Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tredegar Ironworks and the Confederate White House

When we were planning our time in Richmond, I put visiting the Confederate White House on "the list." I'd toured it years (and years) ago, but wanted to see it again -- I love old houses, and an old house with some history attached is like icing on the cake. The Museum of the Confederacy is co-located with the Confederate White House, so it made sense to tour that as well.

When we were on a segway tour of historic Richmond, I learned about the Tredegar Ironworks, so I'd put that on my list to visit if we could find time.

After we toured the Museum of the Confederacy, we started talking with one of the docents, and that led to us heading down immediately to the Tredegar Ironworks, which explores the Civil War in Richmond, and the American Civil War Museum, which is co-located with Tredegar Ironworks, and explores the causes of the Civil War, how the Civil War impacted our national culture, and how the Civil War impacted various groups -- from slaves to freed blacks and black soldiers to the women left behind; the latter two museums are also located next to each other and share the same parking lot.

Doing all four museums on one day makes sense: They flow from one to the other. And it makes sense to do them in the order that we accidentally did: Touring the Museum of the Confederacy first gives you some background to appreciate Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and then you enter his home, the Confederate White House. From there, it helped us to step back and examine the Civil War writ large -- rarely is that an option when touring various Civil War battlefields -- and then focus back onto the Civil War in Richmond. Unfortunately, we didn't get time to get to the Richmond-area battlefields, so we'll be down to visit Richmond again!

The Museum of the Confederacy is one of those static museums, with artifacts in display cases, so not the most engaging, although it's cool to see some of the items. The Museum of the Confederacy owns the world’s most comprehensive collection of artifacts and documents related to the Confederate States of America, in total more than 130,000 items. A vast majority of those items were donated directly from the soldiers and families who lived through America’s most defining era. It's interesting because some of the artifacts were interesting -- General Lee's iconic hat (which I tried to imagine him holding it and then putting on), a doll that had been used to smuggle in medicines to the South, among others. Unless you like to read every word of every label, 45 to 60 minutes is enough for this museum.

The Confederate White House from the rear, in the court yard where
Varina Davis would often have tea parties for Confederate soldiers.
Photo from Museum of the Confederacy

The Museum of the Confederacy traces its origins to the years immediately after the Civil War. Its ancestral organization was the Ladies Hollywood Memorial Association (LHMA), which formed in 1866 to tend Confederate soldiers’ graves in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. In 1890, the LHMA rescued from proposed demolition the former Confederate executive mansion and turned it into a museum that opened in 1896.

I'd known all along that Southern views of the Civil War differ somewhat from mine, and had braced myself to deal with hearing the Civil War be called the "war of Northern aggression." I actually heard less of this name than the surprising third moniker for this great conflict: The Second Revolutionary War. But it makes sense that this was how the conflict was viewed, because it allows the Confederate States to continue to claim the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as its founding fathers. Viewing the Civil War through the lens of revolution enabled them to neatly side-step around treason (my personal opinion) and still venerate the Revolutionary War heroes.

Then we headed next door to the Confederate White House, the restored house that served as the executive mansion for President Jefferson Davis and his family during the war. Sadly, this mansion and the museum are overshadowed by the medical center buildings that loom over them.

Jefferson Davis, his wife, and children lived here from August 1861 until April 1865; this elegant antebellum house has been carefully restored to its wartime appearance, featuring all period artifacts placed around to make it look as if the Davis family had just left the room -- although not all the items were actually owned or used by the Davis family, they are accurate to Richmond during the Civil War. The period rooms feature Rococo-revival furniture, flocked wallpaper, silk upholstery, and Brussels carpeting. Robert E. Lee was a frequent visitor to the mansion, and Abraham Lincoln made a brief visit after the fall of Richmond.

The gray-stuccoed mansion has stood at the corner of 12th and Clay Streets in the historic Court End neighborhood since 1818. Home to a succession of wealthy families throughout the antebellum period, the mansion became the social, political, and military center of the Confederacy. While touring the mansion you learn not just about the period decorations, but also about Jefferson Davis's personal history.

Photo from Museum of the Confederacy
He was more than "just" the president of the Confederate States of America, I learned. After the tour, I came out understanding his standing in the annals of American history -- yes, still a traitor, in my view, because although he didn't advocate seceding from the Union, once his state did, he was loyal to his state (although not the Union) and fought against the United States of America. But like many others of his time, he was a complicated man.

