ANNAPOLIS – By Annapolis standards, the Chance Boatyard is not much of a historic site.
The group of buildings at 222 Severn Ave. is divided into a shopping center, offices, a rusty old boat shed and a waterfront restaurant. It hasn’t operated as a boatyard in nearly 25 years.
But to Eastport residents who still remember the luxury yachts that were built there and the double-shifts that worked during World War II to churn out boats for the war effort, the boatyard “illustrated the complete flavor” of Annapolis’ rough- neck neighbor across Spa Creek.
“That is the historic site in Eastport,” said Mike Miron, a local service station owner and historian for the Barge House Museum. “There’s a lot of history at that site. It’s not just the buildings, it’s the people that worked there.”
The Chance Boatyard — also known as the Annapolis Yacht Yard and John Trumpy and Sons, among other incarnations — has been nominated as a national historic sight. If accepted, it would be the first and only industrial site of historic interest in Annapolis, said Alderman Ellen Moyer.
Donna Hole, chief of historic preservation for Annapolis, said Eastport sites are often overlooked by the Historic District in Annapolis and it is time that Eastport sites get their credit.
“It’s an important site for Annapolis because it was one of the last working boatyards in Annapolis,” said Clifton Ellis, who prepared the proposal for recognition of the site. The Governor’s Consulting Committee of the Maryland Historical Trust is scheduled to take up the Chance Boatyard nomination in May.
“Now that the waterfront has been given over to commercial and pleasure and leisure, there is very little reminder to the public and citizens of what the waterfront was,” Ellis said.
The Chance Marine Construction Co. was founded in 1912 and soon began building and repairing boats for Chesapeake watermen in a long, one-story boathouse on the northern part of the lot.
The boatyard expanded to build subchasers for the Navy during World War I. By 1930, the original boathouse had been torn down and replaced with two large concrete block buildings.
It started to specialize in pleasure craft in the 1920s, but that business faltered in the Great Depression and Chance was taken over by the Reconstruction Finance Corp. in 1937.
It was then bought by Chris Nelson, Frederick Reid and Eric Almen. Their new Annapolis Yacht Yard overhauled James Roosevelt’s boat, the Sewauna, in July 1937.
In April 1941, before the official U.S. entry into World War II, the Navy again contracted with the yard to build subchasers. It also built Vosper PT boats for the Royal Navy and the Russians as part of President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act.
When Richards T. Miller came to the yard as a Naval Reservist in 1941, renovations on the famous yacht America were underway. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the America was put aside under a temporary structure and all workers turned to the war effort.
There was one exception: When the shed collapsed in a freak snowstorm on Palm Sunday in 1942, almost crushing the yacht, Miller was ordered by Reserve Capt. Loring Swasey to repair the America.
Miller objected, but, “Swasey said, `Dick, Franklin [Roosevelt] wishes it so.'” The order was later rescinded, however, and the yacht never sailed again. Miller has a model on his wall made out of wood and a nail from the ship.
Miller said the yard eventually turned out 28 ships for the British and 100 for the Russians during the war. The Vospers were credited with wreaking havoc on German naval forces along the northern convoy line and for their role in a surprise landing at Petsamo, Italy, in addition to numerous sinkings.
Besides a number of English and Soviet military personnel, about 500 workers came to the boatyard during the war. Miller said there were two war-time shifts, including an all-woman second shift, Eastport’s own versions of Rosie the Riveter.
Former Annapolis mayor Al Hopkins remembers when police would stop traffic outside the yard during World War II to let the workers out after their day was over.
“They were part of the success of World War II,” Hopkins said.
War-time business led to the construction of five more buildings at the yard, including the in-water boathouse and a boat shed, the only one of its kind remaining. The boats were built in the shed and the workers put on the final touches on them in the boathouse.
Ted Christenson, who worked at the yard in the 1960s, said that many of the workers who were there during World War II, including his great-uncle, carved their names into the rafters of the boat-building shed.
“It would be a terrible shame if someone painted over them,” he said.
The yard continued to do some work for the Navy after the war, but turned largely to building its popular American Cruisers.
It was sold in 1947 to John Trumpy Sr., a famous Norwegian naval architect, who specialized in a new line of yachts for wealthy Americans. Known for their fine craftsmanship, they were called “the Rolls-Royce of American motor yachts” by the New York Times.
The Trumpy yachts were bought by clients including the Dupont, Guggenheim, Dodge and Chrysler families. Christenson remembers launching parties at Bay Ridge beach, with champagne and shrimp “as big as your finger.”
“They built some beautiful boats,” said Benjamin Sarles, who owns Sarles Boat & Engine Shop in Eastport.
In addition to yachts, the yard built gunboats and minesweepers for the Navy during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
But a 1963 fire “so intense it melted 12-inch metal frames,” according to Christenson, gutted the construction and paint shop and the woodworking shop. The shops were rebuilt after the all- night blaze, and today only the walls are original.
To Nelson Phipps, who worked at Trumpy’s for 20 years and was there spraying the first firehose in 1963, the fire stripped the site of its history.
“There is none. …The fire took out all the memories,” said Phipps, the former foreman of the labor gang.
By 1973, inflation and strikes forced the yard to close. Newspaper accounts at the time quoted John Trumpy Jr. as saying there was plenty of work for the yard, but he could not find workers.
But when Trumpy announced plans for 156 high-rise condominiums on the site, he touched a nerve among residents, many of whom were still unhappy with the new Annapolis Marriott Waterfront. Eastport residents managed to block the condo project.
“It was good that it never got approved,” said Hopkins. “That’s one of the beauties of Annapolis, you can go down to the water and look out for a long way.”
Trumpy sold the yard in 1974 to Jay Templeton, who converted it into the space it is today. He demolished a concrete block shed built by Chance, built offices and made the in-water boathouse into the Chart House.
“It’s not a boatyard now, it’s a shopping center,” said Leon Wolfe, an Eastport barber for over 65 years.
The plush restaurant and bar where customers can now sit and watch a game on Direct-TV is a sharp contrast to the boathouse that people remember. That building housed six ships at a time during World War II. It had no walls and no floor, except for wooden walkways that let the workers finish off the boats.
“I can remember going in there and catching crabs,” Sarles said.
“It was just a big roof up on poles,” Christenson said.
But supporters of historic designation said the history remains, despite the changes.
“The yard went away, but the buildings remain,” Miron said. “Through the years, it’s just survived – the users changed – but it still survived.”
Christenson — who learned of President Kennedy’s assassination while working on one of the president’s yachts — does not dwell on the site as much as the fine-crafted boats with mahogany hulls, oak frames and all the amenities, including spiral staircases.
Christenson smiled as he described the “rough and tough” craftsmen that taught him the trade and made the beautiful boats he remembers.
“I like walking there once in a while, it almost feels like you can hear one of the old guys holler at you,” he said.