An important era in the modern history of the Northern Neck came to a close last month with the death in Venice, Fla., of Elmer Lewis “Pete” Green.
Pete was the last surviving Virginia waterman who was involved in the Oyster Wars of the 1950s. He was a native of Colonial Beach, where he was born in 1929, and lived there until retiring and moving to Florida in 1994. For much of his career, he was employed in King George County at the Naval Surface Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren.
As a young man in his 20s, he crabbed and oystered on the Potomac River, along with many of the other young men of his generation. The state line between Maryland and Virginia being the low tide mark along the Virginia shore meant that Northern Neck oystermen were making their living off of Maryland waters.
Colonial Beach was the center of the local Virginia oyster business. Landon Curley’s oyster house at the end of Lafayette Street overlooking Monroe Bay was the largest processing plant in the town. Curley’s plant had a dormitory and a pool hall where the watermen could sleep and recreate.
Berkeley Muse, who owned a waterfront farm near Oak Grove which he was developing into a subdivision, was shooting pool there on the night of April 7, 1959, when Harvey King, an oysterman, invited him to go with him and John Griffith, another waterman, to dredge oysters in the Potomac. Dredging was illegal under Maryland law, and the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission police inspectors were constantly on alert to arrest any poachers they saw dredging.
The trio set out on King’s boat about 3 a.m. in heavy fog. Once the fog started to lift, they were spotted by the Maryland inspectors, who ordered them to stop. Instead, King raced the boat towards the narrow inlet into Monroe Bay to get in Virginia waters and escape their jurisdiction. The inspectors opened fire with six warning shots at first, and as the boat continued to move forward, with 21 shots that they claimed they had aimed at the engine of the craft.
Muse was hit in the chest, and King, having been hit in the leg, drove the boat into the shore along The Front, which is the term Colonial Beachites traditionally use to describe the Potomac shoreline, with Griffith yelling for someone to call the rescue squad. When it arrived, Berkeley Muse had died of his wounds in the boat. He was 31, and had three children.
One of the bullets that the Maryland police fired was found to have struck a building in Colonial Beach, as had others from previous forays. The town council had passed resolutions about the firing into the town, but the Maryland police craft virtually had ignored them, firing at will when they were pursuing a poacher.
That incident was the culmination of the oyster wars that had gone on for over a century as Virginia watermen tried to find ways to work around Maryland’s oyster policy. The lasting legacy of the wars came in 1962 with the establishment of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, headquartered at Colonial Beach, to regulate fishing, crabbing and oystering in Maryland waters.
Pete Green was the last of the watermen who worked on the Potomac during those turbulent days leading up to Berkeley Muse’s death, and as such he had become a footnote to history. He had served his country in the Army during the Korean War, and then had come home to return to life at the Beach where he oystered, worked in construction and painted houses before going to work at Dahlgren.
He lived to be 91, having left the Colonial Beach phase of his life to be studied as part of the long saga of the oyster wars.