Annapolis petition defends dock's last crabbing boats

City asks two men to move for company that would pay more

June 08, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The Annapolis City Dock of the 1920s teemed with the hardy boats of watermen who tied up at the blue-collar port in between trips trolling the Chesapeake Bay for fish, oysters and crabs.

But in the 1960s, tourism overtook maritime trade. The blacksmith shop and the watermen's fueling dock shut down. Even the salty watering holes of the crabbers and oyster shuckers were gradually replaced by chi-chi bars and restaurants.

Today, all that remains of the maritime-trade heyday at City Dock are two small crabbing boats owned by father and stepson Charlie Meiklejohn and Alexander Parkinson. And city officials are trying to move them.

The city wants to make way for a charter boat company that would pay thousands more for mooring privileges and, ironically, will provide tours about the maritime history of the area and have crab feasts on the bay.

The plan is to move Parkinson's boat to Eastport and let Meiklejohn, who is 67 and has docked there for 52 years, spend the rest of his crabbing days at a new mooring spot 90 feet away from his current position.

But even the 90-foot move has inspired more than 1,800 city residents, business leaders and friends of Meiklejohn to sign a petition to preserve what they see as a symbolic elimination of the last remnants of real maritime life by the Annapolis dock. In the boats' current spot, tourists pass by and ask questions about crabbing; the new spot would be away from most tourists.

"Charlie is an Annapolis landmark," said petition-signer Catherine Jackson, general manager for the Fleet Reserve Club, which is next to Meiklejohn's spot. "He's an old, crusty waterman. The fact that he's been asked to move for a commercial venture is what people find so offensive. Certainly, Annapolis is a tourist town, but it's also historical and this is just one more part of it that's just being pushed aside."

Meiklejohn supporters plan to submit the petition to Alderman Louise Hammond, a Democrat who represents the downtown area.

The uproar has perplexed city officials, who say the petitioners' wrath is unjustified. Mayor Dean L. Johnson pointed to an ordinance passed in February that requires him to charge a "full market value" for City Dock space beginning July 1.

The tour boat company that would take Meiklejohn's spot, Berkshire Castaways, will pay $6,000 a year if the city council approves its lease, which is being reviewed by the Economic Matters Committee and might not be voted on until next month. Meiklejohn and his son each pay $600 annually.

"We've got a limited amount of space available at the City Dock and we want to get as wide a variety of activity as we can there," said Johnson, who introduced the resolution that would give the Berkshire lease after the company approached him in November. The city has no official way of determining how City Dock leases are handled.

"It's a tough choice," Johnson said.

Meiklejohn and Parkinson first received news about the move from the city harbor master in March.

Meiklejohn said he was surprised. The soft-spoken crabber said dock fees had never been an issue before. He started out paying $1.50 a month, which increased to $16.50 at one point. During Mayor Alfred Hopkins' tenure in the early 1990s, the fee was waived, then it went to $50 when Johnson succeeded Hopkins in 1997.

"I hope they let me stay, but I know they want that money," Meiklejohn said quietly yesterday at the dock. "That's what it's about now. There's no other way around it."

Some tourists and residents who stopped by Parkinson's boat to watch him and Meiklejohn haul crabs out of the pots agreed with the petitioners. James Rooney, of Arlington, Texas, was interested in finding out more about crabbing.

"This is what this area's all about," said Rooney, who was visiting Annapolis with his family. "It's interesting because we don't see fishing or crabbing where we are. It's a shame if he has to move."

Harbor master Ric Dahlgren said city officials are being fair to Meiklejohn, saying the crabber only has to move 90 feet. He said Meiklejohn, who has been ill with cancer of the larynx for the past year and a half, has hardly crabbed and that the space could be better used by others.

"The city should have dock space that's widely used, not just by one family," Dahlgren said. "I don't think that's right. It's public space. I don't think anybody's trying to get rid of the watermen. We're looking at the management of the dock."

Hopkins, who has known Meiklejohn since they were teen-agers, said this is an issue that goes beyond fiscal practices.

"We are a unique city," he said. "We have a tremendous history dealing with this country, but we also have a history of family -- families that have been here for years and years, and the families that were making their living off the water are passing away. This is the last part of that history -- the Meiklejohns. Please, let it pass with time, not by edict."

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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