Chesapeake Trailboards

Trailboards, Robert H. Burgess collection, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

“You got to remember that this is something extra.” -Captain Wade Murphy, on the extravagance of gold-leaf trailboards.

The tradition of placing decorative carvings on commercial vessels has all but disappeared in North America. There are a few survivors on the Chesapeake Bay, but as vessels were abandoned, collector and former curator at the Mariner’s Museum Robert H. Burgess rescued hundreds of their carvings. He proudly noted that “the vessels from which they originated have long disappeared but their names will live on.”

These simple pieces of wood and paint express pride, individualism, and competitive spirit. The last vestiges of a time when boats were made of skin and the sea was a god one sought to please, they persist as beautiful ornaments and icons of Chesapeake craftsmanship.

One of the carvings above is the starboard trailboard, from the schooner Anna & Helen. Built in 1911 in Dorchester, New Jersey, she sank in Crisfield harbor in 1957.  In 1960, Robert Burgess paid Well W. Evans, Jr., her last owner, $15 for permission to salvage her trailboards from the hulk.

Above is the trailboard of skipjack Annie W. (ex. Mary Sue) built 1906 in Deep Creek, Virginia. The carving is in the distinctive style of Dewey Webster of Deals Island, who worked as a watermen but made carvings for at least a dozen oyster dredging boats from the 1930s through the 1960s. Although this trailboard adorned her bow by 1936, her name was never changed in official records, and remained Mary Sue until she was dismantled in 1972. Burgess acquired this item from a waterman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, who had this and its mate in a shed. Burgess repainted them in original colors from traces of paint he found on the boards.

Trailboard and nameboard carvings on display, Robert H. Burgess collection, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.