- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

'I still dream I'm sleeping on the Jessie Taylor," says Clayton Evans, "coming up the river to sell fish to Washington."

Thirty years ago when he was a boy, Mr. Evans rose before dawn with his older brother Stan and his father Stanley for the long boat ride on the Jessie Taylor. They started from their home on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay and took a week or longer to work their way up 120 miles of the Potomac to sell their fresh crabs, clams, oysters and fish at the site of the ancient Municipal Fish Market on Water Street in Southwest Washington.

Today with his brother Stan, the 40-year-old Mr. Evans runs Jessie Taylor Seafood at the water's edge at the old fish market. Long gone is the original Jessie Taylor, their father's "bay buy boat" one of those old wooden craft that sat low in the water and were used by middlemen to go out among the fishers and crabbers and tongers to buy their catch.

But the brothers still conduct business on the water: Their shop is a long steel barge lashed by ropes to the cement pier sunk long ago into the mud by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Their business is part of a long tradition. More than 200 years ago the flats off Water Street offered a perfect landing for crabbers and oyster tongers, for clam boats, fish netters and sailing vessels of all descriptions. Records at the Washington Historical Society describe early fishermen beaching in the mud to set up rickety wooden sheds to sell seafood directly to the rough and ready early settlers of the federal city.

Both Adams presidents John and John Quincy were said to be frequent customers, as was President James Buchanan. In time, the lean-tos were replaced by sturdier buildings, turning the waterfront into a familiar shopping place for armies of ordinary citizens and the high and mighty generation after generation. As recently as 1946, some 30 million pounds of fresh crabs, oysters, clams and fish were sold directly from the water's edge there.

Now Clayton and Stan Evans along with the White family of Captain White's, the Pruitts and another set of Evanses who run Pruitt's Seafood are the only three remaining clans selling fish right off the Potomac River a fragile but still functional connection to the days when Washington's riverfront seafood market rivaled New York's Fulton Fish Market and San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

Business is still booming.

Today's visitors might include former Secretary of State James Baker, who is said to be a frequent shopper, and actors Lou Gossett Jr. and Phylicia Rashad, who stop by when they're in town. Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, has been another regular customer over the years, while Redskins football star Deion Sanders was sighted on the dock the day he signed his big contract with the team "buying snow crabs," says Paul Harris of Smith Island, one of Mr. Evans' Jessie Taylor hands.

Mr. Harris says Steve Forbes, the former Republican presidential candidate and publisher of Forbes business magazine, comes by every time he's in town. "Docks his boat right over there at the yacht club and walks over for fresh seafood," Mr. Harris says.

• • •

For the people who sell the fish here, it's not that easy.

"The work is hard," says Mr. Evans, who puts in seven 13-hour days on the barge, sleeping in cramped living quarters on board and dreaming of his boyhood journeys up the Potomac. Then he drives home across the Bay Bridge for a week off in Salisbury with his wife, while his brother Stan runs the business for a week. They switch places after a week off the barge.

Their day begins at 5:30 a.m., as they and as many as a dozen deck hands prepare the display cases for the day's catch. Breakfast is usually at 10 a.m., just the beginning of hectic, nonstop days of delivery trucks pulling up beside the barges to unload tons more of fresh fish, while shoppers clamor for help until closing time at 8:30 p.m.

"We're watermen, so we really enjoy what we do," Mr. Evans says, explaining the exhilaration of working so hard that the days blend into one long blur of people and weather and more fish than he ever thought could come from the sea.

"As Washington has changed, we've had to change, too," he says above the whine of jets gliding over the river on their way to Reagan National Airport. Nearby, sea gulls squawk for attention, piercing with their cries the dull thud-thud of helicopters skimming the water of Washington Channel off Hains Point.

Sometimes the president's Marine Corps helicopters clatter overhead on their path toward the White House from the Anacostia Naval Station. The day is punctuated by the shrieking arrival of Fox 5 television's black chopper, which is housed on the Anacostia River just around the bend, as well as Pentagon and city police helicopters patrolling the waterfront area.

"Years ago it was quieter, and we'd just have shellfish and crabs," Mr. Evans says. "Now [the District] is so international, with people from all over the world, tastes in fish have changed. Now we sell the whole nine yards."

• • •

Customers come for the unforgettable experience of seafood cooking outdoors, and extravagantly arranged displays of fish on ice in cases running the entire length of the barges.

Newcomers sometimes stand stock-still to marvel at the sight of red snapper whole and glistening, glassy eyes right, almost standing at attention in ice. Steamed Chesapeake Bay crabs glow brightly, while nearby pots of New England clam chowder vent bewitching aromas of succulence.

There are shrimp great and small, cooked and raw, striped tiger shrimp and those farm-raised itty-bitty things that come on salads, all of them stacked and ready for customers. Long, sinewy snow crab legs tumble across counters, with glistening tangles of black squid and hillocks of blue octopus stacked on ice in trays nearby. Fire-engine-red heaps of cooked crawfish glow on the counter, offset by pale blue slabs of sliced and filleted shark, rosy bundles of flounder and whole pink flounder flat as pancakes on the ice.

