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Troubled Waters: ESVA Pollution Clash between Vegetable Cannery and Seafood Co. in the 1930s

Updated: Apr 18

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Native Americans settled in the Chesapeake Bay region, ~9500 years BCE, during the glacial retreat when the Chesapeake Bay as we would recognize it today began to form (Hobbs, 2004). Oysters colonized the Bay ~6500 years BCE as salt water from the Atlantic Ocean, driven by glacial melting, penetrated up-bay, and up-river (Bratton et al., 2003). Reefs grew in elevation and area while expanding upriver(s) and northward as salinity suitable to their survival increased in extent (McCormick-Ray, 1998, 2005; Hargis and Haven, 1999; Smith et al., 2003; Hobbs, 2004). Native Americans before European colonization were few relative to the human population living in the Bay watershed today.

Back in the 1930s, in Cheriton, Va. situated in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, two beloved businesses are still revered today. The G. L. Webster Canning factory became the largest canning facility in the U.S. and was the largest employer on the Eastern Shore.  The second was E. J. Steelman, whose Oyster tin boasted “Opened and packed on the famous Cherrystone Creek”.

Marvelous birdseye map of the Chesapeake, from Virginia Beach and Portsmouth to Richmond, Fredericksburg, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia (New York on the Horizon), centered on the Agricultural region of the Del-Mar-Va peninsula. Facsinating advertising broadside for the G.L. Webster Canning Company. GL Webster was first formed in 1885 in Cheriton as the Curtice Preserving Co. on a spur of the railroad in 1885. The Printer, Everett Waddey, was active from the early 1890s to at least 1915.

Tomatoes became the major canning “vegetable” for Virginia packers, with hundreds of canneries focused on processing just the tomato crop. These canneries generated critical income for farmers, factory owners, and laborers, serving as an important economic stimulant for those rural Virginia communities still struggling with the physical and economic devastation of the Civil War. By 1919, Virginia had produced 554 canning companies that operated over 600 independent factories – more than any other state.

Oyster Reefs as Coastal Bird Habitats in the U.S.: Birds have often been used as indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem health (e.g., [15,16,17]). Melvin et al. [18] suggests that birds are useful as indicators of restoration success due to their mobile nature and ability to find and use newly available habitats. Based on similarities in bird abundances and foraging behaviors between restored and live reefs, oyster reef restoration efforts in Mosquito Lagoon have been successful in providing additional foraging habitats for coastal birds. However, since birds are utilizing all three reef types in Mosquito Lagoon, it may be beneficial to maintain a mosaic of reef types in order to provide both foraging and loafing habitats for birds, including Egrets (pictured above)

The popularity and profitability of oyster production in the 19th and 20th centuries led to what has been called the "Oyster Wars". This was an ongoing struggle between oyster pirates, fishermen, watermen, and local governments in the Chesapeake Bay for nearly a century. To some effect, the battle rages on today. Disagreements regarding over-regulation of commercial watermen and the menhaden fishing population, for example. For a visual representation, refer to Jay Fleming's popular photography journalism "Working the Water"

By the 1970s, Chesapeake oyster production was at an all-time low, and within a decade the regional industry was nearly moribund. Since that time, however, extensive conservation work has resulted in replenished oyster beds. In 2016 some 40 million oysters were sold in the Commonwealth.

The trouble began in 1936 when E. J. Steelman began to suffer damages to his land because of offensive odors caused by the pollution of tidal waters which were cast upon the land and oyster beds. Seems the water was polluted from Webster’s Cannery which was located on the east side of Cheriton. The only form of drainage for the refuse and waste was a ditch that ran into Hanby’s branch, Eyre Hall Creek, Cherrystone Creek and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Eyre Hall is a plantation house located in Northampton, Virginia, close to Cheriton, and owned by the Eyre family since 1668. The property is one of the state's best preserved colonial homes with gardens among the oldest in the United States. The plantation was placed on the National Register on November 12, 1969. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on March 2, 2012.

E.J. Steelman sued G.L. Webster for damages and the case wound up in the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1939. “The wife of the plaintiff testified that the odor was so bad that, "You can't eat your food, can't sleep for the stink, and shut your windows to keep the stink out, and the heat is so bad." The odors were so offensive that the plaintiff was compelled to keep the windows and doors of his home closed even in the hottest weather so that he could not continue to live there with any degree of comfort, or engage in his work on the shore, or bathe in the waters of his beach.

