By Mike MironFor more than a century beginning in 1868, the Eastport peninsula, across Spa Creek from Annapolis, flourished with a diversity of boat yards. Surrounded by water, this unpretentious communitygave life to an industry that is now gone, but by no means forgotten. The men who worked there were the heart and soul of these boat yards. Through the generations of families who have lived in Eastport, many good memories keep the history alive. It continues to be part of Eastport’s maritime heritage.
Two world wars, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War brought U. S. Navy contracts to some of the boat yards to design and build vessels of war. For others, the simple method of building workboats to oyster and crab in the Chesapeake Bay was the mainstay business. For still others, building, repairing and maintaining yachts for recreational use was their backbone.
The history of these boat yards is unique. Nowhere along the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay or in any waterfront towns across America is a maritime heritage quite like Eastport’s. Within a one-mile stretch of shoreline, twelve family-owned and operated boat yards spanned a one hundred-year period. Three of the boat yards occupied the same site for more than 75 years.
I had quite a few younger men who wanted to learn from me. I was willing to teach them. With these words, Werner Schnoor, a man who worked as a carpenter, cabinetmaker and shipwright at the Annapolis Yacht Yard during World War II and later at John Trumpy & Sons in Eastport, echoed other voices in a lost legacy.
The boat yards along Spa Creek provided a place for men to express their passion for wooden boat building. The words, I was willing to teach them was a desire that was passed along through several generations of men who worked in the boat yards in Eastport. Older men taught younger men the art, craft, and skills of design and construction when it came to building wooden boats.
A charismatic leader who guided many of these men was John Trumpy Sr.
John Trumpy Sr. was barely 23 years old when he finished his training as a naval architect at Die Technische Hochshule in Berlin, Germany. He came to America in 1902 and worked for the New York Shipbuilding Co. in Camden, New Jersey. Six years later, the Mathis Yacht Building Co. employed Trumpy as a yacht designer. By 1917, he designed more than 47 yachts that set an industry standard in the United States. His clients included the DuPonts, the Guggenheims, the Dodge and Chrysler families to name a few. He designed the Sequoia in 1925, which later served eight U.S. presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1939, John Trumpy Sr. became president of the Mathis Yacht Building Co. His sons Donald and John Jr. soon joined him in the business. The name was changed to John Trumpy & Sons Inc. and the new family-owned company moved to Gloucester, New Jersey. More than 300 luxury yachts were designed, built and launched under the Mathis-Trumpy signature.
In 1947, the Trumpy family relocated its company to Eastport. The family bought the Annapolis Yacht Yard, a three-acre parcel of property that housed a collection of buildings. Some dated back to the turn of the century when the Chance family built them. John Trumpy Sr. also inherited an assemblage of men – talented masters of their craft – the great boat builders of Eastport.
Many of these men learned their craft from older men who grew up in boat yards in the area such as Chance Marine Construction Co., Owens Yacht Company and the Annapolis Yacht Yard.
Lyle Gaither became the general superintendent of the Trumpy boat yard and later, vice-president of the company.
It was at Chance Marine Construction Co. in Eastport during the 1930s where Gaither, as a 20-year old learned wooden boat building from some of the older men who worked for Charlie Chance. Later he became a mentor to a younger man from Eastport, Charles “Frizzy” Atwell whom he had hired. Gaither and Frizzy developed a friendship that endured for more than fifty years
Gaither, in particular, had a gift. He not only knew the skills of wooden boat building, but also learned how to manage men in the yard. His knowledge of wood and his sensitivity to others earned him the respect of all of his fellow workers. He was a perfectionist in his work, which he extended to every detail of construction plans.
Lillian Atwell, Lyle Gaither’s daughter, remembers her father: “My dad was the type of person that no matter how hard he worked, he did not want to be praised for his work. He loved his job and he did it. That's what it was all about in his mind. He was a quiet man, and not one to boast about his accomplishments.”
Although only in his late 20s at the time, Frizzy Atwell learned the skills of boat building from his father, Robert, who had been a boat builder in Shady Side, Maryland. The family moved to Eastport when Atwell was only fifteen months old. His father built a house on Boucher Avenue near the site of the Owen’s Yacht Company on Spa Creek. The elder Atwell worked at Chance’s Marine building subchasers for the U.S. Navy during World War I.
Robert Chance remembers his uncles Blanchard and Charlie Chance, who started the boat yard. “It was my uncle Blanchard who taught Lyle Gaither and Frizzy Atwell everything they knew. He taught them carpentry and how to lay boats. They were good carpenters, and if you were building a yacht you had to be a fine cabinet maker.”
As Atwell was growing up, he sometimes wondered why other men called his father “Cap’n Bob.” He learned later in life it was an expression of respect only applied to the older men - the mentors who worked around the water for most of their life - because of their knowledge and their ability to teach younger men the skills they learned from their fathers and grandfathers.
Frizzy Atwell was in charge of all new yacht construction at Trumpy’s. Jim Emmeric headed the plumbing shop, Frank Thomas, the joiner shop, Roy Childs, the electrical shop, Ed Norton, the mill shop, Frank Wagner, the carpenter shop and Bunky Durham, boat building shop. The division of labor was well defined at the Trumpy boat yard and each foreman headed a crew of workmen known as “gangs”.
The outside yard had its own railway and most of the repair work on transient yachts was accomplished there. The “little carpenters shop” stood nearby housing a collection of power tools that provided a convenience to the men working on boats near the waters-edge. John Trumpy’s son, Donald supervised the engineering, maintenance and repair work and made the Eastport operation a landmark repair and haulout facility.
