Memoirs Of A Boat Builder


April 21, 1991|By Carleton Jones

The faded diary has mottled covers and one of them is falling off. The writer is one Edward G. Rennous, a Baltimore boat craftsman whose time of glory came and then slowly departed over a century ago. A friend has lent it to you for browsing.

On Jan. 1, 1867, Ed Rennous starts his diary. He tells how his family, of French origin, first fled France during the revolution, then Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, during an uprising. He tells of his father, a boat builder and War of 1812 veteran, who at age 70 enlisted in Maryland's 2nd Union regiment in 1861 and died after only three months of Civil War duty.

He tells his dreams, artlessly, factually and unconscious that later generations can read all sorts of ramifications into them. In one he is attending a graveyard funeral. A young girl lies there, more asleep than dead. Suddenly the minister lifts her up and --es her body into the wall of the burial vault several times without inflicting any injury. In his dream, this macabre moment is linked with a one-time romance with Mrs. Edwin Smith (the former Susannah Peters of Kent County), who has recently died. His mother's grave also figures in the dream.

He goes into a midwinter reverie in Patterson Park as he looks down on the harbor and its lights with "the bright heavens above." He watches park skaters who seem "only intent upon themselves," who don't mind when a drunk falls and slides into them. His group and strangers skate on and on through the cold months as the harbor freezes all the way to the Chesapeake Bay and maritime trade is shut down. The harbor, where he learned the boat trade, lies below where house lights are like "warnings" to incoming vessels.

He writes a vigorous English in a fine, readable hand that slips into a more rapid and rugged form under emotional stress, describing the 1861 riots and the 1868 flood in Baltimore city.

In 1867, he is 46. By the standards of the day, he is on the brink of old age, and he is sorry about it: He is "gray and broken down . . . one who soared up so high in youth in a towering ambition" but who today "gropes in despair . . . not a professed Christian -- not yet a lover of our saviour -- not yet baptised like my sainted mother and admitted to the communion of our lord."

Ed Rennous tells how competing boat makers try to steal his ZTC handymen, how he must appeal to Colonel Ross, chief city assessor, to get a 5 percent U.S. tax lifted on his products, how he buys pricey cedar to build a smart racing "barge," how severe winters and the wartime shutdown of the Baltimore port wreck his boat-building business, and how his industrial neighbors on McElderry Street plot to destroy his shop. Every few weeks he has to sell a $20 gold piece that he purchased in the prosperous prewar years. (They go then for $26-$27.)

In his own way, he is a master builder. On Dec. 10, 1867, he works around the clock to build a 17-foot boat, first flanking the hull, then smoothing off, caulking and painting it by 11 at night and finishing the boat by 3 the next afternoon, and launching it on Dec. 12. He calls it "the greatest work I ever done in the time" (a peculiarly ungrammatical hitch that only occasionally shows up in his flexible and apt writing style).

He writes a moving, emotional reverie on a stroll through the churchyard of historic Sater's Baptist Church near Brooklandville, where many of his relatives are buried. Another entry reveals that someone has stolen the silver medal he won at the 1867 Maryland Institute fair for crafting the racing barge. In 1888, his only son, John, is killed in a Germantown, Pa., train wreck. It breaks his heart. He writes, "I did not foresee that I was to lose all that I idolize in a dear and only son."

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