in the foreground may come close to the modern design, based on its bow, but without seeing more of it, it’s hard to say.

The boat seen further down the creek with a tall mast appears to be an oyster “buy boat.” Similar boats were familiar sites on the James River until recent years.

As in most early views of local waterfronts, there are also a number of utilitarian flat-bottomed boats, some floating, some sunk, some on the shore. These rowboats were used for any and every imaginable water-related job. They were known as bateaus, an interesting term for Virginians who prided themselves in all things British, since bateau is French for boat.

And there you have far more than you ever wanted to know about one old photograph of Jones Creek.