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Sunday, August 2, 2009



From the Chesapeake Portfoli

Called Menhaden Boats, they used to be built of wood and powered by large steam engines. The first diesel came along about 1938. Menhaden means junk fish, not edible. But they are rich in oil and are commercially harvested for fertilizer, cat food and pharmaceutical applications.

In 1925, there were about ten fish processing plants located on Virginia’s Northern Neck, with Reedville being the center of operations. At the time of this writing (1997) there is but one processor remaining.

I made my first trip to Reedville to document these old boats in 1975. The East Hampton was the largest of the grounded wooden boats and for the locals it had become a historical channel marker. The remainder were sunk or grounded along a nearby creek. I worked mostly from a kayak and repeated the trip again in 1978 when the weather was better.

Much of the information I received about menhaden fishing was from Captain Wallace Lewis. He grew up on the boats and later became the captain of the Northumberland. He told me that once when he was a kid, he fell overboard during a trip up the coast to Ocean City, Maryland. Luckily, he didn’t drown. His mates called him the human dynamo because of his tenacious work habits. In the early days, his job was to keep the ship lamps lit. This was well before the days of electricity on fishing boats.

Some time following World War II, converted mine sweepers and spotter planes replaced the wooden fleets. Small metal runabouts pulled the nets and trapped the fish in large groups before they were pumped from the holding nets to the hold of the ship.

I made one last trip back to Northern Neck about the mid-eighties, and all of the wooden boats were gone. Cap’n Wallace said “the state came in and ripped ‘em with a clam sheller.” They were burned during 1983-1984.

For a larger and sharper image, left click on the image above.

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