Location: First Street at Spa Creek
This is where Eastport's famed boat building industry began. At Site 6 in 1868, a German immigrant named Wilhelm Heller began crafting fine wooden boats. His reputation spread and business flourished. Heller's became the largest boatyard on Spa Creek, serving both commercial fishing boats and pleasure craft.
After Heller died in 1916, his son Henry ran the yard. Over the next 20 years traditional wooden workboats like skipjacks, bugeyes, and pungy schooners slowly disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay. When Henry died in 1936, the yard closed.
Later, modern boatyards moved into the area. Notice the machinery now used to haul boats from the water to get them "on the hard" for service and repairs.
Friemel’s Oyster Packing House was located at Site 6, at the end of First Street, where you see the Severn Sailing Association today. Watermen used this building as a mark to locate the entrance to Spa Creek when returning from the Bay. Almost the entire point is made from discarded oyster shells from this packing house, active from the early 1900s until the 1930s. The site of the first boat yard in Eastport is on the other side of the street. This is where Eastport’s proud maritime tradition began in 1868. That’s when a German immigrant named Wilhelm Heller bought the Hallis & Madisson Marine Railway. At that time it was the only boatyard on Spa Creek.
Heller had learned boat building in Germany and applied these skills to building a house on the corner of First Street and
Severn Avenue out of “spare things.” Two years later, his son, Henry, was born. Wilhelm shared his exceptional boatbuilding skills and knowledge with his son.
Father and son installed two railways in the yard. They were powered by a horse or mule harnessed to a capstan in a walk-around under a shed in front of the sail loft. A chain was guided over a sprocket and then down to a pulley under water to connect to a carriage holding a boat. All day, the horse walked in circles turning the cable around a large steel drum, raising boats up out of the water. Heller’s was the only marine railway large enough to accommodate the larger schooners working on the Bay. See schematic above.
By the turn of the century, summer found Spa Creek lined with commercial sailing craft awaiting their turn to be hauled out at Heller’s. Many fine wooden sailing vessels graced the waters leading into the Annapolis harbor, and it was a peak period for the boatyard. Early photographs of Heller’s depict bugeye schooners and skipjacks on the railway. These “workhorses’ of the Chesapeake Bay’s commercial fishing fleet were the mainstay business of Heller’s Shipyard.
Heller’s marina, famous throughout the Chesapeake Bay, was highly praised in a book called Cruises: Mainly of the Bay of the Chesapeake, by Robert and George Barrie. They tell of coming into Heller’s in 1906 so their boat could be hauled and the sails repaired, and they could seek cruising advice. From there sailors could “walk into the small farms inland and purchase chickens and eggs, and ice cut from Spa creek in the winter and buried in straw till the summer.”
The book describes the fine yard: “There are many other railways on the Bay, but I doubt if any one of them has a repair trade like Heller’s. One could spend days there, and on no two would there be the same collection of vessels. If you wish information as to any harbor or river or the Bay go to Heller’s and you are sure to find someone who can give you all the instructions you need.”
Following Wilhem’s death on Christmas Day in 1916, his son, Henry, continued to operate the boatyard. The skipjacks, bugeyes, and pungy schooners were slowly disappearing from the Bay. The yard survived until Henry’s death in 1936. Others with a passion for boat building followed the Heller family, but their legacy is keystone.
They ignited an industry of boat building and repair that thrives today. As you walk around Eastport and view the waterfront activity, you can sense our community’s connection with the past.