New book recalls earlier days on the Rappahannock
by Larry Chowning
For nearly 50 years, the community of Sharps on the north bank of the Rappahannock River and Urbanna on the south bank were tied together by steamboats. Both were ports of call for steamers out of Baltimore and Norfolk.
The last commercial steamboat out of Baltimore to cruise the river was the Anne Arundel in 1937. That year, it stopped at the two ports on its final journey up the Rappahannock. Since the steamers stopped coming, Sharps and Urbanna have never been quite the same.
Mortimer (Morti) Payne of Sharps can attest to that, and although he can’t remember the days when steamboats cruised the river (he was born in 1940), he has known and talked to plenty of folks who did and their experiences and memories are reflected in his new book.
Payne has written Sora Tide, a book of vignettes and recollections of life at Sharps and throughout the Northern Neck region. Payne has been a longtime resident of Sharps and his book speaks to the unique Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula heritage, lore and culture, remembered by a native.
Payne knows both sides of the river. He grew up and now lives in the Northern Neck but was a student and graduated from Christchurch School, on the south bank of the Rappahannock.
A sora tide is an unusually high tide usually driven by a nor’east wind. The high waters flood the marshes, taking away the cover of the marsh grass and giving the hunter an edge over the illusive sora.
A shallow draft, double-ended (double pointed) skiff is the vessel of choice used by most hunters to sneak up on the birds. Payne is a student of the culture and knows what wood was used in his family’s sora skiff, the builder who built it, and stories that surround the hunt, the builder and the characters who made the community what it was.
Payne’s book reminds us of times when the sweet taste of fried rockfish and cornbread came from a wood fired griddle, when soda pop from a drink cooler colder than ice came from his grandfather’s country store, and when the faded aroma of oysters from an abandoned shucking house near Sharps Wharf still filled the air 20 years after it closed.
Payne’s short stories and vignettes reflect a way of life on the Northern Neck that is seldom seen or heard today. Although he calls the book fiction, it reads like it came from his own memory or from those who shared their memories with him.