Before the Civil War, he served his country well. Davis was born in Kentucky to a moderately prosperous farmer and grew up on his brother's large cotton plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. After he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served 6 years as a lieutenant in the Army and fought in the Mexican–American War as the colonel of a volunteer regiment. He served as the Secretary of War under Democratic President Franklin Pierce (the knowledge he gained from that position undoubtedly helped the Confederacy as the states began seceding from the Union). He also served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Mississippi. An operator of a large cotton plantation in Mississippi with more 100 slaves, he was well known for his support of slavery in the Senate. He argued against secession, but did agree that each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union. When Mississippi seceded, he withdrew his loyalty to the United States of America. He expected to be tapped to serve the Confederacy somehow, perhaps as a general. Instead, he was offered the presidency, much to his own surprise.

Where the North lacked in generalship, Lincoln made up for in leadership. Although the South arguably had the better generals, Davis proved to be a weak leader, and many historians attribute the Confederacy's weaknesses to his poor leadership. His preoccupation with detail, reluctance to delegate responsibility, lack of popular appeal, feuds with powerful state governors, favoritism toward old friends, inability to get along with people who disagreed with him, neglect of civil matters in favor of military ones, and resistance to public opinion all worked against him, and ultimately, was the undoing of the Confederacy. It's a rare leader that can rise above all those challenges. He was largely vilified during the years of the Civil War, which was ironic considering the veneration he's offered even now (see the recent post on Hollywood Cemetery).

After Davis was captured in 1865, he was accused of but not tried for treason and was released after 2 years. Davis wrote a memoir entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which he completed in 1881 and which helped restore his reputation. By the late 1880s, he began to encourage reconciliation, telling Southerners to be loyal to the Union. Yes, Jefferson Davis is an interesting figure.

From there, we headed over to the American Civil War Museum and the Tredegar Ironworks. The Tredegar site contains five surviving buildings illustrating the Iron Works era and focuses on the impact of the Civil War on Richmond. It's an interesting, although sparse, 30 minutes. I'm not sure how, but this is one museum that I wanted more from. The National Park Service operates the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center located in the restored Pattern Building.

The American Civil War Museum claims to be the first museum dedicated to interpreting the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives. As you walk around the exhibits, you first explore the causes of the conflict, asking and trying out answers to questions like how did we get to that point? Was war inevitable? What were the soldiers on the field of battle really fighting about? One exhibit explored perspectives state by state. Then the exhibits move to exploring different perspectives during the war itself. Finally, the conflict's legacy is explored, including the Reconstruction Era and the lives of former Confederates.

This was a museum that invites thought. Most of the exhibits were presentations of different thoughts and views, rather than a collection of artifacts.

Getting there: Museum of the Confederacy and Confederate White House are located at 1201 E Clay St, Richmond, VA 23219; American Civil War Museum and Tredegar Ironworks are located at 500 Tredegar St, Richmond, VA 23219.

Hours: Museum of the Confederacy: daily, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; American Civil War Museum: Monday - Sunday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Websites: Museum of the Confederacy and Confederate White House; the American Civil War Museum

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Behind the Tredegar Ironworks is this touching statue of Lincoln and
his young son who accompanied him to Richmond just after its fall.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Back to Blackwater Falls

Canaan Valley draws us frequently. We've been going up there as a family for almost a decade. It is, frankly, one of my favorite places, and I usually find a weekend or two every year to go back and visit, maybe go on a hike or two, or three. I almost always take time to go up to Bear Rocks in Dolly Sods.

But this time we headed up to Canaan Valley as a long -- very long -- day trip. My son needed driving experience and the combination of highway and country road complimented his needed experience to a T. The plan for the day was to drive up, see Blackwater Falls -- we always enjoy the roar and the drama of the falls as it tumbles into the gorge. Dolly Sods would have to wait for another trip.

With recent rains swelling the Blackwater River, we were not disappointed!

Blackwater Falls State Park, obviously, is named for the falls of the Blackwater River, whose amber-colored waters plunge five stories before twisting and tumbling through an eight-mile long gorge.

The falls are one of the most photographed sites in West Virginia.

