Chesapeake Quarterly
Chesapeake Crossings
The Voyages of "Mac" Mathias
Charles 'Mac' Mathias. Photograph, Associated Press
Charles "Mac" Mathias served in the U.S. House of Representatives for eight years and in the U.S. Senate for 12 years. Photograph, Associated Press

THE CLEANUP OF THE CHESAPEAKE BAY BEGAN WITH A BOAT TRIP, but it's probably not the famous trip you've read about.

According to the familiar narrative, U.S. Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias launched a historic, well-publicized boat trip in June 1973 that would last five days and carry him to key ports of call around Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay. The tour, as planned, turned into a major media event that helped Mathias publicize the pollution problems of the Bay and persuade Congress to fund a major scientific study of the estuary. These were rare acts of political leadership that earned this Republican senator from Frederick, Maryland lasting fame as "the father of the Chesapeake Bay Program," the current multi-state campaign to clean up the Bay.

His legendary trip began at the Port of Baltimore in the middle of a downpour, with Mathias cruising away from the dock on a friend's 43-foot motorboat, the Miss Afton IV. On their way out of the harbor, he and his party passed several large industrial plants, hulking and grim-looking in the heavy rain. Near Fells Point, they saw Allied Signal, already known to be steadily leaking chromium into the Patapsco River, and at Sparrows Point they motored along a ship yard and a steel-making plant run by Bethlehem Steel, a corporation notorious for discharging wastewater into the harbor.

In 1973, the enemy of the Bay, at least in the popular imagination, was big industry. The rise of the environmental movement during the previous decade had been sparked, in part, by a couple of famous industry-connected crises: an oil spill set the Cuyahoga River on fire near Cleveland, Ohio; another oil spill blackened the beaches near Santa Barbara, California (yes, that happened again in May of this year). Those images from the 1960s raised concerns about Bethlehem Steel near Baltimore. "For many Marylanders," said Mathias, "it was the industrial activity at Sparrow's Point that was poisoning the whole Bay." The senator suspected otherwise.

In his pre-launch press conference Mathias called his excursion "a fact-finding tour." Today a politician might call it a "a listening tour." The senator would travel more than 400 miles, most of it by boat, some of it by airplane, some of it by car. Along the way he would meet and talk with and, yes, listen to more than 150 Bay-area residents. He would hear troubling reports from local politicians, businessmen, farmers, fishermen, watermen, and scientists.

Why did a politician born and raised in Frederick, Maryland, a freshwater town within sight of Catoctin Mountain, turn into such a fervent advocate for the Chesapeake Bay? Because this wasn't his first trip on the Bay and this was not the Bay he remembered.


Mathias first fell in love with the Bay during some long-ago trips he took as a boy. "One of the great expeditions of a child in Maryland," he said, "was to take a trip across the Bay on one of the old ferryboats." They ran once upon a time from Annapolis over to Claiborne on the Eastern Shore, crossing the Chesapeake Bay and part of Eastern Bay, and marking at least one passenger for life.

"It was an extraordinary experience," Mathias told me during an interview I did with him late in his life. He would wait by the seawall near the Naval Academy, he said, and the John M. Dennis, a wide-bodied, double-ended ferry, would pull up and unload people and cars from its previous trip. He would ride aboard with his family, jump out of the car, and begin racing about the big deck as the ferry pushed away from the shore with a loud whistle and a snort of black smoke.

More than sixty years later, decades after the Bay Bridge opened, decades after the ferries were mothballed, that memory still burned brightly. "I can see the churning of the water," he said, "as the boat was leaving the dock."

Out on the Bay on a slow boat to a far shore, the boy from Frederick would lean over the railing and stare out across the water. "We had time to reflect on what was happening and to imagine the marine life that was beneath us — the crabs, the oysters, the rockfish, all the rest." It was a voyage of discovery, and in his boyhood mind, he said, the barge-like John M. Dennis, belonged in any pantheon of great expeditionary ships, right alongside the Ark and the Dove, or better yet the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

John M. Dennis. Postcard image: Cardcow.com
A ferryboat that could hold up to 65 vehicles and 880 passengers, the John M. Dennis ran from Annapolis to Claiborne on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when "Mac" Mathias rode it as a child. The trips gave him a lifelong love of the Bay, and as a senator, he worked to help clean up the estuary. Postcard image, Cardcow.com

His in-depth understanding of the Chesapeake began years later when he was a 37-year-old lawyer newly elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Assigned to the Chesapeake Bay and Tributaries Committee in 1959, he met and began a long connection with Gene Cronin, the marine biologist who was serving as a principal adviser to the committee. A teacher-turned-biologist-turned-lab leader, Cronin was then director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL), the old research center down at Solomons Island. A charismatic and eloquent speaker, Cronin was called "The Silver Fox" by his colleagues. In Cronin, Mathias found a science mentor, a man he called "a natural teacher" who excelled at explaining Bay science.