Alton Mitchell, began working at Annapolis Yacht Yard during WWII as a carpenter. He remembers starting at the bottom, “They put you with the hardest job; that’s carrying lumber. I worked my way up and learned how to read the drawings. When Trumpy came down here I was doing finish interior work. We built damn good boats and took a lot of pride in our work.”
Norman Cummings worked in the mill shop under Frank Thomas. Cummings said, “He was a man who really knew the mill business. He never shoved you and was a good teacher. He would always say there may be an easier way to do a job, but it was the way he was taught. Finding an easier way was up to me he would say.”
Werner Schnoor remembers, “My father and three of his brothers worked there. So did two of my brothers. My uncles knew how to work with wood and learned it in Germany. My uncle showed me how to sharpen a scraper. It may not seem a lot, but he showed me how to hone an edge of a plain piece of metal into a fine tool so that it would cut or scrape wood. That tool would enable me to form a whole transom. Once a man learns the little points the big jobs become easy. It falls into place.”
From 1958 until 1971, four devastating events occurred which contributed to the yard’s eventual closing. The first was the sudden death of Donald Trumpy. The son who was loved by all the workers. The loss to his father, the family and the business was a severe blow and many mourned his passing for years thereafter.
The second wound to the family was a fire that almost consumed the entire boat-building complex. Believed to have started in the main lumber shed, flames fanned by early fall winds in September 1962, quickly engulfed many of the other buildings. Sparks flew over rooftops of many houses on the peninsula and Eastporters feared their homes would also perish. Annapolitans lined city dock to watch the fire that burned through most of the night and into the next morning.
The Trumpy family and boat-building business survived the fire, and soon rebuilt many of the burned-out buildings. But, one year later and almost on the anniversary of the fire, John Trumpy Sr. in his eighty-fourth year, passed away. He was the patriarch of a family and mentor to his workmen - admired by all for the way he conducted himself as a gentleman, businessman and leader. Guiding the family business now rested with the only surviving son - John Trumpy Jr.
The task was not easy for John Jr. because the business of building yachts changed during the mid and late1960s. Fiberglass came on the market and the new material was found to be a very stable component in boat hull construction. Boat manufacturers across the country were switching from wood to fiberglass. But, John Trumpy Jr. like his father was a purist - he did not like fiberglass, and would not incorporate the new material in the designs of a Trumpy-built yacht. The late 1960s were turbulent years in America - it was what some historians have called a lost generation or a generation gap. Fewer younger men looked to their elder mentors for guidance and direction. By the early 1970s, many of the men who for years had worked for the Trumpy boat yard were growing old. Minds still very active, their hands could no longer accomplish the tasks of building fine yachts. Fewer younger men applied for work - and fewer younger men for the elders to pass along the knowledge and skills of boat building. Men also complained about the pay scale at the boat yard - more money could be made elsewhere and with less arduous working conditions. Pensions and medical insurance became an issue and in early 1971 a labor strike crippled the yard.
The once busy shops around the yard now lay vacant. Only 15 of the yard’s 73 men were paid top wages. The others made on the average less than $4.00 an hour. Many of the men decided to leave and sought work elsewhere making almost twice as much as they had made at the boat yard. The strike broke the spirit of the men and for John Trumpy Jr. the era of wooden boat building on Spa Creek was about to come to an end.
Doug Nowell worked at the yard in 1970 after he was discharged from the U. S. Army. He learned carpentry in high school, but when he applied his wood working skills to his new job he was lost. Nowell said, “They told me to go work on the stem, but I didn’t know what that was until I asked Ed Norton. He taught me how to use a planer, joiner, shaper and other stationary pieces of woodworking equipment.” Nowell also remembers, “He was a particularly hard guy to work for. He ran through more than a few younger helpers. I went from a helper to a finish carpenter all because of Ed Norton. The older finish carpenters were considered the real craftsmen there. I tried to learn as much as I could from them. I was one of the last who learned wooden boat building in Eastport.”
In 1972, John Trumpy Jr. sought a zoning change for the property from the city. He wanted to develop a 10.5 million-dollar, 156-unit condominium on the site. Opponents protested the over-development and strains on the infrastructure; proponents took the “man’s home is his castle approach”, eliciting considerable press support. But, the Annapolis City Council, by a 5 to 4 vote turned down Trumpy’s request for the zoning change. Saddened, defeated and angry, John Trumpy Jr. called a final board of directors meeting on December 20, 1973 - the decision was made - the boat yard would close. On July 8, 1974, the auctioneer’s gavel fell as most of the equipment and machinery at the yard was sold. Four generations of Norwegian boat builders came to an end and another sad day for Eastport - the neighborhood lost yet another boat yard. Some of the old craftsmen who stayed until the last day packed up their tools and either went into retirement or got jobs elsewhere.
Mabel Atwell, Frizzy’s wife said, “The older men knew their wood. Frizzy left Trumpy’s before it closed. I always told him if he ever left that yard it would close up. Three months after he left, it did.”
Frank Wagner recalls, “It was a great time; the best part of my life. I worked my way through the yard at various skill levels. Frizzy Atwell taught me how to make patterns and other fine carpentry work. Many of us enjoyed years of friendship working at the yard. I worked there until it closed. I was the last one who left.”
Many of the men had fond memories of their younger days at Chance’s boat yard where they apprenticed and later at Annapolis Yacht Yard - a time in their life when they matured as shipwrights and fine yacht carpenters. A time in their lives they all remember that holds a special place in their hearts.