Email Page

A waterman’s house could be anchor to Chesapeake Bay park


Source: The Washington Post, Fredrick Kunkle

This article was originally published in The Washington Post on Tuesday, December 27, 2022.

A shabby little house in Annapolis might become one of the nation’s main portals to the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area.

Burtis House, the only waterman’s home left from a time when the city’s waterfront swarmed with oyster sloops, packing houses and box cars freighting seafood to a hungry nation, is expected to be restored and fitted into a modern visitor center showcasing the bay’s riches, historic preservationists and city officials say.

If the bay becomes part of the national park system, as two Maryland lawmakers hope, the 19th-century cottage occupied by Capt. William Henry Burtis and three generations of his family would be even more in the spotlight as a kind of working man’s reception hall for visitors interested in learning about the bay’s history and biology.

Part of its mission would be to tell the story of Burtis and other watermen, those hardy souls who profited from the Chesapeake’s bounty of aquatic life and built a vast commercial enterprise so ruthlessly efficient it eventually plundered their source of wealth. Like so many blue crabs and oysters, their numbers have dwindled over the years, too.

“And this one little building is the last really remaining connection in that part of the city of Annapolis to that story,” said Nicholas Redding, president and chief executive of Preservation Maryland.

The idea of remaking Burtis House as a national gateway to the bay also happens to coincide with an ambitious city effort — which is already underway — to transform the entire City Dock neighborhood into a greener and more welcoming place and protect the low-lying area from rising sea levels caused by climate change.

“When I came into office five years ago, I campaigned on a park, not a parking lot,” said Mayor Gavin Buckley (D). “I couldn’t believe that we had the most valuable real estate in the city and it belonged to cars.”

In 2020, the City Dock Action Committee, composed of 92 civic leaders, unveiled a comprehensive plan that would elevate low-lying areas by at least four feet to counter land subsidence and chronic flooding that has become more frequent because of rising sea levels. (The U.S. Naval Academy, which occupies the adjacent land, has embarked on a similar resiliency project.)

To no one’s surprise, Buckley says Annapolis would take pride of place in the new national park, especially once its City Dock neighborhood has been remade in one of the largest capital improvement projects in the city’s history.

Buckley says incorporating the bay into the national park system will not only turn up the spotlight on the city and the region but bring additional federal dollars that could help connect City Dock through “greenways” — bicycle and walking paths — to the Bay Bridge and other nearby landmarks.

“Why wouldn’t we consider the Chesapeake Bay our Grand Canyon?” Buckley asked. “It really is a jewel.”

Buckley is also supportive of transforming the humble Burtis House into a key way station in the proposed national recreation area. Work in partnership with the city, the National Park Service and the nonprofit Preservation Maryland has begun to address mold and other problems caused by repeated flooding of the battered house.

The concept of creating a national park around the nation’s largest estuary has been around for years. Last month, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, unveiled draft legislation that would incorporate the Chesapeake Bay into the national park system. They plan to introduce the measure in the new Congress.

The draft legislation would authorize the Park Service to acquire through donation or voluntary sale three other historic properties: Whitehall, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse and part of Fort Monroe’s North Beach in Virginia, where ships delivered enslaved Africans in 1619.

The hope is that national park designation will elevate the bay’s stature as a tourist destination, help coordinate regional efforts to promote points of interest and bring in additional federal funding to reclaim and protect the watershed. The designation also builds on the existing Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a federal initiative coordinated by the National Park Service with communities around the bay.

Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the park service’s Chesapeake Bay Office, said the gateways program — which marks its 25th anniversary next year — has spent more than $26 million helping to promote public access and education at more than 160 sites around the bay. Under the draft legislation, its annual funding would be doubled to $6 million.

Burtis House would not only become a key entry point to the bay but a jumping-off point to several nearby historic sites in the city, including the Museum of Historic Annapolis.

“It’s a quiet memory of the 19th-century working waterfront that existed at City Dock,” said Karen Theimer Brown, president and chief executive of Historic Annapolis. Brown, who participated in a working group for the draft legislation, said renovating the house as a visitor center would be a step toward bringing the past to life for an entire neighborhood.

At the turn of the last century, Burtis’s property on Prince George Street sat in the middle of Hell Point, a blue-collar, ethnically mixed quarter at the water’s edge. Jane Wilson McWilliams, a local historian who has worked for the Maryland State Archives, describes Hell Point — a name probably derived from an early landowner named Richard Hill — as a gritty place bustling with watermen, oyster shuckers, dockworkers and shipyard hands. Many were Greek, Italian or Filipino immigrants.

“The folks who grew up in Hell Point will tell you that it was aptly named,” she said. “They were people who were leading reasonably hard lives and they were rough.”

But there were also yachtsmen from up and down the Atlantic seaboard making port calls and well-heeled tourists from Baltimore and Washington queuing for steamboats and passenger trains to Bay Ridge, a Victorian summer resort at the mouth of the Severn River. Some of those visitors hired Burtis for sightseeing excursions, docked at his wharf to buy water or simply savored his tales.

William Henry Burtis had been a New Yorker by birth who visited Annapolis as a young man and fell in love with an Annapolitan named Emily Hollidayoke. He married her in 1860 and purchased the wharf lot in 1882. By 1897, a city tax record assessed his property, including the house, wharf and shed, at $1,300, along with a sloop ($100), 14 other boats ($250) and a piano.

He hunted sharks, actual and otherwise. A write-up in the Evening Capital from August 1895 tells how he harpooned a 9½-foot beast that towed him all the way to Greenbury Point two miles away.

“The shark, apparently anxious for freedom, struck out in all directions of the compass, and the twisting and turning of the boat at times kept me uneasy for its safety,” he told the paper. He also hauled its 900-pound carcass to Bay Ridge and charged curious gawkers 5 cents a peep.

Because Burtis’s father-in-law was active with the city’s local constabulary and watchmen patrol, he joined too. He eventually captained a police boat in what was called the State Oyster Navy, a predecessor to the Maryland Natural Resources Police, which took part in the sometimes violent battles between watermen and oyster pirates.

An 1895 photo of Burtis on an outing, wearing a straw boater and suspenders with his breeches, suggests the captain enjoyed eating his catch as much as finding it. His exploits were written about often enough in his lifetime that the phrase “one of the most widely known watermen in the state” seemed part of his name.

“He was a man of wide acquaintance and one who delighted in conversing with his friends and telling tales of the old days,” the Baltimore Sun’s obituary says. He died at home on Jan. 2, 1911, at the age of 78, leaving behind three sons and a daughter.

Their children and children’s children held onto the place. When the Naval Academy annexed much of the property for expansion during World War II, most of Hell Point fell to the bulldozer, except Burtis House, which eventually was acquired by the state of Maryland. For a time it was home to the National Sailing Hall of Fame. Last year, the property was deeded to the city. The next owner could be Uncle Sam.