Fish fanciers come to buy fresh herring and ocean porgies, spot, whiting, mackerel and tender little puppy drum. There are spooky collections of big-mouth groupers, thick eel and armies of dead-eyed rockfish, large and small, stacked on ice like fat pillows green and black, one beside the other.

Smelt, frogs' legs, live snails, and stone and Dungeness crabs fill iced counter space, along with squadrons of live Chesapeake Bay crabs dredged from the bottom mud off Virginia. Heaps of large and small clams clutter the counters, vying for space with gnarled bunches of Bay oysters and sleeker collections of black mussels.

The Evans, White and Pruitt barges are tied to three sides of a paved square on the wharf to form a theme-park-like shopping area, with the channel behind the boats, and Water Street and Maine Avenue SW fronting the small parking lot.

White's Seafood has the largest sign over its barge, a promise of good seafood, with the image of an old sea captain smoking a pipe and hanging on to the spoked wheel of a wooden sailing ship. Pruitt's sign features dancing crabs, jumping rockfish, sprightly shrimp and the legend, "You tried the rest, now try the best." Jessie Taylor's has painted images of timeless Bay water scenes, with jumping rockfish, wooden piers and hearty watermen ready for a day's catch.

The market begins at the northernmost tip of Water Street. Overhead, traffic roars on an elevated spur of the 14th Street Bridge and the Southwest Freeway connector that soars over the edge of the market. Across the water is the tennis bubble at East Potomac Park, while southward along the water's edge are tourist restaurants, piers, and the masts and rigging of hundreds of boats docked at the yacht club.

Trucked in fresh from the Chesapeake, the Carolinas and from as far away as Texas and New England, the selection at the fish market is unequaled anywhere in the metropolitan area, says Stuart Pruitt, a Tangier Island man.

Pruitts have sold fish on this wharf since the 1870s, according to records kept by the District's superintendent of weights, measures and markets. By 1885, the Corps of Engineers had begun deepening the Washington Channel, dredging mud and silt onto what became East Potomac Park and Hains Point early in the last century. Back then, the fish market was a collection of wooden piers and shacks to which the watermen brought their catch, and larger seafood restaurants fronting the channel from 10th to 11th Street.

Mr. Pruitt is in the process of selling the family's Pruitt Seafood business to Rick Evans, a Crisfield, Md., native and unrelated to the Evanses of Jessie Taylor Seafood.

"I'm just burned out," Mr. Pruitt says in an interview from Nassawadox, Va., his home on the Eastern Shore. "I love the river and seafood, but I've worked there every day of the week for 17 years, and it's time for me to do something else."

Mr. Pruitt's father, Wallace, was a waterman before him, working the Bay starting in the 1930s to bring seafood by boat and then truck to the District market. Before that, Wallace Pruitt's father, Elijah, did the same, back when the city in 1916 built what was called the Fish Wharf, an elegant, block-long, brick Colonial revival market running from 11th to 12th Street on what today is Maine Avenue.

As many as 50 fishing, oyster and crab boats would be docked daily at the place. For nearly 50 years, until torn down by urban renewal projects in 1960, the colonnaded building housed two dozen fish stalls in its one-storied wings. Along its balconies overlooking the Channel were a number of popular restaurants. Poor children would dance for pennies thrown by the rich to the wharf below.

By 1960, almost the entire Southwest neighborhood behind today's market was obliterated to make room for rows of often uninspiring apartment buildings and offices. The colonnaded fish market was destroyed, except for the shell of the old Cadillac Restaurant. Today that shell houses the only public restroom at the market and Virgo's, a place that guts and cleans (for a starting price of 47 cents a pound) the whole fish shoppers buy at the market.

• • •

But there's still hope for the market area. In 1999, Congress appropriated $3 million to pay for refurbishing both the seafood market area and the nearby marina. The money would pay for landfills between the market and the marina, the placement of utility poles underground and improvement to the pier pilings.

And in November last year, Congress authorized District Mayor Anthony A. Williams to sign contracts for the work and renew leases for the fish barges for up to 30 years. The District is expected to finalize these contracts very soon.

"The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to fill in the channel between us and the restaurants, which will add another 80 parking places," says Sonny White of the landfill operation. "It will also get us some new bathrooms on the side toward the yacht club."

Mr. White represents one more family that carries on tradition here. He and his brother Billy co-own the 30-year-old Captain White's Seafood on the wharf and Captain White's Restaurant on Richmond Highway in Alexandria. Mr. White's son Brian works at Captain White's Seafood with a staff of up to 50 hands.

The District's plan is to tear down the added-on newer parts of the former Cadillac Restaurant, leaving just the towerlike one and a half-story central station. It dates from about the 1890s and served as an ice house for the fishing fleet that landed there in the old days.

Also destined for improvement is the refrigerated trash bin needed for discarded spoiled fish which will be moved from in front of the Cadillac building and expanded elsewhere on the grounds.

"It's what we need to keep it going," says Mr. White, who was born in Hallwood, Va., near Chincoteague, 52 years ago but lives today in Fairfax Station and keeps quarter horses on 10 acres he has in Leesburg, Va.

"There's a bright future here," Mr. White says, "as long as people keep liking fish."

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