Governor Robert M. McLane: Flagship of the State
Oyster Police Force
by Susan Langley
The oyster boom of the late 19th century created an atmosphere on the
Chesapeake not unlike a frontier town of the old west. The lawlessness
came in the form of clashes between shallow water hand-tongers and
deep water dredgers when the latter began to trespass into the shallows
as deeper waters were depleted. Clashes occurred between oystermen
from Virginia and Maryland as each accused the other of trespassing
across State lines from the Potomac River to the Eastern Shore. Also,
influxes of dredgers from New England, having depleted their own waters,
operated under false registration on the Bay, inevitably leading to clashes
with local oystermen.
These confrontations were frequently violent and sometimes resulted in
death. In addition, there was a serious problem with the shanghaiing of
crews to man the dredges on oyster vessels, a problem which was not
completely eradicated until manual dredges were supplanted by powered
equipment in the early 20th century. Not all crews were taken forcibly,
many were recent immigrants literally brought straight from Ellis Island.
However, the kidnappings and the general abuse of these men
occasionally ended with them being “paid off at the boom,” when they
would be sent on deck and a sharp turn of the vessel resulted in them
being hit and knocked overboard by the ship’s boom, generally resulting in
These and other events were the impetus for the establishment of the
State Oyster Police Force (subsequently, the State Fishery Force) in 1867.
Unfortunately, the efficacy of this body was hampered as much by political
inaction as by lack of funding and equipment. While politicians were loath
to offend their constituents, (who included both tongers and dredgers) and
therefore turned a blind eye to the crewing of dredges for as long as
possible, local justices were even less sympathetic, frequently siding with
offenders who were their neighbors.
The Baltimore-built Leila, a decrepit iron-hulled steamboat, was the first
flagship for the Police in 1869. Two sloops were subsequently acquired,
but these were completely inadequate to the task of policing more than
2,500 oyster boats. Leila was replaced in 1884 by two new iron-hulled tugs
from the Philadelphia firm Neafie and Levy. These were the Governor
Robert M. McLane and the Governor Philip F. Thomas. The Governor
McLane was 113.8 feet long, 21.2 feet wide and had a depth or draft of 9.2
feet. Its gross tonnage was 161 with 110 net and a top speed of 13 knots.
The McLane became the new flagship and served the State until 1948,
also seeing service in World War I as the flagship of Squadron 8, Fifth
Naval District, as the U.S.S. McLane.
During the Oyster Wars, as these conflicts in the latter part of the 19th
century became known, the McLane distinguished itself several times. The
most famous of these was the incident known as the Corsica affair. On
December 10, 1888, a group of men illegally dredging oysters fired on
what they believed to be a police vessel in foggy weather off the Chester
River; this being something of general sport to these men. However the
vessel in question was actually a passenger steamer, the Corsica, en route
to Baltimore, and the government was forced into swift response.
The McLane, with a 12-pound howitzer mounted on the bow, quietly
captured two of the offenders before a general alarm was raised. The
remaining vessels rafted together 12 dredge boats with metal hatches
fortifying the exposed decks and began firing on the McLane. Unable to
depress the deck gun enough to be effective at such close range, Captain
Thomas Howard used his other strength and steamed the iron hull into the
raft. After ramming and sinking two of the dredgers, the rest scattered.
The McLane’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with was
established. Sadly, however, the two dredgers it sank held shanghaied
crew below decks, and they were lost with the vessels. Other instances
with happier outcomes include the McLane’s rescue of 14 recent
immigrants who had been forcibly held aboard a dredger in 1892. In the
same week, the McLane rescued the crew of an ice-bound dredger that
the captain and mate had abandoned with neither food nor water.
Relatively soon, the mere word that the McLane was coming was sufficient
to send illegal dredgers fleeing.
During its service in WWI, the McLane was commanded by Ensign
Swepson Earle, perhaps best known for his later volumes, The
Chesapeake Bay Country and Maryland's Colonial Eastern Shore:
historical sketches of counties and of some notable structures. Upon being
returned to Police duties the McLane burned to the deck line in 1919 and
was rebuilt. In 1948, it was sold into private hands. Although the new
owner, George Curlett, retained the name he converted the McLane to
diesel power and it worked as a tow vessel until its registration was
surrendered January 26, 1954 and recorded as “sold and abandoned” in
Baltimore. At this point it disappeared from history until the Baltimore
Museum of Industry (BMI) determined to remove a number of vessel hulks
in a shipyard adjacent to the museum campus.
One vessel hulk adjacent to the seawall was identified conclusively as
the McLane through the efforts of Mr. Earl Brannock. Mr. Brannock created
the Brannock Maritime Museum in Cambridge, Maryland, which focuses
on the State Fishery Force in which he had served. Mr. Brannock was able
to provide the hull registration number for the McLane to match with the
rusted remains in the Baltimore harbor. Recently Mr. Brannock retired and
contributed his collection to the relatively new Richardson Maritime
Museum, also in Cambridge. Since the records of Neafie and Levy could
not be located and thence neither could the plans for the McLane, the
Maryland Historical Trust provided funds for naval architect Iver Franzen to
record the ship’s lines. At present the McLane lies in the shallow water at
the BMI, beyond repair or restoration. The museum is currently working on
plans to address the fragile remains, or perhaps salient elements of the
vessel, for preservation and interpretation.
Plummer, Norman H. 1993. Maryland’s Oyster Navy,
the first fifty years. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, St. Michael’s,
Wennersten, John R. 1981. The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake
Bay. Tidewater Publishers. Centreville, Maryland.