9/28/2012 PostANNAPOLIS RISE AND FALL AS A COMMERCIAL PORT
|U.S.Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland around 1855
In the view of Annapolis above, you are looking at the then newly founded U.S. Naval Academy as seen from somewhere near the mouth of the Severn River, to the left is Spa Creek. Annapolis was already fading as a real commercial sea port at this point in history. On the opposite side of Spa Creek to the left and behind this view point on the north shore of Spa Creek a commercial fishing village was already forming. That commercial fishing port would become the community known as Eastport, more recently "the Independent Maritime Republic Of Eastport. Eventually a bridge would span Spa Creek and unite Eastport and Annapolis.
Commercial fishing boat traffic would eventually fill into what would become the City Dock or "Ego Alley" canal. A thriving seafood market would evolve at the foot of the turning basin of the City Dock canal or slip. That property still stands but has struggled to survive the yacht dominant era. It is empty as we write this. Eastport itself gradually faded as a commercial fishing port as fish and crab stocks declined and yacht traffic increased. Politically, after the bridge, Eastport and Annapolis were politically united, until one day that critical bridge needed repair.
The city closed the bridge off apparently without what the "Eastporters" considered adequate notice. This was towards the end of the twentieth century and by then the fishing boat yards had morphed into yacht repair yards and the many of the old commercial fishing families and moved out and been replaced by what appeared to be your basic yuppies. But the Eastporters of all stripes made a move that indicated the apparent "yuppification" of Eastport was at best only skin deep. The Eastporters found an old wheeled canon, dragged it down to the now closed foot of the bridge and fired off a blank round, then read their declaration of independence from Annapolis, and raised for the first time the new flag of the "Independent Maritime Republic of Eastport.
Once the Bridge repairs were completed the integration of the Eastport and "Annapolis proper" economies resumed. Eastport became the site of the "Maritime Museum" where the era of commercial fishing is commemorated. "Annapolis proper" is the home of the "Sailing Museum". Today both Spa Creek and Ego alley are filled with yachts and lined with Marinas, yacht clubs, yacht repair yards, sailing schools, boat building schools, waterfront hotels, bars and restaurants. Closer to the junction of the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay Back Creek which runs parallel with spa Creek defining the Republic of Eastport was also a commercial fishing haven, but now is filled with yachts and lined with waterfront condos. The streets of Annapolis proper have a very maritime character but not one familiar to the old watermen of the Chesapeake. Gone are the yellow slickers, the boon dockers, and overalls, and watch caps of the commercial seamen. In their place we find the crisp whites and blues of the Naval Academy midshipmen and the deck shoe and Land's End clad yachtsmen. The atmosphere is definitely nautical and draws lots of tourists, but the roots of this very maritime place are buried in museums. opportunities have been lost.
Yet Annapolis, unlike that other state capital, Montgomery avoided a navigational vacuum but not by plan, by unguided evolution. Unlike Montgomery, Alabama with its dependence on three locks that could fall under a budget ax; Annapolis has no dramatic end state for its navigational economy in sight. But when navigability is not consciously tended it can and does end. Communities blessed with proximity to navigable waters must nurture the full spectrum of navigation related industries. Its not unlikely that different places will have different navigational industries as dominant at different times as the history of Annapolis indicates. But the total disappearance of commercial navigational activity indicates neglect on the part of local government over time. Cities like Annapolis and Montgomery which began existence because of their suitability as a port then go on to become state capitals, and university locations sometimes fail to continue to nurture navigational development as their economies diversify. As port cities mature, port activities must diversify along with the rest of the city. One trick ponies are unemployed when they lose the market for their one trick.
In the case of Annapolis the increase in the size of seagoing ships to a point too large to use the natural harbor of Annapolis happened when Baltimore was more naturally suited for such ships and governments weren't inclined to fund massive dredging projects. But Annapolis was never that far from natural deep navigable water. ships may be seen in "Annapolis Anchorage" from parts of the city dock today. That wasn't always the case, the growth of Annapolis Anchorage had to await the growth of the port of Baltimore to the point where relatively distant anchorages and marshaling areas were needed. If the long ago city fathers of Annapolis had the foresight to lobby to maintain the status of Annapolis as a full service port of entry with the Customs Service, the development of the present large ship anchorage by Baltimore would have required the cooperation of Annapolis.
A very small dredging project could have linked the Annapolis anchorage to parts of the north shore of the Severn in the vicinity of the Naval Support Center for at least one ship berth. Even if that berth was only used as a "lay berth' (berths for on board minor repairs) it would have enhanced the claim of Annapolis on a share of the revenues from "Annapolis Anchorage". The Annapolis yacht yards employ many of the craftsmen who typically preform lay berth type minor repairs. But Annapolis lacks a commercial launch service to the Anchorage. The reservation of a small part of Spa Creeks berths for small commercial launches, tugs, and deck barges at non yacht prices would have fostered this type of economic activity. But why would a city want to forego the revenues from a few high priced yacht slips in favor of a few gritty commercial boats and berths? There is only one economic reason, these vessels coupled with a coordinated effort with local boat yards interested in lay berth type repairs generate far more jobs that the few dozen boat slips given up. These are skilled wage jobs, increasing the number of consumers and tax payers in the community.
We could go on, but our purpose is not to create a how to manual for port management, or a recovery plan for former port cities. Our point is that navigability has to be carefully monitored, encouraged , and maintained by local governments or it can be lost. If the reader will go back a couple of weeks to our observations about Montgomery we described the many types of marine activity that a diversified and deliberate waterways development program can generate. To Montgomery we urged a an immediate intense development program because underdevelopment could lead to cancellation of funding of three key locks that connect Montgomery to the sea 100 miles away. Annapolis remains a maritime city but by default, having survived two prior revolutions in marine activity. The city is only vulnerable due to over reliance on yachting and no deliberate development or encouragement of the commercial maritime sector except for excursion boats and charter yachts. It is never too early to protect or start to redevelop a port or waterway. Until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally declares a water body "non navigable" it is never too late to try to revitalize an inactive port or waterway. We refer you to our earlier blogs on Montgomery for all of the benefits that can be had by proper, diversified ,maritime development.
So until we again address an Annapolis issue or event, Annapolitans enjoy your special place in the nautical sun, and long live the Independent Maritime Republic of Eastport!