Remembering the Gwynn’s Island
by Marcy Klingel Benouameur
My Father – Gilbert Klingel – first came to Gwynn’s Island as a young boy when his family traveled on the the steamboats from Baltimore. This was around 1912 – 1917. He was so impressed with this beautiful area that he came back many years later to settle permanently. He established a boat yard in the early 1950’s and called it the Gwynn’s Island Boat Yard. Here he built boats of steel ranging from 30′ to 75′ in length. Most of these were sailboats except for one 62′ twin diesel yacht, the “Manteo.” Some Islanders may still remember the large boats and the many launchings that took place over the years.
Although I didn’t actually grow up on Gwynn’s Island, I spent many weekends and summers in my youth at the Boat Yard. The days were slower then and I have fond memories of biking around the island in the 50’s, canoeing on Milford Haven or going for a swim in that little cove at Cherry Point which is no longer there. Best of all, I enjoyed watching my father work. In the early years, I saw him build the winch house, place the railway, and build the large building. He later built a small apartment on the second floor above the large work shop. From it, he only had to descend on the elevator (which he built himself) to the ground floor.
I remember the sandblasting and the welding with sparks flying and being told to keep a distance and not to look directly at the bright light. I remember the gas bottles and my father always working on the top of a ladder or down under a boat. I remember the sheets of steel and the patterns he made from them. These became the frames of boats of all sizes.
Because Gil Klingel was a welder, he was often called upon to fix all sorts of equipment made of steel, from boat parts to old trucks. He generally wouldn’t accept any money for this work but a few days later he would be rewarded by a gift of fish or crabs or garden vegetables. It was all part of the Gwynn’s Island way of life. When there was room on the marine railway, watermen would bring in their boats to clean or paint. One example was the “Miss Harriet” as seen in the photo on this page. There were still quite a few watermen around in those days. We only had to look in the yard next door and watch Mr. Hudgins repairing his pound nets or look across the water to Callis Wharf to see the fishing boats come in. Those were the days when you could actually buy fish at Callis Wharf.
The Boat Yard property has changed hands several times after my father’s death. For some time it was known as Pulley’s Marine. The old winch house was replaced with a separate building for the boat shop and the larger building became a retail store for marine products. The Mathews Maritime Foundation is now leasing the smaller of the two buildings. This Gwynn’s Island Boat Shop will be used for waterfront educational activities such as boatbuilding, restoration of donated boats and maritime trades education in partnership with the Rappahannock Community College (RCC). Gilbert Klingel’s Gwynn’s Island Boat Yard which was once a busy commercial working waterfront may once again become an active center of maritime activities.
In the meantime, a new edition of Klingel’s first book Inagua has just been released for sale. It has a new introduction which I wrote to bring the story into the present. You can find this book at the Gwynn’s Island Festival, the Gwynn’s Island Museum, the Mathews Maritime Museum and other locations around Mathews.
Our heartfelt thanks for sharing your father and his boat shop’s story!
Today, it is the aim of Rionholdt Once And Future Boats Ltd. to create closer community and offer hospitality while making faithful reproductions of our favorite, classic Chesapeake Bay boats out of cellular PVC using the Rionholdt Method. Drop in on us at the Boat Yard to see what is new, talk about beautiful boats, pick up some tips and tricks from our experienced and talented Shipwrights, and ultimately appreciate what makes Gwynn’s Island Boat Yard such a wonderful and special haven on the Bay!