Record 2002: Petition For Writ of Error and Supersedeas; Case Record. Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia at Richmond, Appealed from The Circuit Court of Northampton County, Virginia, Circuit Court Judge Honorable John E. Nottingham

Numerous witnesses testified that the fish, terrapin, crabs, oysters, and clams were destroyed, or rendered useless, by the pollution in the waters. A biologist of the Federal Bureau of Fisheries made certain tests of the waters and testified that as a result of those tests he believed the waste and refuse from the vegetable matter cast into the waters was the cause of the destruction of the fish, oysters, and seafood. Other witnesses were in doubt as to whether the destruction was caused in part, or in whole, by the pollution. The jury ruled in favor of Steelman for damages to his land, but not his seafood in the water. Webster had to clean out the creeks one or two times a year.

Journal of Natural Resources Law, published March 23, 1983, depicts a detailed history of research, analysis, and legislation regarding the environmental health of water systems, including from industrial pollution and over-harvesting

The late Mr. John David Steelman II, son of Emory J. Steelman, part of a legacy on the Shore of Commercial Aquaculture Enterprises and a storied history of environmental politics

Almost one hundred years later, our historic lands and tidal waters are still being polluted by industry and agriculture. We are a thin strip of land between two large bodies of water. There is nowhere for the pollution to go except into our groundwater and into the creeks and out to the bay. It is imperative that we protect our water sources now, how many times does history have to repeat itself before we take notice and change our ways?

Humans began measurably and negatively impacting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay in the first half of the 19th century, according to a study of eastern oysters by researchers at The University of Alabama. Today’s environmental "wars" are against parasites and pollution.

The waters of The Chesapeake Bay hold many stories, from legends of waterwomen to arguments over the placement of collier ships waiting to be loaded with mixed coal from DTA off the Cape Charles horizon, formerly by Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. A mildly aggressive battle ensues of where cargo ships waiting to be unloaded in Norfolk, Baltimore or Newport News reside along the coastline view.

For the second time in a row, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation scored the bay’s health a D+ in 2020. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, metals and other toxic contaminants can harm the health of humans and affect the survival, growth and reproduction of fish and wildlife. Creeks, tributaries, rivers, brooks, irrigation ponds and streams are part of this ecosystem.

A universally lucrative specialty in aquaculture is oyster harvesting. Aerial image of oyster beds in British Colombia. An adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day. Sediment and nitrogen cause problems in water systems. Oysters filter these pollutants either by consuming them or shaping them into small pockets.

Oysters are ecosystem engineers that form biogenic reef habitats in shallow coastal and estuarine waters and provide important ecosystem services. Widespread global declines have triggered a worldwide restoration movement. Pictured above is a Great Blue Heron alongside an oyster reef.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation turns 2,000 bushes of recycled oyster shells each year into habitats for millions of oysters planted in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. Once the recycled shells are cleaned and cured, CBF places them in huge water tanks containing millions of microscopic oyster larvae, which then attach to the shells.

Hatchery tanks, Cheriton, Virginia, USA

Smith Island stands in the Chesapeake Bay 10 miles west of Crisfield, MD, and is accessible only by boat. Only about 220 hardy souls live there now with most earning a living crabbing, fishing, or serving the tourists who come by boat to explore this interesting locale. The island is famous for its Smith Island Cake — with 8 to 15 thin layers with chocolate frosting between. Sadly, the island is disappearing due to rising sea levels and erosion. Efforts are underway to mitigate the impact of these factors. Without these efforts, the island is projected to be completely eroded by 2100. Our trip to Smith Island begins at the docks in Crisfield, MD — the "Seafood Capital of the World". Historically, the economy was centered on harvesting and processing seafood — crabs, oysters, and fish. Overfishing and the decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay have led to a decline in the seafood industry. The Smith Island historical sign reads, "Maryland's only remaining inhabited offshore island group, named for early land owner Henry Smith. Charted by Captain John Smith in 1606 as 'The Russell Isles'. English farmers John Evans and John Tyler came via Accomack County, Virginia to become the first permanent settlers in 1686. During the Revolutionary War, The British used the island as a base of operations. Once the Home of Joshua Thomas, Famed Methodist evangelist who held the first camp meeting on the Island.

The arrival of the railroad had a significant impact on the Eastern Shore. Before the railroad, the primary means of transportation and communication were boats and stagecoaches. The railroad brought a faster and more efficient way to transport goods and people, which helped spur economic growth in the region.

The politics of environment, history and pollution remain an interesting topic-especially for the residents of the Delmarva Peninsula, who care deeply for the intricacies both culturally and geographically of such a unique position in the Universe. Thank you for reading.


Laura Smith

Lead Researcher and Historian

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