So why "blackwater"? The "black" water is a result of tannic acid from fallen hemlock and red spruce needles.

You'll get a little work out if you visit the falls. To see the falls overlook, you travel down 219 stairs -- that's about 20 flights. But otherwise, the walk is short, and along the way you get several dramatic views of the falls from different vantages.

The falls in September 2012.
The water falls varies dramatically depending on the seasons and recent rain falls. I have seen the falls in the drought of summer, when a wispy little ribbon spills over the rim. And I've seen the falls in early April, with snow still on the steps and snow melt flooding the gorge (although the lower set of stairs were closed -- covered in snow and a flooded gorge made them too dangerous for sightseers). This time, the falls raged with rain from recent summer storms.

The falls July 13, 2011.
The nearby towns of Thomas and Davis are home to a couple of craft stores and art boutiques, as well as a few cafes. We headed into Davis for lunch. Davis offers a couple of little cafes -- notably Hellbender Burrito, a dive of a place but a favorite of my kids. Sometimes we grab subs at Subway, a little further down Route 32 South from Davis (about halfway to the Canaan Valley Resort State Park.

On the way home, we passed by signs for the Fairfax Stone. I've passed by the Fairfax Stone signs for almost 10 years, and have always wanted to stop to take a look. This time I decided to go have a look see. My son wondered, "Are we really going looking for a rock?"

Fairfax Stone Historical Monument State Park is a state park commemorating the Fairfax Stone, a surveyor's marker and boundary stone at the source of the North Branch of the Potomac River in West Virginia. 

The original stone was placed on October 23, 1746 to settle a boundary dispute between Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron and the English Privy Council concerning the Northern Neck Land Grant, or the "Fairfax Grant," of Virginia. It determined the proprietorship and boundaries of a large tract of mostly unsurveyed land, back when Maryland and Virginia were still colonies.

The exact boundaries of the "Northern Neck Land Grant" (later called the "Fairfax Grant") had been undetermined since it was first contrived in 1649 by the then-exiled King Charles II. John Savage and his survey party had located the site of the source of the North Branch of the Potomac River (the northern boundary of the tract) in 1736, but had made no attempt to establish the western boundaries.

But the Fairfax Stone doesn't mark the border with Maryland, interestingly enough. Trivia alert: The North Branch of the Potomac River initially heads west from its source at the Fairfax Stone before curving north and then generally flowing east toward Chesapeake Bay. For this reason, the Stone is only a county corner of West Virginia counties rather than part of the state's border with Maryland, an issue that was only resolved when the Supreme Court ruled against Maryland in 1910 in determining that Maryland would only go westward up the Potomac far enough to meet a point where a line north from the Fairfax Stone would cross that branch of the Potomac.

I admit, the Fairfax Stone comes under the category of "we saw it so you don't have to." It's a stone, with a copper plaque embedded in it. Below it, a dribble of water oozes from the ground, more mud than water, from whence springs the mighty Potomac River, supposedly, or at least, the North Branch. I dabbed my fingers in it -- not sure why, except to have touched the Potomac waters before it becomes the Potomac. My son stayed in the car.... some days he hates this blog. 

Tip #1: Skip the Fairfax Stone.

Tip#2: Go check out Dolly Sods or Canaan Valley Resort State Park instead.

Getting there: Blackwater Falls is located at 1584 Blackwater Lodge Road, Davis, WV 26260

Hours: Dawn to dusk.

Dogs: Absolutely! Dogs love walks and hikes!


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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blackwater Wildlife Refuge

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located 12 miles south of Cambridge, includes more than 28,000 acres of rich tidal marsh, mixed hardwood and loblolly pine forests, managed freshwater wetlands and farmland. The various habitats of Blackwater promote a diversity of wildlife that change in numbers and species with each season.

We were there on a cloudy day, with rain threatening the entire time. There's an eerie, lonely beauty to the refuge, reminiscent (to me, at least) of Dolly Sods Wilderness, although I don't think the refuge has suffered all the indignities the Sods has.

We were there the first weekend in August, so the vast flocks of snow geese, which we saw when we visited Bombay Hook NWR most recently, were happily summering elsewhere. Instead, there were dragonflies and summer blooms. If you drive through the refuge, make a point of getting out of your vehicle to walk along the road and see the refuge more slowly.

