Oyster Harbor and the land it occupies has a long and rich history. Here we present key points of that history as they pertain to our community.
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The North-South running inlet off of the Chesapeake Bay, called Fishing Creek got its name as the wetlands bordering the once enclosed creek for being the primary nursery where every kind of fish in the Bay lives. Along the boarder of Fishing Creek are three communities: Oyster Harbor, Arundel on the Bay, and Fishing Creek Farms.
With an abundance of fish and crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, Fishing Creek was used as a place for troops and French aristocrat and military officer Lafayette to fish at during the American Revolution as they defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781. More specifically, the area in which Lafayette and his troops camped out in is what is now known as Eastport, Annapolis.
In 1776, Fort Horn was built between Fishing Creek and the Severn River, to protect the Annapolis harbor from invasion by the British fleets during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812.
On the opposite side of what is now known as the Oyster Harbor Community is the dwellings of a small harbor known as Oyster Creek. Most significance is that a small stream connected this creek to mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, making it a viable location for catching oysters. It was during the mid to late 1800’s that oysters and Oystermen’s boats were being stored in this creek, particularly for African-American Oystermen who stored their catch while waiting for market prices to move in their favor. Fast forward to the 1920’s, and the far side of the creek was then incorporated into the 34 home community known as Venice Beach.
Due to popularity, the Chesapeake Bay was bustling with boats and to address the possibility of boating accidents from occurring, Congress appropriated for the construction of a land-based light tower. By 1826 the U.S. Lighthouse Service built the shore based lighthouse, on a now submerged spot about 150 yards east of what is now Thomas Point Park. It was rebuilt in 1840 due to erosion from the destruction of the oyster reefs that directed the tidal flow around the point. It was finally lost in the 1870’s to the ever increasing erosion. In 1875 the screw-pile Thomas Point Lighthouse was built farther off shore at the end of shallow waters.
The mouth of Fishing Creek originally opened into the South River via a small stream, but after some large storms,the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse shifted to the entrance it has today. With tides and currents trying to fill in the mouth and keep water levels at only about four feet deep, the Coast Guard maintains the channel into Fishing creek at a working depth of 6’ for its vessels.
By the late 1880’s, the lighthouse keeper’s residence was moved to the back end of Fishing Creek to protect it from storms and erosion, and to provide easy access to Annapolis area community markets. This is now the Annapolis Coast Guard station. The lighthouse was kept and managed by the Annapolis Coast Guard well into late 1980’s, which by 1986 it became fully automated.
Because the light house is still active and is the only lighthouse of three that remains operational and in its original location, it was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Then in 1999 it was marked as a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest level of recognition that a historic structure can receive. To this day the Thomas point Shoal Lighthouse is one of nine lighthouse within the country that receives this level of recognition.
[For more information on the erosion and rise in sea level that changed the end of Fishing Creek and required the light house to be moved, go to our Oyster Harbor Piers Blog.]
Approaching the latter half of the 1800’s and spanning into the early 1900’s the peninsula east of Annapolis “was the place to be.” Resorts were built for vacationing families from the surrounding counties: DC, Baltimore, and parts of Northern Virginia. The first and biggest of these resorts was the grand Victorian summer resort – Bay Ridge just outside Annapolis, known as the “Queen Resort of the Chesapeake.” The resort was originally developed in 1879, in its heyday in the early 1900’s, visitors arrived by train or steamer to sample the best accommodations, including music, spectacular special events, exhibits located at the pavilion of Bay Ridge, and the showcase of the resort – the Victorian hotel at Tolly Point.
The Bay ridge restaurant pavilion could seat 1,600 people at one time with 80 waiters and waitresses. In 1903, a few years after it was built, the resort went bankrupt leading to the resorts closure. Soon after the shutdown of the resort a disastrous fire burned down the hotel at Tolly Point. However, in the wake of its bankruptcy the hidden playground had been discovered. It was because of World War II that Bay Ridge began to get more notoriety increasing the number of year-round residents who began to settle down and make this community their primary home. Resort visitors of the early 1900’s also continued to come to the area, which paved the way for a new crop of summer vacationers – summer cottage owners.
While Bay Ridge was a segregated retreat (no Jews or African-Americans were allowed), whites were not the only ones to capitalize on the flight from the city. By the 1920’s segregation in Annapolis began to fade and diversity began to disseminate throughout the Bay Ridge Community as well as in the neighboring communities: Oyster Harbor, Highland Beach, Bay Highlands, and Venice Beach. Attributing to the influx in diversity during the 1920’s, predominately of African-Americans, can be credited to the booming jazz culture brought on by African-American’s. This era was known as the post-World War I Jazz Age.
