Changing times scuttling last waterman at City Dock


To some it is "Ego Alley," where sleek sailboats and pricey yachts are on display as they tie down in historic Annapolis.

But as Alexander "Skip" Parkinson loaded rusty crab pots onto his workboat there yesterday, he insisted it is still City Dock - just City Dock - to him.

Parkinson remembers when the dock was full of watermen, but now he is the only one. And as Annapolis prepares to welcome the world with an international sailboat race, the city has told Parkinson he must give up his slip - completing City Dock's metamorphosis from working port to pleasure boat marina.

"All these years we've been in here," Parkinson, 51, said as he loaded his boat. "Why can't they give us a little area?"

While Parkinson worries about finding a new place to dock, his family has struggled to find a new home for his late stepfather's dilapidated workboat.

After Charlie "Pop" Meiklejohn's death three months ago, the city's harbormaster ordered the rotted and leaking boat out of the harbor in preparation for the Maritime Heritage Festival and the Annapolis stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race in two weeks.

Then, the city turned to Parkinson and told him it would begin enforcing a law that says every slip - even the two his family has claimed for decades - is first-come, first-served.

Parkinson can come back after the race, but he will have to compete for space with the pleasure boaters for whom "Ego Alley" has been named.

Either that, or move on, just like all the other watermen.

"That's the way it is going," Parkinson lamented yesterday. "That's why we were the last ones here."

For decades, Parkinson and his stepfather docked their workboats here, just yards away from where Meiklejohn grew up, in a rowhouse on what was then called "Hell Point." That blue-collar neighborhood has since been replaced by seafood restaurants and shops.

Meiklejohn - who lived downtown all his life - never learned to drive, his daughter, Bonnie Sheffey, said. He just walked to his boat on City Dock and took off into the Chesapeake Bay, where he would crab with a trotline tied with chicken necks and salted eels.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the City Dock was filled with workboats. Even through the 1950s, "there used to be so many workboats in there that you couldn't see water," Parkinson recalled.

But over the years, downtown Annapolis changed. The infrastructure that supported the watermen - the blacksmith shop, the fueling dock, the processing plant - shut down as tourism took over in the 1960s.

Parkinson said that when the oysters started declining in the late 1970s and 1980s, the sailboats rapidly began replacing the workboats.

Still, this was the place where Meiklejohn had always docked - just like his father before him. Parkinson, who Meiklejohn raised as a son, had his first boat here when he was 13.

His current, 24-foot boat has been a regular presence on City Dock since 1987. He docked it right next to Meiklejohn's boat, a used 36-foot Bay Built that the family purchased in the early 1970s. The vessel - a type of workboat with a cabin that is known among watermen as a deadrise - has been a fixture on City Dock, memorialized in several paintings.

The men reserved their spots next to Fawcett's Boat Supplies with handmade wooden signs that read "Workboats Only."

Three years ago, the city tried to move the men's boats from City Dock in order to rent the space to a charter boat. While the watermen pay just $50 a month, the tour boat would have paid 10 times as much - $6,000 a year.

By then, Meiklejohn had been diagnosed with cancer. City residents circulated a petition with more than 1,800 signatures, persuading city officials to allow the watermen to stay.

But Meiklejohn's boat - now 50 years old- was not properly maintained, said Harbormaster Ric Dahlgren. Last year the city had to pump it out once when the water reached within 4 inches of the gunwale.

After Meiklejohn's death in January, Dahlgren told the family they had to remove the boat for the Volvo race because he feared it could sink at any time. He set Monday as the deadline.

The family took the boat to a repair shop, where they were told it would cost about $35,000 to put the boat - with rotted wood, cracked and peeling paint and a tattered American flag - back in working order.

For the past few weeks, the family has appealed to the public for help, looking for someone to take the boat off their hands so they did not have to destroy it.

"We had hoped to be able to fix it up for his grandson to crab on," Sheffey said. "But we don't have the funds to do it."

Yesterday, a local man with a private slip bought the boat for $1, pledging to restore it.

By then, Parkinson was wondering what to do with his own boat, which he said is the primary source of his livelihood.

When he returned to City Dock this week for the beginning of the crabbing season, he found that the signs that reserved his slip were gone.

Dahlgren, who has been harbormaster for 14 years, explained that it is a matter of "equity." Though watermen get a break in rent for the slips, which for a 24-foot pleasure boat rent for $42 a night, no provision allows them to be reserved.

"We want to accommodate commercial watermen, but our policies are not made for the benefit of one family or individual," Dahlgren said. "They can come and go, but they are subject to the same rules as everyone else."

But for commercial watermen, who must load their traps and unload their catch, a reserved spot is essential, Parkinson said.

He wonders why a city about to celebrate a Maritime Heritage Festival would push out the last waterman to come to City Dock. He said he often explains his trade and shows his catch to interested tourists.

Parkinson and Meiklejohn have been the only commercial watermen to rent there in several years, Dahlgren said, as watermen have moved out in pursuit of better crabbing and fishing locations.

Parkinson said he knows of only three other Annapolis families who still make their living off the water. There are a few boats on a private dock in Back Creek.

Meanwhile, Meiklejohn's grandson, 18-year-old Henry Meiklejohn, said that despite the difficulties of the lifestyle, he plans to save money for a workboat of his own.

"It's hard work," he said, noting that he knows no one else his age considering the career. "But it's tradition."

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