Boat graveyards are gone, but keep eye out for remnants

Published 6:28 pm Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Now that the days are warming up, the weather is perfect for outdoor activity, and for many in Isle of Wight and Surry, that means kayaking or canoeing on some of Tidewater’s prettiest creeks and inland streams.

Local waterways offer plenty to see. Our saltmarshes offer a constant in scenery. Each season, they are dramatically different, and they change rapidly. Wildlife is also plentiful year-round.

One thing you won’t see these days is boat graveyards. Up until 50 or 60 years ago, it was not unusual for owners to tow their old wooden boats onto mudflats to die. Those days are gone. The siltation and pollution the practice caused is, thankfully, no longer acceptable. And, of course, fiberglass doesn’t rot.

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But they were unquestionably picturesque. Few Chesapeake artists of the past half century didn’t paint an old deadrise, sailboat or bateau edged into a marsh, paint peeling, strakes broken and stern awash in a rising tide.

Back in our youth, derelict boats could be found on most sheltered waterways, including Jones Creek. For generations, there was a boat graveyard just above the Rescue Bridge. Old workboats, having finally rotted to the point that they couldn’t be kept afloat, were dragged onto the mudflat at high tide and left there.

Further up the creek, an interesting collection of boats lay against the western bank, one of them an old pleasure boat with beautiful lines.

And still further along, the ribs of a bay schooner could be seen at low tide on the eastern shore of the creek. Her final resting place was about halfway between Rescue and the Jones Creek public boat ramp. Sixty years ago, her old engine was still visible above the mud at low tide.

Near the headwaters of Jones Creek were some of its most interesting derelicts — two old oyster rafts.

Oyster rafts were an innovation of the early 20th century, a time when the oyster industry was booming and little thought was given to such things as bacterial pollution.

The rafts had pontoons made either from huge pine tree trunks or sawn timbers bolted together. There was one of each up Jones Creek.

The pontoons were tied together with heavy timbers and a rough decking was nailed from the bottom of one pontoon to the other. On either end of the raft were wooden, watertight boxes that could be forcibly pushed downward to lift the rafts and expose the bottom planking. In that raised position, the rafts were towed from place to place and oysters could be easily unloaded.

O.A. Spady of Battery Park, whose family owned the historic Battery Park Fish and Oyster Co., explained the purpose of the rafts to me years ago. The two rafts on Jones Creek, Spady says, were owned by Ballard Oyster Co. They were experimental, he recalls. Oysters were taken up creeks, not really to fatten, but to “plump” up by ingesting fresh water. Fresh water makes oysters swell somewhat and thus create a lower “count” of oysters per pint. Plumped oysters were thus more profitable.

Use of the rafts was pretty labor-intensive, and oyster shuckers found that placing oysters in fresh water in the controlled conditions of shucking houses did the same thing, Spady says.

At any rate, the practice didn’t last very long, and the Jones Creek oyster rafts were abandoned and left to drift about. During a good northeaster, they would float above the marsh and be blown to a new site, sometimes blocking part of the creek, and sometimes fetching up high in the marsh. You just never knew where they’d next come to rest.

A property owner cut one of them into manageable pieces to build a bulkhead. A northeaster spoiled his plans by floating the sections away. The other raft, the one made of huge tree trunks, simply disappeared. Its remnants are probably still somewhere in the upper reaches of Jones Creek, where a kayak explorer may yet find it and wonder what on earth it might be.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is