Stephen Ritterbush was practically born on the water.
After moving to Annapolis from Long Island in the 1950s, Ritterbush’s earliest memories were of catching glimpses of the city’s waterfront on his way to Green Street School (now known as Annapolis Elementary School) and later as a teen shredding coconuts at Jack Schley’s delicatessen inside Market House. He soon found himself skittering around Spa Creek and the Severn River in a progressively larger series of boats, even using the water to get to high school.
“From the time I was little, I was a water rat,” said Ritterbush, a 75-year-old retired venture capitalist. “Maybe it’s ingrained in your genes, who knows. I have friends who love the mountains. I loved the water.”
Ritterbush has now turned those experiences and a lifelong love of history into a new book, “Working Waterfront: A Maritime History of Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay.”
The 118-page book published in November documents three centuries of Annapolis history and its connection to the bay, exploring the early days of America, the boom and bust of the oyster business, the city’s role in the war effort and later the rise of boatyards, among many other events. Ritterbush drew on his extensive collection of old maps and photographs to capture the period of history that has rapidly disappeared over the past 50 years as the city moved away from an industrialized waterfront to one based on tourism.
The coffee table book is stuffed with more than 100 maps, illustrations, documents and full-page photos, all of which Ritterbush spent four years collecting from the Maryland State Archives, Smithsonian, the Annapolis Maritime Museum and other sources. He also relied on dozens of books he acquired about the region and dove into numerous transcripts of interviews conducted by Mike Miron — Eastport’s unofficial mayor who died in 2016 — with residents during the 1980s through the early 2000s.
“My three interests are maps, old photographs, and the history of the bay and Annapolis,” said Ritterbush, who lives in Bay Ridge. “I started to think, ‘Gee, maybe it is worthwhile trying to put together a book.’”
World travel, business and an injury
Writing the book has been part of the third act of Ritterbush’s life.
In the first act, he completed a stint in the Peace Corps during Vietnam and traveled overseas to places like Samoa, Hawaii, Indonesia, Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia. Nearly all of his stops were close to the sea. That way he was never too far from a boat.
Act two began when he returned home in the 1980s to start a different kind of adventure. He founded Fairfax Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based equity firm in 1989. During that period, he “made a lot of money and lost a lot of money,” he said. “But that’s the nature of the business.”
On Dec. 20, 2014, came act three.
Ritterbush fell down his basement steps at home and suffered a devastating spinal injury that left him completely paralyzed.
For more than four years after his injury, Ritterbush didn’t go on a boat. But after meeting the founders of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, an Annapolis organization that offers boating experiences and water access to people with disabilities, Ritterbush was finally able to get back out on the water. He now serves on CRAB’s board.
“I grew up knowing that when you’re on a boat, it’s one hand for the boat and one hand for yourself. I didn’t hold on to any rail and it was a split-second,” he said. “It’s like losing a loved one. I think about it every day.”
“Being out on the water,” he added. “It’s like my church. Everything is at peace.”
During his professional life before his injury, Ritterbush never learned to type on a keyboard. He opted to write out his notes longhand and then hunt and peck them into a computer. After the injury, that was no longer possible.
In writing the book, Ritterbush would read through historical texts and think about what he wanted to write. He’d then dictate off the top of his head to a note taker, Colleen Donn, who also helped organize the photo search. Then, he employed an editor, Jean Russo, who has an expansive knowledge of Annapolis and Maryland history, to edit the manuscript.
For months, Ritterbush would use this process to slowly craft the book into six rough chapters that recount the various eras of the bay.
He starts at the formation of the Maryland colony in 1632 and the first forays into the Chesapeake Bay by European explorers, before moving on to the rise of the oyster industry in the 19th century and the various boats and harvesting techniques that arose during that time. Then, he recounts the city’s transformation in the 20th century from the boom of industry around World War II and expansion of the Naval Academy to the rise of boatyards, before finally exploring the steady decline of the working waterfront in the 1970s.
The Morning Sun
During his research, Ritterbush unearthed historical facts that surprised him, he said, such as the travails of William Claiborne, an early settler who established a trading post on Kent Island, and the work of Dr. Robert Goddard, whose name would eventually adorn NASA’s Space Flight Center. Goddard tested liquid-fueled rockets at the Navy’s Engineering Experiment Station along the Severn River during World War II.
Appreciating Annapolis’ unique history
In the book, Ritterbush also touches on the impact Black residents have had on the waterfront, from enslaved people who worked on early oyster boats to African Americans eventually making up 80% of all oystermen after the Civil War. Themes of freedom and opportunity, however fleeting, that the water provided residents are meant to be interwoven throughout the book, starting with the early settlers and ending with the local businesses that dotted the city’s waterfront for generations.
“One of the things I learned was how important Black people were to the oyster industry and how important the oyster industry was to them,” he said. “Because it really gave them a degree of freedom, even if they were enslaved, when they were out on the water.”
Ritterbush said he hopes readers take away an appreciation for how unique Annapolis was throughout history, including briefly serving as the nation’s capital and later rising up to become an economic engine of the colonies before receding into a quiet backwater town after the Revolutionary War.
“In the history of the country, [Annapolis] became a sleepy backwater but in a way that was good because a lot of the history has survived,” he said. “Annapolis is a living, breathing historical town that’s managed to transition through various periods and still survive.”
Ritterbush initially had 500 copies of the book printed, nearly all of which have been sold, he said. He is currently waiting on the second run of 500 copies to be delivered this month.
The book is on sale at the Annapolis Maritime Museum for $35.