By Henry Lane Hull
The soils in many areas of the town of Colonial Beach are of a heavy clay formation, often making gardening difficult. When I was a child, to combat this situation, my father bought topsoil from area farmers and tilled it into the soil to improve its composition. Those were the days before johnsongrass and kudzu, hence the soil brought in was of very high quality, rich and weed-free. They were also a time before Master Gardeners and soil tests, however we always were able to have a good garden.
At the time several of the farms near Oak Grove were being developed into waterfront subdivisions, thereby necessitating the building of streets through the once pristine agricultural fields. In the process beautiful soil was being bulldozed into huge piles. My father arranged to buy truckloads of it to be spread on our garden to mitigate the clay.
One of the farms was owned by Berkeley Muse, a young man, who brought the soil in his dump truck for $12 per load, slightly more than a bag of potting soil brings at a garden center today. In the process of his coming and going we became friends, learning about his plans for the farm, as well as about his young family. He was extremely affable, and was never too busy to stop for a chat. He said he would miss farming, but could not turn down the financial advantages offered by developing the land.
This last week my thoughts have turned to Berkeley, not because of the soil he brought to our garden, but rather because of a recent article posted on the Internet about his pivotal role in what we now know as the “Oyster Wars.” The term refers to the struggles between Maryland and Virginia over usage of the Potomac River that began after the War Between the States and continued for almost a century over access to the oyster beds of the Potomac River.
By the middle of the last century they had reached a climax of heightened hostility that was set to be triggered into a major conflict. The problem existed because Maryland owns the Potomac River beyond the low water mark off the Virginia shoreline. Virginia watermen could use the river for their own harvesting of seafood provided they had a Maryland license and obeyed the Maryland regulations. Oftentimes poaching of Maryland oysters, particularly at night, was happening despite the Maryland marine police efforts to halt the practice.
The Virginia poachers could dredge for oysters and escape back to Virginia waters in the safe harbor of Monroe Bay. On the night of April 7, 1959, a local waterman, Harvey King, asked Berkeley to join him on his run. The fog was heavy that night, and Harvey began his dredging operation. A Maryland marine police boat saw the King boat through the fog, and tried to apprehend it, but Harvey put his craft into high gear and headed for Monroe Bay.
The Maryland officers opened fire, striking Harvey in the leg, and Berkeley in the chest. Harvey drove the boat into the Virginia shore, and called for help. Berkeley died on the deck of the boat before help could arrive. For days the news was filled with conflicting accounts of what actually had transpired, but one item was indisputable, namely, Berkeley was dead. He was 32 years old and left a wife and two small children.
His death and the resultant uproar over a man having been killed over oysters led to permanent change. Maryland and Virginia agreed to establish the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which is headquartered at Colonial Beach and to follow guidelines that both states jointly constructed. After a century of hostilities, the Oyster Wars came to an end.
When I drive up Route 3 and see the signs to Berkeley Beach, or through Colonial Beach and pass the PRFC building, I often think of Berkeley. His random decision to accompany Harvey King that night led to his death, and changed the course of the history of the Potomac River.