The Oyster Runner by Gary D. Crawford
In the old days, the oystering business was huge and lucrative. By the “old days,” I mean the thirty years after the Civil War, a period before the grandfathers of our oldest living watermen. It was a rough time on the Chesapeake. Steam power was changing everything. By 1870, railroads had linked the two coasts and opened the heartland of America. Steamships plied rivers and canals throughout the country, connecting disparate communities and establishing new markets. Wheat, cotton, and cattle flowed out; manufactured products flowed in. One of those products was oysters. Everybody seemed to crave them, and the Bay’s supply seemed inexhaustible. Nature took care of the plowing and planting; men just had to harvest. They even came in their own little boxes. Their shells are heavy, however, limiting the distance they can profitably be shipped. Yet out of their shells, they quickly go bad; packing them in ice helped only for short distances. It was the development of efficient steam canning technology that solved the preservation problem ~ and it changed the Chesapeake Bay forever.
Baltimore was the center of the Chesapeake oyster trade, where a hundred canning houses were operating by 1870. Canned oysters went out far and wide, not just to the cities of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, but as far as the mining camps in Colorado and beyond. The vast supply generated a greater demand, and vice-versa, and the cycle spiraled upward. In Maryland alone, the harvest reached 5 million bushels annually, then 10 million bushels, and kept going up.
Tidewater Times August 2014