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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Emerson "Drew" Tomlin
Puzzling over the Pieces of History

Trying to piece together another era of history can be as challenging as working a jigsaw puzzle. When new information comes to light, or an artifact surfaces, or a forgotten story comes to mind, it can help fill in some of the gaps.

Drew Tomlin has been working the puzzle that is the Maurice River experience. His growing collection of photos, maps, old tools, business records, and other pieces of history help to tell the stories of the river. Tomlin is connected to the Maurice River at Leesburg. His collection of antique tools and equipment, used by the craftsman at the shipyard, help him piece together the memories of the shipyard that was virtually in his backyard.

Tomlin's uncle was one of the workers at the Delaware Bay Shipyard in Leesburg. The memory has faded a bit, but Tomlin still recalls his uncle, Bob Hollingshead, walking down the street with his tool box slung over his shoulder after his shift at the DelBay. Tomlin was only a tot at the time, but he remembers trying to sneak out of the house to go meet his uncle. Hollingshead died in 1952, the year Tomlin turned four. Tomlin knew only the barest of details: A tragic accident had occurred in the boatyard. His uncle was working from a small boat, trying to complete some task on the ship that was anchored at the shipyard dock. Hollingshead fell overboard and drowned.

Tomlin has collected tools and equipment from the shipyard over the years. His collection is growing as Maurice River neighbors and other acquaintances empty their attics and sheds. Tomlin keeps some of them handy to show to curious friends. He’ll pull out a slick (a huge chisel), an adz, some planes, several heads for chipping logs, or corking mallet, and is eager to explain what each was used for. 

The tools elicit memories of the sounds and the smells of the once bustling shipyard. Tomlin remembers the sound of a corking mallet and its very distinct "tink - tink - tink." He can still describe the smells that permeated the air - fumes from the pitch pot or the whiff of cedar from a newly planed plank. He can’t forget the vibration that started in the upper railway house and reverberated along the shore and beyond. That was the "big old Otto Engine," Tomlin explained. The engine powered the railway system that was used to haul the boats in and out of the river. "The engine had great big flywheels on it," he said, "and the whole building shook when it ran." Tomlin laughed about the little whirring that came from the lower railway house. “The lower house had an electric motor in it and it wasn't too interesting." But there was a pretty neat crane, Tomlin remembered.  The workers fondly called it "Lucy."

In the 1970's, right after Tomlin returned from his term in the Navy, there was a fire at the DelBay Shipyard. At the time, the lower building was a machine shop, with the big planers and lathes powered by overhead belts and pulleys. Business wasn’t as good in the shipyard as it had been in the oyster era. By then some of the equipment had been sold off. What was left in the shop was lost in the fire. Some of the structures are still standing. Local sand company, WHIBCO, Inc., now owns the property. Their headquarters is located on the site of this once thriving shipyard.

Tomlin said that there is more history to uncover. He keeps in touch with some of the people who had connections to the yard. One of these locals, Bobby Isley, must have some stories to tell, Tomlin said. Isley’s father ran the shipyard for a long time.

Fate and location (about six miles from the Delaware Bay) kept the shipyards and the towns of Leesburg and Dorchester  afloat during the decades. The conversion of sloops to wind-powered and, later, motor-driven schooners, outfitted watermen for the oyster industry boom.  This activity peeked in the early 1900’s and then sputtered. When the oyster industry was devastated by the influx of the oyster parasite MXP in the 1950’s, the shipyards were forced to adjust.  World War II put new demands on the local shipbuilders – and the community. Able-bodied men and skilled crafters worked on the wooden 47-foot marine tow launchers and other such government-requisitioned vessels in the 1940’s. In the 1960’s the shipyard laborers went to work on vessels like the 144-foot mine sweepers.

Tomlin talked about some of these efforts to keep the shipyards and the craftsmen in business. But when their facilities were no longer needed to support the oyster industry or the country’s war efforts, the prospects didn’t look good. There were some attempts to set out in other directions. For example, Tomlin mentioned a Mr. Ackerman, who started building the Newporter Yacht at Stowman's in Dorchester. Later, Ackerman moved the operation to Leesburg. Tomlin said that Dr.Sharp was the owner of the shipyard for many years, but he didn't know if he was the owner when Ackerman leased the site to build the pleasure boats.

Tomlin wasn’t really aware of the historical context of all this when he was growing up, but the seeds for his later interest were planted back then. Tomlin said that when he was 12 or 13, a neighbor, Bertha Harris was moving to her new house. Harris had piles of old photos that she was leaving behind. When he asked about them, Harris explained that they were “just old photos”. As she was explaining what some of them were, Tomlin said he remembers thinking, "Gee, that's really neat. I'd like to have them." He confessed that he wasn't thinking about their historical significance. He just thought they were neat old pictures. He still isn’t sure what value the images have, but he’s still holding on to them, just in case.

In addition to the photos, Tomlin has some old charts, maps, and ledgers. He also has random newspaper clippings and other sources that recorded the mundane and the remarkable in the community. And his collection of documents, photos and other artifacts is expanding. His more recent acquisitions include a gear-driven blower from the town’s old blacksmith shop, a booklet of Union planes, and a variety of wood saws. But even more important are the tidbits, the little details that may soon be forgotten. Tomlin enjoys sharing this information. He can name many of the old schooners. His favorite was the Vernetta Ann, he said. And he knows that Paul Cox ran tour boat on a 46-foot Matthews called Seahawk. And he knows that the name of the barge that brought grain up to Cargill's Granary was the W.E.

Students of history come in all shapes and sizes. Tomlin has approached his subject like someone who is putting together an intricate puzzle. And piece-by-piece he is providing another glimpse at life along the Maurice River.