When I first bought my own car, I used to page through my atlas and imagine the places I could go see. Of course, since owning a car requires for paying for insurance, gas and maintenance (way more of that than I’d anticipated) I had to work, so I couldn’t travel far. Where could I go in a free afternoon? I love water, so the intricacies of the Chesapeake Bay fascinated me. All those inlets and peninsulas jutting out into the endless blue! I wanted to see the view from all of them.
My first attempt was so disappointing, however, that I pretty much gave up. I had talked my roommates into accompanying me on the adventure. We drove across the dreaded Bay Bridge (see my post about bridges for my paranoia about that one) and endured creeping Eastern shore traffic through adorable towns full of adorable shops and adorable restaurants where we knew we could not afford to shop or eat. We kept going until we got to “the end” as I determined it – where a sizeable peninsula jutted out into the immenseChesapeake Bay. I couldn’t wait for that view of water all around, the sense of standing at the edge of the known world. But we never got there.
The roads all ended on private property in marshland with enough trees to block any view of water. At one point we got out of the car trudged through some swampy land to see… more marsh.
We turned around and went home. One of my roommates brought chiggers home with her. It was not what I’d call a successful outing. And I never again looked at the Eastern Shore of Maryland with the same sense of anticipation.
But that all changed last fall. A group of friends planned a weekend of camping at Jane’s Island State Park. I had no idea where it was, but I assumed there had to be water there somewhere or the guys really would have wasted their time loading a trailer with five canoes. It wasn’t til we were about half way there that I actually looked at the location on the map—and I wasn’t driving, by the way, although you shouldn’t put it past me to try. Anyway, Jane’s Island turned out to be WAY at the bottom corner of Maryland’s Eastern Shore– right there on the edge of the world, the type of place I used to dream about seeing. I didn’t get my hopes up. I was expecting views of marsh and nothing more.
I got more, as it happens. We did canoe past a number of marshy “islands” that seemed to be little more than grass stems clinging precariously to a slab of mud. But then we reached a narrow spit of actual land with strips of sandy beach on either side. We drew up the canoes and walked about ten feet to the other side of the island and we were at “the edge.” Water stretched out all around us, rolling continuously in gentle waves. The western shore was nowhere in sight.
A historic marker buried in the grass proclaimed that this was Tangier Sound, site of the “bloodiest battle of the American Revolution.” The Battle of Kedges Strait (also known as the Battle of the Barges) was actually fought more than a year after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. Most of us were taught that the war ended with that surrender, but in fact the fighting continued until 1783 in various places, and this was one of them. Commodore Zedekiah Whaley sought the help of a local militia commander when he realized the gang of loyalist pirates (known as “picaroons”) he was chasing was too big to handle with the few small vessels at his disposal. Colonel John Cropper brought in 25 men and two more boats, but it wasn’t enough. One of Whaley’s boats was too slow to keep up and had to be sent back. Another one had its main gun explode when it fired its first shot. Whaley’s ship, the Protector, got too close to the pirates and suddenly had all seven pirate vessels firing on him at once. Spilled gunpowder ignited on deck and caused major chaos and the pirate vessels closed in and boarded. The other patriot vessels retreated and their commanders were all branded cowards, though a later inquiry cleared them of all charges. Whaley was killed in the fighting, along with 24 other men. 29 men were wounded which left only 11 men unhurt. Obviously this wasn’t the biggest battle of the war, but in terms of percentages, an 83% casualty rate is pretty high.
It’s very quiet in the sound these days, so it’s hard to imagine the bloody battle or big oyster canning industry that thrived all throughout the bay region. When colonists first sailed up the bay, oysters were so plentiful that they were used as a cheap food source for slaves and indentured servants, who complained about being fed the shellfish so frequently.
A cold, heavy rain hampered our attempts to explore Crisfield and the surrounding area after our canoe trip. We did detour through the town of Princess Anne, a sleepy town full of Victorian houses with a colonial manor house set across from an old church. Having seen signs for “Beckford Manor,” we drove up close to the colonial house to read the historical marker on the front and then realized we were trespassing on someone’s driveway. Beckford Manor was actually a modern housing development around the corner. In any case, the Princess Anne police station was also an extremely interesting stone building that made me think of what you might get if you asked Martha Stewart to design a dungeon.
After we got back on the highway I noticed another small collection of beautiful Victorian houses on a frontage road with no signs of a town. The only commercial establishment was a convenience store and gas station on the highway itself. I decided that was the Eastern equivalent of a ghost town. Out in the wide open spaces of the West, when a business left a town, so did all the people, and the entire town went vacant. But in the more densely populated East, people remain behind when the businesses leave. You see town houses but no actual town. I’m not sure which is more melancholy. But melancholy is still beautiful to visit, if you don’t have to live there. I look forward to exploring it all again – when the weather warms up.