With the expanding African-American community continuing to grow in the Annapolis Neck areas, many of the communities and resorts became known as historically black. Two other local resorts, Sparrows Beach and Carr’s Beach were popularly owned by local black families. Big-name entertainers such as Duke Ellington performed there for large crowds who could afford the 25-cent cost of an excursion steamer from Baltimore to Annapolis.
From 1929 when the Great Depression hit the U.S., only a few in Anne Arundel County were directly affected by the crash. Over the course of 20 years in which time The Great Depression occurred (1930-1940), the Naval Academy, the markets in Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay continued to be steady employers of families living around Fishing Creek. Unlike areas in the south, cities up north, such as Annapolis became retreats for many African-American families in hopes of a new more prosperous life. It was not until the early 30’s that the full impact of the Great Depression took its toll on those living in the Fishing Creek area.
In 1935, the Washington, Baltimore and Potomac Railroad went out of operation. It had been instrumental in bringing summer visitors to resort areas such as Bay Ridge and Highland Beach, and its loss caused a huge drop in real estate values in the area.
In 1937, the Naval Academy received a staggering one million dollars for expansion of Bancroft Hall to relieve overcrowding. The construction project provided numerous jobs. Many African-American workers moved into the sounding Annapolis area, purchasing the now under-valued summer cottages for year-round living.
Contributing to the rising number of African-American’s in Annapolis area may have been influenced by the aftermath of World War II; this period was known as “The Great Migration”. More specially, the war attracted many more workers into the boat yards of Eastport. Not only was there an increase in employment prospects, but World War II also brought an increase in property values, jobs, and overall prosperity to the area.
It was not until post-World War II that property developments started to occur. In 1948, two brothers purchased land to begin building what was to become Oyster Harbor. In the beginning stages of the communities development, the community consisted of predominately well-to-do African Americans who used this area as a part-time residency. Soon enough popularity grew and the community became a heavily diverse community with year-round residents. In 1950 the two brothers worked with the first landowners to start paperwork to incorporate the community as a Special Benefit Tax District, and by January 1951, Oyster Harbor Citizens Association was incorporated. While the development of the Oyster Harbor Community was still new to the Annapolis Neck area, the area itself was not new to the exposure of prosperity that the 1950’s brought to most of America.
In the early Spring of 1950, landowners and the builder devised a plan to dig a navigable channel from Oyster Creek to the Bay. The small stream would be filled in, and sand from the channel would be used to create eight lots from the wetlands boundary between the creek and the Bay. The deal worked out for everyone and the work was permitted and completed in the summer of 1950.
A new development was the annexing of Annapolis; our Community was not annexed, Eastport was annexed into the City of Annapolis in 1951, but the incorporation of Oyster Harbor laid the framework for roads and utilities to be improved as the population grew. The original roads in Oyster Harbor were oyster shells. Paving was originally done at the personal expense of Mr. Derrick, a homeowner and some of his friends. Mr. Derrick and Mr. Cherry were the primary volunteers in the early years. Their letter writing, complaints to the County Council, and personal expenditures ensured the long-term stability of Oyster Harbor.
While transportation by road into Oyster Harbor were being innovated, the replacement of the old 1943 Sandy Point Matapeake Ferry was being substituted for a 4.3 mile long bridge–known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–connecting Sandy Point to the Eastern Shore. With the implementation of the Bay Bridge in 1952 the seascape to the beach was forever changed.
In addition to the changes in transportation methods, economic culture–going from a war-oriented economy to a consumer-oriented economy–and a greater shift towards urbanization, the 50’s marked the end of the Jim Crow era. Racial discrimination begun to change as displayed in multiple societal institutions and the push for racial equality and justice was stronger than ever. Igniting the long-existing flame for an even bigger push for equality and justice for all was the decision of the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954. It was because of the final decision that gave African-Americans the hope and motivation to demand more equal rights and privileges. In return, Oyster Harbor and its neighboring community, Highland Beach, began to experience changes in the nature of their communities densities.
As jobs moved closer towards the cities west and north of Annapolis in the 1960’s, the newly available FHA loans allowed Oyster Harbor to expand as a community which permitted an influx of homes being built. But soon after, the area was strained as jobs faded, and the boat yards in Annapolis began to close.
Oyster Harbor supported a mix of lower income homes and summer cottages until the late 1970’s, when the desire for vacation homes began to increase. By the early 1980’s cottages reminiscent of those of the late 1920’s began to spring up in the community. Growth for Oyster Harbor was slow, but steady through the 1980’s and early 1990’s Oyster Harbor begin to attract white homeowners.
In February of 1980 Oyster Harbor submitted an application to dredge the channel, replace fill dirt and perform major repairs to the bulkhead. Approval was given and work was completed late summer of 1980. Although the channel was maintained fairly well, this was the first big renovation of the channel since it was built in 1950.
