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Port Tobacco, Maryland

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Thomas Stone National Historic Site.

Thomas Stone National Historic Site.

Port Tobacco was not on the water when I visited.

Prior to the American Revolution, this Maryland hamlet barely an hour’s drive south-east of Washington, DC was the second largest seaport in the American colonies. Ships anchored to be loaded with barrels of tobacco bound for Europe and the rest of the world.  Port Tobacco was on the world map.

In recent decades the nearest water to Port Tobacco was a marshy stretch where archeologists are examining residue for shoe buckles, clay pipes and artifacts from the original settlers in this area, Algonquian-speaking tribal peoples.  Hardly enough water near Port Tobacco to support a kayak hull, let alone a blue water schooner.  But that’s changing, thanks to community involvement in river restoration efforts and the Port Tobacco River Conservancy

The Catholics arrived in 1658, the Episcopals next.  One hundred defined lots originally made up the town limits, but the port was growing each year.  By 1819 the community built the courthouse

Port Tobacco, Md. historic road side marker.

Port Tobacco, Md. historic road side marker.

, now a museum.  Inside, only one original furniture piece remains, the clerk’s oak desk.   The St. Charles Hotel could seat 200 for dinner.   Sales of enslaved people for Southern Maryland plantations took place on the auction block outside the courthouse.  Sixty business and homes were listed within the incorporated area.

Tobacco was the local currency.  For the European market, the leaves were packed in kegs and shipped to England.  Most of the merchants were Scottish sea farers.  Merchants offered credit to plantation owners and it was the merchant’s responsibility to get the tobacco to Europe and England, taking their pay from the proceeds.  Surely agents, scrupulous and not, handled the sales paperwork and letters of credit.

Back in the day, there were more enslaved people of color than whites of European ancestry in the region.  After the Revolutionary War, the circuit court system was left in disarray.  The circuit court met every three or four months and the arrival of the judicial entourage signaled the opening of a fair, the market and trade season when people gathered in town to witness trials and punishments.   That was public entertainment of the era — exhibitionists in the stocks, blasphemers pilloried.  Doubtless there were worse punishments wrought.

Two newspapers operated in the town, the Port Tobacco Times and the Times Crescent.  The Maryland Independent, a relative newcomer, remains.

Warehouse Landing Road marks the location of the largest tobacco barn in the area, where they grade tobacco grown in Charles County.  During the 1920s, there were swimming camps (called  bathing camps at the time)  for children all along the river.  In 1940, the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco formed to preserve and protect this landmark settlement.  Catslide House was renovated. In the 1960’s, archeology dig led by the Smithsonian Institution excavated artifacts now displayed in the museum.  Elaine Racey, a Courthouse guide, dropped hints about a local ghost  while Dorothy Barbour, a docent working in the gift shop, said that more artifacts might be available for display in the museum if  a private foundation could be persuaded to sponsor a

Port Tobacco Archeological Project. http://porttobaccoarcheologicalproject.blogspot.com

Port Tobacco Archeological Project. Image from http://porttobacco.blogspot.com 

fixed temperature display area.  Dr. Barbour owned Stagg Hall, one  of several historic manor houses in the area.

How did Port Tobacco lose its waterside supremacy?  Over the centuries, plantations from here to the Potomac River cleared the trees and plowed the fields for a mono-crop, poor soil management causes erosion which silted up the waterways. Even in the 21st century, storm water  runoff and erosion are primary culprits in the degradation of the Port Tobacco River Watershed and Maryland’s coastal wetland port.

Notable figures from this area include:

* Wat Bowie and Mosby’s Men

* Dr. Gustavus Brown, one of George Washington’s doctors, who hastened George Washington’s death with numerous bleedings

Olivia Floyd of Rose Hill, a spy for the Confederates during the American Civil War

John Hanson, President of the First Continental Congress

* Matthew Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole, born near Nanjemoy, Md.

General Wm. Smallwood, a Revolutionary War leader

Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence

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Written by patwa

15/08/2013 at 9:06 pm

Kayaking the Chesapeake

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Kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay

Kayaking will not save your soul or bring world peace, but it will move you from youth through the middling years and onward to wisdom.   We’re talking about kayak touring, not the rough and tumble white water sport that gets all the headlines and warnings.

