History of the Wharf
Prior to the history of this land defined by European and American residents, it was occupied by the Kiskiak Indians, one of the 32 member tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy. Evidence of tribal life actually goes back to 6000 B.C., but we’ll start with the 1600s and tobacco.Indian tribes were driven away from this area by the early 1600s for use by English settlers who created plantations and fields of profitable tobacco. Williams Wharf played a big part in this as a port of call and was chosen as the location for an official tobacco inspection warehouse.
By the late 1700’s, Samuel Williams, the man who would give this site its name, purchased hundreds of acres on the East River, including an old tobacco warehouse and an apple orchard capable of producing 3,000 gallons of cider a year.
This was an area of tremendous shipbuilding activity as well, which served to increase the use of the Wharf.
In 1802, a customs house was established, and a post office followed. In 1862, Union troops disembarked at the Wharf heading to New Point and Winter Harbor to destroy any vessels that could be used as blockade runners.
In 1869, the B. Williams Store, a landmark to this day, was built to serve the growing businesses and activities related to shipbuilding and, by the late1800’s, steamboat traffic. An interesting side note, in 1904, the store served as a location for church services for Kingston Parish, while a new church rose from the ashes of one that had burned down.
The floating theater boat the James Adams was a great success for a number of years and docked at Williams Wharf. It is reported that Edna Ferber wrote the Rogers and Hammerstein hit “Showboat” while living on the James Adams. The heyday of the steamboat era continued through the 1930s but was effectively ended by the Storm of 1933, which caused extensive destruction all along the coast. The commercial value of steamboats had been fading anyway, because of the use of smaller packet boats, and a growing trucking industry.
After steamboats, oysters and seafood became king at the Wharf, with the H.K. Billups and Sons shucking plant. Mountains of oyster shells produced the oysters for the famous yellow cans that were known for hundreds if not thousands of miles away. This continued through the 1950’s and early 1960s, but the seafood industry here was in decline, partly because of market forces and impact of the frozen fish industry, but partly because of oyster diseases and overfishing.
The next chapter saw the use of Williams Wharf as an oil depot, with companies associated with R.E. Armistead, Gulf and Trible Oil companies. This chapter ended in the early 1990s, with the closing of the businesses and foreclosure on the property. Following the closing of the oil business, and a bankruptcy hearing, the property went to foreclosure with a judge at the federal courthouse in Norfolk in 1994. The top bid was from a company that wanted to turn Williams Wharf into a deep-water location for a gravel distribution and shipping center.
As you might be able to imagine, this kind of use may have had a significant negative impact on the waterfront and the surrounding areas, as well as the road, since heavy traffic and trucking would be involved. Fortunately for the neighborhood and future generations of rowers and families, two representatives from a small, newly created non-profit in Mathews County showed up with a different idea, including the benefits of donating property to a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization.
After it seemed there was no chance for them to prevail, their offer was accepted, and Williams Wharf became the home of the Mathews Land Conservancy. The seeds of the future had actually been planted in 1989, when Mathews High School coach Tim Ulsaker organized the first crew regatta at the Wharf. Community support grew for the program, and led to the Mathews Land Conservancy being created to provide public access to the Chesapeake Bay, a place for education and rowing activities, and a unique setting to preserve and promote natural resources and history for future generations.
Because of the significant generosity of Jeff and Rosalyn White and William F. and Catherine K. Owens, as well as major state and federal grants, work began to restore the land, preserve the history and build the public places for learning and recreation.
Before the first two phases could begin, local, state and federal permits had to be applied for and dozens of public hearings were conducted for public input and design revisions. There were legal and environmental requirements that had to be met, and detailed plans had to be produced to win approval at all levels. After approval of the permits, funds were raised and used for building a new shoreline, installing bulkheads, constructing a shoreline walkway, community building, event pavilion, floating dock, and fishing pier.
Waterfront and marine construction is a specialty type of building. Extensive and expensive environmental and engineering standards were achieved. The result has been experienced by thousands of visitors and residents. Community events, workshops, classes and festivals take place here.
The floating dock is used for small sailboats, canoes, kayaks and rowing. The fishing pier is also a spot for historic vessels to be seen and enjoyed. You may have seen the historic replica ship the Godspeed docked here, and both the Alliance and Serenity schooners based in Yorktown have visited.
In 2018, Williams Wharf was transformed into a Philadelphia Wharf in the 1800s for the movie “Harriet”, which tells the story of the Union spy and underground railroad hero who helped hundreds of slaves escape from the south.
Crew regattas occur several times a year, along with annual events such as summer camps, the Mathews Rotary Oyster Roast and BBQ Riot, the Tour de Chesapeake, the Party at the Wharf during Mathew Market Days and the Wharf to Wharf swim.
And now, Phase III of the plan is unfolding. The framework for the Owens Maritime Education and Rowing Center is completed and when finished, half of the building will provide the space for maritime education and community learning events and activities. The other half will be the boathouse – the center for rowing activities and programs to support the Mathews crew team, the Mobjack Rowing Association and regional competitive rowing events. These events create economic activity in the County for restaurants and lodging.
We will be able to partner with schools, universities, historic preservation organizations and marine science-related agencies to bring special events, students and local organizations together in a unique setting that is respectful of our location and inspiring to young people. We’re hoping to host historical vessel visits, workboat demonstrations, sailing regattas and other water-based attractions. Local businesses and restaurants will also benefit from our success, and a new chapter in the history of Williams Wharf will be written.
It is estimated that $1.4 million is needed for the next step of finishing the boathouse and remaining sitework. This involves installing power and utility systems, additional wetlands mitigation and building interiors. And we will be creating a space to recognize the hundreds if not thousands of donors and supporters who are making this possible.
We are working to get this done in the next two years or as long as it takes. As Gwynn’s Island native and founding member of the Williams Wharf program Roz White has said, “Mathews watermen know that there is a season for skinning stakes, mending nets, repairing boats and signing up crews. So it is at the enormous project known as Williams Wharf.”