Smith Island mail is a family affair Two runs a day: For most of this century, John Whitelock and his descendants have made postal deliveries by boat, fair weather and foul.

February 03, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- It's 12:30 sharp, and the Island Belle II is leaving the dock. Tucked away in the back of the boat are two small green pouches -- the mail for Smith Island, 12 miles away in the Chesapeake Bay.

Piloting the 50-foot cruiser is Capt. Otis Tyler. For most of this century, his family has carried the mail to Smith Island. Captain Tyler is the great-grandson of the man who first brought daily mail to the island.

"I used to do it when I was a little boy with my grandfather," says Captain Tyler, a Smith Island resident who has held the mail contract for 12 years.

Although he travels across water, his arrangement with the U.S. Postal Service is called a "highway contract," and he must bid for it every four years. The current contract, for $91,000 over a four-year period, began in July 1993 and runs through June 1997. His is the only marine "highway contract" in Maryland.

Smith Island is actually three distinct islands, and two of them have post offices to serve the islands' 400 residents. Today, as he does every day except Sundays and when the weather makes delivery impossible, Captain Tyler will drop the mail off at Ewell's tiny post office, about two blocks from the dock. Then the mail for Tylerton and Rhodes Point will be delivered to Tylerton.

"The mail is a certainty. That boat is always going, you know that," says island resident Maude Whitelock. Mrs. Whitelock is 86, and her husband's father was John Whitelock, who first brought daily mail to the island.

Then as now, the mail is the mainstay of the family's boat business, which includes freight, passengers and summer cruises.

"The mail is what controls this business," Captain Tyler says. "If it weren't for the mail, we couldn't do what we do." The fleet is two boats now, the Island Belle II (the mail boat) and the Island Princess for summer cruises.

The Island Belle makes two runs a day in the winter from Smith Island to Crisfield and back. The boat leaves Smith Island at 7:30 a.m., taking mail over to the Crisfield station.

On the return trip at 12:30 p.m., the boat carries the day's mail. Late in the afternoon, it heads back to Crisfield, stays for about an hour and returns to Smith Island for the night.

The mail boat also takes passengers: $10 for island residents, $16 for nonresidents for a round trip. Smith Island residents can place grocery orders, and Crisfield stores will deliver to the dock, Mrs. Whitelock said.

On a recent chilly afternoon, the noon boat carried a Smith Island man who spends every other week in Washington selling seafood, and two Lowe's representatives going to see a Smith Islander who was unhappy with the flooring she had bought from the home improvement store in Salisbury.

"This is a little out of the routine," said Eric Reinke, who works at the Salisbury Lowe's. "It flabbergasts me that people can be this isolated."

(Mr. Reinke confided during the return trip that Lowe's was going to replace the entire floor. The flooring buyer, Mary Evans, was also on the return trip, taking her son in for an allergy shot.)

The mail boat occasionally carries residents with more pressing concerns: Captain Tyler, the island's fire chief and an emergency medical technician, has ferried several women in labor.

"We've had some close calls, but we've never delivered one yet!" he says. "And I hope we don't."

Summer trips are not a problem -- it's 35 minutes to Crisfield, and both boats are operating. Winters can be trickier, especially those as severe as this one. Three times this year, Captain Tyler has had to cancel the trip.

"It has taken me five hours," he says of one trip years ago across the water when it had frozen. When it freezes, the Coast Guard will send a cutter out to help. Most dangerous, Captain Tyler says, is when ice fells channel markers. Fog, a frequent winter weather condition, also makes navigation difficult.

Before the Whitelock family took over, mail was carried over twice a week on a waterman's sailboat. When John Whitelock died, his three sons carried on the family business, Mrs. Whitelock says.

Her husband, Ben, who died in 1975, and his brothers added the Island Star, the Island Belle and the Miss Whitelock to the fleet, and the business expanded to include freight and passengers.

The business moved out of the family when it was sold in 1977 to Frank Dize. But it didn't stay away long -- in 1984, Otis Tyler, Ben Whitelock's grandson, bought it back when Mr. Dize retired.

Captain Tyler has three sons. One has joined the Army; the other two say they will keep the business going, becoming the fifth generation to take the mail, fair weather or foul, to Smith Island.

"You never know one day to the next what the weather's going to be," says Captain Tyler. "You just take it one day at a time."

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