In fact, the best time to view waterfowl is November through February. The refuge serves as an important resting and feeding area for migrating and wintering waterfowl and is one of the chief wintering areas for Canada geese using the Atlantic flyway (although Canada geese seem to have no problem wintering in Ellicott City, I've noticed). Other wintering species includes tundra swans, snow geese, and more than 20 duck species, including the ubiquitous mallards, blue- and green-winged teals, wigeon, wood ducks, shovelers, mergansers, and pintails. Such interesting names these ducks have! Mallards and wood ducks can be found in the refuge all year long.

You'll also be likely to spot great blue heron and possibly bald eagle as well. The refuge supports one of the highest concentrations of nesting bald eagles on the Atlantic Coast. We saw numerous heron and white egrets while we were there, and osprey and bald eagles from a distance (unfortunately I'd left my zoom lens home).

Numerous marsh and shorebirds arrive in the spring and fall, searching for food in the vast mudflats and shallow waters of the Blackwater River. Ospreys are common. Moving over to the woodlands, you have a chance of spotting owls, towhees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, woodcock and even wild turkey. While we were there we were entertained by a red-headed woodpecker, who flitted from tree to tree, teasing us with different poses.

If you're lucky, you'll get a glimpse
of the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel, an endangered species. There's also otter, rabbits, opossums, skunks, red fox, sika deer and the more common white-tailed deer.

When is the best time to see the refuge? When I asked the volunteer behind the desk at the Visitor's Center, she wittily responded, "Depends." And upon further investigation and with the help of a brochure from the Visitor's Center, I realized she's right. Just about every month offers something new --  the refuge inhabitants are constantly changing.

In case you're considering planning a trip -- the information below may be helpful. I admit, I shamelessly cribbed it from the brochure published by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, "Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge."

In January you can expect to see geese, swans, and ducks, along with hawks, herons, and a few species of shorebirds. Golden eagles are often observed, and bald eagles may be beginning to rebuild their nests high in the loblolly pine trees.

The first northward bound migrants appear late in February: killdeer, robins and bluebirds. Wintering waterfowl are preparing for the long flight north through intense foraging.

By March, most migratory waterfowl depart for points north. Masses of red-winged blackbirds pass through, although some remain to nest. Osprey return from southern wintering grounds and begin constructing nests. Young bald eagle eggs begin to hatch, which you can see from an eagle cam in the Visitor's Center.

The majority of migrant marsh birds return by mid-April. Blue-winged and green-winged teal pass through. Osprey, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite all begin to nest. Peak shorebird migration occurs in late April to early May.

Migratory songbirds also peak in late April and early May, with warblers being most conspicuous and abundant. White-tailed deer fawns start appearing and eaglets start to fledge. The first broods of waterfowl appear.

Ospreys begin to hatch in June and young waterfowl begin to fly. Songbirds begin to nest. Oh -- and large concentrations of flies and mosquitoes are in the marsh and woods (so be prepared).

These large quantities of insects are consumed by swallows, kingbirds, and flycatchers in July. The conspicuous marsh hibiscus begins to bloom along marsh edges by the end of the month, and osprey young leave the nest.

In August, the wading birds increase, and blue-winged teal -- always the last to leave and first to arrive -- start appearing en route on their southward migration.

By September, ospreys migrate to South and Central America but the waterfowl gradually increase. Egrets and herons accumulate until cold weather pushes them south. Tickseed sunflowers bloom. Songbird migration peaks in late September and early October. If you like amphibians, then you'll be glad to know that toads are abundant then as well!

In October, autumn colors peak. Blackbirds, the last of the songbirds to migrate, peak in October and November. Abundance of ducks and geese gradually increase, although peak times vary from year to year. Tundra swans usually arrive by early November and several hundred remain there throughout the winter. By December, bald eagle numbers increase with the arrival of migrants from the north, and golden eagles are occasionally seen as well.

Tip #1: Rent bikes or kayaks from Blackwater Peddle and Paddle, or bring your own. You can get a map from the Visitor's Center that provides routes for biking and kayaking.