In 1973 Mathias would organize his "fact-finding" tour, in part because he remembered the ferryboats, in part because he liked to go goose hunting. In cold, early morning, Eastern Shore duck blinds he discovered first hand that geese were dwindling in numbers. From his hunting buddies and his science buddies, he heard similar stories: the waterfowl were going elsewhere because the seagrasses, their favorite food source, were disappearing. And nobody knew why.

On his official five-day boat tour he found himself collecting more stories about a Chesapeake Bay in accelerating decline. The water was growing cloudy, raw sewage and industrial wastes were pouring into the Bay, harvests were declining for oysters and crabs and fish, watermen and seafood processors were going out of business. And the year before, 1972, had brought the great rains and floods of Tropical Storm Agnes, an event that had altered the ecology of the estuary in ways scientists were still trying to figure out.

The problems were many, and the causes not always clear. "We groped our way along," Mathias told me. "There was really no one who had any total solution to the problem." He listened to the stories from watermen and fishermen and Bayshore residents, but he knew anecdotes were not evidence, at least not the kind of evidence that could unleash federal funding.

On his tour stop at Solomons Island he had dinner at Bowens Inn with Gene Cronin and other scientists from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. They talked about setting up an in-depth scientific overview of the Bay. "Human experience is not broad enough," Mathias said, "human knowledge is not wide enough without science to identify out of normal everyday experience what was going on."

To build political support for his Baywide study, Mathias smartly turned his "fact-finding" voyage into a fact-sharing experience. He enticed two prominent officials from the Nixon administration to come aboard his boat: Russell Train, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rogers Morton, secretary for the Department of the Interior.

Bringing these heavyweights aboard must have been a coup for a first-time senator who was not popular with President Richard Nixon. Mathias had already criticized the president for his civil rights record, his bombing campaigns in Viet Nam, and his poorly qualified Supreme Court nominees. He was also one of the first Republicans to go on the record in support of investigating a growing Watergate scandal. He was beginning to earn his reputation as "the conscience of the Senate."

After five days on the Bay, Mathias ended his boat trip back where he began: in Baltimore. At his press conference Mathias spoke about sewage pollution, called for closer cooperation between Maryland and Virginia, and said he would try to set up "a clearinghouse" of Bay data as a step towards solving the problems he had seen.


Eugene Cronin courtesy of Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, Solomons, Maryland
Eugene Cronin, a leading expert on blue crab biology and head of the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Lab, served as Mathias's science advisor, and became a close friend. Photograph courtesy of Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, Solomons, Maryland

Press coverage of the trip helped him publicize the Bay's problems, but his plan would still prove a tough sell with Congress. When he persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1975 to appropriate $5 million a year for a study, his project was labeled "pork barrel spending." One of the keys to keeping the project alive, said Mathias, was his connection with the Chesapeake science community. "If it hadn't been for the fact that we had some logical, common sense, credible scientists on the scene, like Gene Cronin," he said, "it would have been much more difficult to have sold this project, both to the federal government and to state and local governments."

The EPA study, which began in 1976, would revise popular and scientific thinking about the Bay's major pollution problems. Over 50 separate research projects were funded, and their findings, released in September 1982, pinpointed nutrients, not industrial wastes, as the single most damaging systemwide threat to the health of the Bay. Nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, were entering the estuary from hundreds of sewage plants and tens of thousands of farm fields spread across the watershed. They were overfertilizing the estuary and stimulating annual and massive plankton blooms. The study convicted nutrients as the primary culprits behind the dieoff of seagrasses and the spread of low-oxygen and no-oxygen dead zones. The breadth and depth of EPA's research study set off a rising crescendo of debate about who would apply the findings of the study.

The greatest payoff would be a new policy approach to an old policy problem: the lack of coordination among all the players working on Chesapeake research and management issues. Mathias estimated there were 10 federal agencies, 31 state agencies, 5 interstate commissions and 7 universities — more than 50 organizations involved with the Bay.