Flat water or sea kayaks are long, stable craft, built to cut through swells and withstand wind.  There are other sports suitable for the aging weekend athlete  who wants to preserve physical dignity and prowess, but kayaking can’t be beat for visual rewards.

The views are better from a long stable kayak where  you sit on a comfortable seat, legs outstretched below deck and feet braced on pegs that connect to the kayak’s rudder.  (Not all flat water kayaks have rudders.)  During the summer,  I usually paddle without the spray skirt,  but it’s necessary when Bay chop is sweeping the boat deck or afternoon thundershowers catch you still out. No one can bail or pump accumulating water when you also clutch a double blade paddle.  A lifejacket, cockpit skirt cover, bailing pump, whistle and light are essential equipment.

Map of eastern Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.

Md DNR fishing map of Tangier Sound, Maryland

On flat water, found in the numerous inlets, rivers and tributaries of the Eastern Shore of Maryland or Southern Maryland, the land between the Potomac River and the Bay, the paddling effort is slight.  You can drift with the river current.

The Choptank and Tuckahoe Rivers water trail is particularly lovely.  When I’m out paddling the serpentine tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I often think of the native First Peoples of the region.  The Native peoples of the Chesapeake region

“Their Manner of Fishynge in Virginia.” Theodor de Bry’s engraving of American Indians fishing, published in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

“Their Manner of Fishynge in Virginia.” Theodor de Bry’s engraving of American Indians fishing, published in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

can inform modern caretakers of our waterways.

Dip, swush, dip, swush…. Paddle cadence simulates a moving meditation, a soothing zen system for approaching the universe.  Suddenly a Great Blue

Great Blue Heron bird standing near water

Great Blue Heron.

rises from a burned out tree, wing span long nearly as long as the kayak.    A turtle claps into the water, a beaver dives beneath the water.  Overhead Canada geese fly formation and there, out of the corner of my eye, a carp burns its yellow belly in the sun drenched surface of the river.  If it is evening, and a more secluded watershed, perhaps  a deer will be nibbling on tree leaves, ghosting the end of the day, marking it in my memory for all time.

Boating excursions from St. Michael’s area and beyond:

arial photo of Poplar Island in Chesapeake Bay, Md.

Poplar Island Restoration

During the 1930s, Pres. Roosevelt, (Franklin D.) visited the hunter’s clubhouse on the four-mile spit of land as  a nearby weekend retreat.   The name honors the poplar trees on the island.  The island has been undergoing restoration for years.  Dredged material has restored the island nearly to the perimeters of 1847.

South Marsh Island in Tangier Sound is under the  Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife & Heritage Service.

Smith Island, Maryland is famous for its cake.  That’s right, Smith Island Cake is like none other.  The locals serve a mean crab cake too. Board the ferry at Crisfield, Md.

Tilghman  Island, Maryland offers the easy going Bay lifestyle with rental apartments for weekenders from Edge City urban areas.

Tangier Sound – If you’re out kayaking on this water, seek local information about currents and tides.  Bear in mind there are rip currents both ways and possibly, motor boats piloted by well-oiled weekend day-sailors with impaired vision for kayakers ahead.

Watts Island off Tangier Island, Virginia might be too isolated for kayaking excursions.

Watch for mid to late afternoon winds which churn up the water and make paddling a strenous activity.  Keep your eye on shoreline landmarks such as towers or buildings to measure your progress.  If you’re not moving forward, make a new heading, possibly angling to shore.  You can’t beat wind force + currents with mere muscle.

Kayak memories are soft.  The sun at day’s end, the moon on black water, reeds rustling, nutria and muskrats scurrying away. Fish slapping the water surface with a force that can only be interpreted as glee when they realize that long shark-like creature isn’t a predator.

Resources:

Maryland Online Boating Access Guide

Chesapeake Bay Foundation boating trips

Virginia Tourism on the Chesapeake Bay

Written by patwa

15/05/2013 at 2:32 pm

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