In November of 1991 Oyster Harbor had the area on both sides of Oyster Creek surveyed to prepare for replacing the bulkhead and dredging the channel.
The surveyor identified an overlap in the boundaries between Oyster Harbor and Venice Beach. Venice beach wrote a letter that they had no objection to the project. One resident filed a complaint and a hearing decided in Oyster Harbor’s favor. Permits were applied for in 1992, were given approval, and in late summer of 1992 spoil/sand was shared with Venice Beach, and Highland Beach communities. In 1998, a court order established that the landowner of lot #2 in Venice Beach could not make improvements to block access for the landowner of Lot #6. This finding has allowed us to access the far side of the channel for bulkhead maintenance and mowing.
In the ‘Dotcom’ boom of the mid to late 1990’s, the average house size quadrupled. Companies such as US Internetworking, ARINC, and Chesapeake Computing attracted the ‘High Tech’ crowd to move to the area as permanent residents. Annapolis was growing fast into a ‘great place to live’ and attracting people desiring to live a richer life out farther from DC and Baltimore.
Oyster Harbor took on major projects such as building a small marina and docks for residents to lease. Community property was cleared for parks, and the beach was greatly improved.
In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel, a Category 2 hurricane, came up the Chesapeake Bay and did extensive damage to our community. Sea levels rose nearly five to seven feet above normal, fortunately for Oyster Harbor, the Board of Directors has always maintained a properly sized emergency fund for piers, bulkhead maintenance, dredging and other necessary responsibilities of a water front community. Thus, major clean up was accomplished in days, and even with debris clean-up, replacement of almost every community owned dock, and the rebuilding of the swimming beach, Oyster Harbor did not have to borrow money to pay for construction work.
In 2006 and 2007 the Community did another major renovation to community property. The boat ramp, Booker pier and Harbor lot were significantly upgraded.
In early winter of 2008 a house fire caused the destruction of four homes in Oyster Harbor. High winds and the inability of the fire department to get to water from the Oyster Creek channel prevented them from saving neighboring homes. This fire contributed in the County building a new firehouse which was built at the beginning of Arundel on the Bay Road.
In October 2010, planning began for replacement of the bulkhead and dredging the Oyster Creek channel. Venice Beach and Oyster Harbor agreed to disbursement of spoil/sand. Work started in the early winter of 2011 and the project was completed in July of 2012. The cost of this project came to approximately $600,000.
In 2015 an exercise circuit course, climbing wall, rope climb, and beach volley ball court were added. Renovations began on the fishing creek pier by there residents who invested a great deal of time into raising the deck 18″ and replacing boards near slips. In 2016 the Fishing Creek pier’s main run was rebuilt after a series of king tides cracked the main support of the pier. The new pier was raised 18″ to match the slip renovation work and allow for the rise of the Chesapeake Bay from wetlands incursion. New electric service to the pier was added in the spring of 2017.
On March 6, 2017 a home on Harbor Road was destroyed by a fire.
The fire department was able to stop the fire from spreading too far, but in the end, two neighboring homes received damage, one significantly, and a third had minor damage.
From this fire, Oyster Harbor begin work on a central water tank. This project is underway as of November 2017.
As with all American communities, Oyster Harbor’s history has been a reflection of the state of the nation, and the influence of local economies and culture. Today the three communities, Arundel on the Bay, Oyster Harbor, and Fishing Creek Farms that surround Fishing Creek and comprise most of the peninsula southeast of Annapolis have some of the most vibrant new home construction, and rising real estate prices in the Annapolis area. With the new development of high end condominiums in downtown Annapolis, the desire for quieter, away from the City housing, has brought a surge in interest to Oyster Harbor and Arundel on the Bay homes.
Oyster Harbor today is a curious blend of small and large summer cottages, moderate income housing, and grand luxurious homes. Many of the smaller houses are being sold to make way for new vacation and year round homes. The average age of homeowners has dropped considerably since 2000, whereas the number of children and families has increased significantly. A second playground has been added and a three station exercise circuit course was built.
Oyster Harbor now boasts a large swimming beach, three boat piers with slips, a fishing pier, a boat launch ramp, dinghy/kayak launch facilities with space for over 50 paddle boards, canoes or kayaks, and launch areas in Fishing Creek, Oyster Creek and directly into the Chesapeake Bay. New bulkheads, piers, as well as, well maintained channels, gazebos, beaches, and playgrounds make Oyster Harbor one of the best managed and maintained communities in Anne Arundel County.
Regardless of race or income, people have always flocked to Oyster Harbor to be nearer to the richness of life on the Chesapeake Bay.
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