But among all the players, he said he could find "no ringmaster" able to run the show. Among the scientists advising Mathias were Gene Cronin, his early mentor, and Joe Mihursky, a CBL biologist who was spending his sabbatical working in the senator's office. Both were telling him the job could not be left up to individual states with a history of non-collaboration. There were two-day conferences and three-day conferences that drew most of the major players in Bay restoration, and at one of them he told an audience of 400 attendees, "I want to lock you up here as they do with the College of Cardinals while electing a pope."

front of Matias Medal Mathias Medal
This award, sponsored by Maryland Sea Grant, Virginia Sea Grant, and the Chesapeake Research Consortium, was named in honor of the politician who valued science. It is awarded to scientists who have contributed to environmental policy in the Chesapeake region. To learn about the scientists, including Eugene Cronin, who have received the medal, visit: www.mdsg.umd.edu/mathias-medal/

Mathias, of course, already had a pope in mind to organize all these Bay believers: William Ruckelshaus, head of the EPA. Since he was proving a reluctant pontiff, Mathias and his allies mounted a quiet campaign in the summer of 1983 to insert language into the Clean Water Act that would recognize the Chesapeake as "a national treasure" and require the EPA to become a financial partner and permanent manager of an ongoing federal program to preserve it. Ruckelshaus, however, was part of a Reagan administration reluctant to expand the federal role in a multi-state environmental issue.


William Ruckelshaus and others
The head of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus, is surrounded by politicians as the press asks him about the possibility for a new Chesapeake Bay Program. This 1983 boat trip across the Bay also included (from left to right) Senator Paul Sarbanes, Maryland Governor Harry Hughes, Virginia Senator John Warner, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, and Virginia Governor Chuck Rabb (far right).

It was time for yet another boat trip, and this one came in July of 1983. The vessel would be the Maryland Governor's yacht, the guest of honor would be the reluctant Ruckelshaus, the host would be Governor Harry Hughes, and the passengers would include the governor of Virginia, the four U.S. senators from Maryland and Virginia, and cabinet officials from three states. "All we want to do right now is impress Ruckelshaus with the Bay, get him involved," said an aide to the governor. The yacht, the Aurora, didn't look like the College of Cardinals, but for a long afternoon, it locked up the EPA chief with a lot of political high priests, all praying his agency would take charge of a new Bay program.

When the Aurora motored out of Annapolis, it had a busy schedule to meet. Ruckelshaus got to see crab potters, clam dredgers, oyster tongers, and oyster divers. On the other side of the Chesapeake, he got to eat a seafood lunch at Kent Narrows.

Boat trips on the Bay can work political miracles, said Bill Eichbaum, then head of Maryland's environmental programs. "You get off the boat, and there is a newspaper guy there, and you've got to say something," said Eichbaum. "If the fish are dying, you can't say 'The Bay is clean!' You've got to say 'We're going to clean it up.'" Putting a politician on a boat puts him on record.

When Ruckelshaus got off the boat, he found himself besieged by reporters, and he later withdrew his opposition to federal participation. The new Clean Water Act, as a result, called for the EPA to help restore the Chesapeake Bay, and Ruckelshaus is now remembered as a key player in starting the Bay cleanup.

By December of that year, science and politics had laid the foundation for the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983, a one-page statement of intent that promised a collaborative approach, a political rarity in dealing with Bay issues. The original signers were the Governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the regional administrator of EPA. And they all promised "to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine systems."

That language doesn't sound like a Declaration of Independence — it lacks the cadences and litany-like parallelisms of a Thomas Jefferson — but that plain-spoken declaration of 1983 did announce a break, a stepping away from the pessimism of the past, a casting aside of the belief that the Bay was dying and there wasn't much we could do about it.

Ten years after Mathias ran his "fact-finding tour," there was an optimism in the air, a buoyancy born of the belief that scientists were finally defining the major problems, that state and federal agencies would finally design policies that might start the long recovery of a great estuary.

A new voyage was launched, a voyage of discovery designed to test the hopeful idea that ecosystem restoration on such a grand scale might indeed be possible.

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Chesapeake Quarterly and Bay Journal teamed up in 2014 to produce a series of articles about sea level rise, coastal flooding, and the Chesapeake Bay. Articles appeared in both print and online. This 72-page, full-color report compiles this content along with a new foreword to offer a comprehensive look at the subject. Download a pdf of the report here.

We invite you to read our blog, On the Bay, for frequent updates and analysis about environmental science and coastal issues involving the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's coasts.

If you study, manage, or care about protecting the Bay ecosystem, we think you will find a lot to interest you. See the latest posts here.

Would you like to receive an email whenever we publish a new post to this blog? Email us at communications@mdsg.umd.edu, and we'll put you on the list.

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