Reese was at home on the bay


July 17, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For nearly 70 years, Edgar Reese Lewis rode out Chesapeake Bay storms, rescued stranded mariners, delivered oysters, observed ecological changes in the world's largest estuary, swapped sea stories over drinks with actor Robert Mitchum and ended his career breaking ice and setting buoys as captain of the J.C. Widener.

Lewis, whose colorful life was recalled yesterday at a memorial service in Hurlock, died July 1 at his home in Cambridge. He was 85.

"Uncle Edgar was from the true Chesapeake Bay era. He was a really humble no-b.s. captain," said a nephew, Douglas Hanks III, a reporter for The Miami Herald.

"We've been pals for over 50 years and I can tell you that his reputation as a captain is absolutely the best. He was able to run all kinds of boats," said Paul Brooks of Cambridge.

Some say that saltwater flowed in the veins of Lewis, who was born in 1918 on Hoopers Island, the scion of an old Eastern Shore maritime family.

"I'm from five generations of people who derived their livelihood from the water in one way or the other," Lewis said in a 1988 interview with Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

After the death of his mother in 1918 during the influenza epidemic, Lewis was sent to Cambridge where he was reared by his grandfather, who made his living as a waterman.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Lewis purchased the Andy, a schooner, and spent a number of years shuffling across the bay transporting grain and oysters to Tidewater customers.

His shipmate in those years was his wife, the former Jean MacSorley, who died in 1995. The Spartan accommodations included three bunks in the forward cabin and a pot-bellied coal stove where the couple prepared meals and sought warmth from the dampness and raw, bone-chilling wind.

"She did everything but fool with the engine. We didn't have any children and were happy just being together," Lewis recalled in the interview.

One memorable night, the guide on the stove's ventilator got stuck.

"The gal-dang thing got stuck at night and the smoke poured into the cabin. My wife and I both woke up at the same time," he said.

They found themselves stuck in the cabin's narrow doorway as they attempted to flee the smoke-filled compartment at the same time. "We were certainly looking out for each other! Those are the things you remember," he said.

The next boat he purchased was the Swan, a 50-foot buy-boat in which he transported bivalves he had purchased from the Chesapeake's oyster fleet. He delivered the bay's bounty to shoreside establishments from New Jersey to Virginia.

Recalling halcyon days on the bay, Lewis remembered unloading 2,500 bushels of oysters in Baltimore that went to a nearby oyster house that hummed 24 hours a day and employed 300 shuckers.

In 1974, Lewis became captain of the J.C. Widener, owned and operated by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The 72-foot vessel, which is still in use, was built in 1964 at General Ship Repair Corp. on Key Highway. The vessel's mission is twofold, setting regulatory buoys used by waterman in the spring and fall, and clearing waterways of ice in the winter.

"He could steer these huge ice-breakers into places no one else would go because he'd grown up on all these little rivers and knew he could get away with it," Hanks said.

Lewis' ice-breaking technique was one of unrelenting pounding as he combined steel, steam and speed to break foot-thick ice that can bring marine traffic to a standstill.

"You back off, maybe 100 yards, so that you can get up a full head of steam, and then you ram it. You can't baby it, you've got to break it," he said.

On shore, Lewis loved socializing with family and friends and telling tales, certainly enlivened by a Scotch or two, and in later years, beer.

"He was a simple but tough, fun-loving man. He loved telling stories and had a zillion of them," said a niece, Gwendolyn North of Laurel, Del.

One of Lewis' boon companions years ago was Robert Mitchum, who lived on a 280-acre farm in Trappe, Talbot County.

"He used to sail Mitchum's boat, The Madame, and they were friends," North recalled.

While acknowledging that life on and along the Chesapeake had changed during his lifetime, Lewis spoke for himself and the Widener's crew when he said in the 1988 interview: "I guess this is what I like. On a pretty day, I tell the fellows, `Just think, we're getting paid for doing this.'"

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