Tip #2: While we were in Cambridge, a local resident mentioned that there's a very nice 25-mile bike ride around the refuge. From the Visitor's Center parking lot, turn left onto Key Wallace Road. Turn left onto Rt 335, then another left onto Rt 336. Take another left onto Maple Dam Road, follow it to Key Wallace Road, where you'll turn left again. Follow that back to the Visitor's Center. I haven't biked this yet, but it's on my list for this fall. Maps of the area are available from the Dorchester County Visitor's Center, just off of Maryland Avenue after you cross the Choptank River bridge on Rt. 50 (if you're coming from the Bay Bridge).

Getting there: The Blackwater NWF is located at 2145 Key Wallace Road, Cambridge, MD; entrance fee to Wildlife Drive required.

Hours: The Visitor's Center is open 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday - Friday; 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Saturday - Sunday. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. The wildlife drive and outdoor facilities are open daily, dawn to dusk, year round.


Updated May 2018.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Often Overlooked, Cambridge, MD Is Worth Stopping For

If you're like me, you have driven past Cambridge dozens of times, on your way to some place else -- usually Ocean City, Assateague Island, or even Chincoteague Island.

But Cambridge isn't just the fast food joints, gas stations, big box stores, and chain restaurants you see from Rt 50 -- there's a quaint little riverside town hiding back there. There are beautiful Victorian homes (some haunted, of course), boutiques to browse, and restaurants worthy of being called destination restaurants.

Don't you think it's time to take that turn off of Rt 50 onto Maryland Avenue, to discover a quaint Eastern Shore town on the southern bank of the Choptank River still in touch with its heritage?

Settled by English colonists in 1684, Cambridge is one of the oldest colonial cities in Maryland. At the time of English colonization, the Algonquian-speaking Choptank Indians were already living along the river. During the colonial years, the English colonists developed farming on the Eastern Shore. The largest plantations were devoted first to tobacco, and then mixed farming; numerous slaves worked the plantations and farms, although less labor was needed for mixed farming.

While five Maryland governors called Cambridge home, Harriet Tubman ran from Cambridge, seeking her freedom farther north. But she returned again and again, ushering her family members and others to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

We learned all this for ourselves a couple weekends ago, when we spent the weekend exploring Dorchester County. With skipjack tours, kayaking, the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge... there's a lot to do in Dorchester! We only scratched the surface though, as we learned about kayaking and biking opportunities that I'd like to do in the future. If you're unsure what Dorchester County and Cambridge offers, be sure to check out the Visitor's Center, just off Maryland Avenue. They'll give you some hints there!

Lovely sculpture along the Choptank River, next to the Dorchester County Visitors Center.

We started our day with a stop for coffee and breakfast at Elliotts Bakery, which was bustling at 8 a.m. Although labeled a bakery, Elliotts serves coffee, biscuits and bagels, as well as pastries. And if you don't make it there in time for breakfast, Elliotts also offers a modest lunch menu of either cold sandwiches or hot paninis. Treat yourself to a flavored coffee, or try one of the regular coffees. Or just stop by for a tasty slice of cheesecake (their specialty). From there we headed over to the Long Wharf to check out the Choptank Lighthouse. 

The Choptank River Lighthouse once stood between Castle Haven and Benoni Points on the Choptank River, near the mouth of the Tred Avon River. The first light at that location was built in 1871, replacing a lightship which was stationed there the previous year. Winters were hard, and ice often piled up, first tilting the lighthouse in 1881, and then destroying it completely in 1918. Plans were made to rebuild, but instead the Cherrystone Bar Light, which had been deactivated in 1919 was moved by barge and placed on a new six pile foundation in 1921, making the new light the only working lighthouse to be moved from one location to another in the bay.

This light lasted until 1964, when the house was dismantled as part of the general program of eliminating such lights. A replica of the second Choptank River Lighthouse was built on the waterfront at Long Wharf in 2012. So although not the original, the replica lighthouse provides a nice idea how ... cozy, shall we say, these lighthouses often were.

A great way to learn a little about Cambridge's history is to go on the historical walk, which leaves from the Long Wharf. The City of Cambridge is one of the oldest towns in Maryland dating back to 1684. In 1986, a group of citizens organized an effort to recognize and preserve Cambridge's rich architectural heritage. Their work resulted in the listing of the Cambridge Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

We joined up with Marjory, the tour guide for hour-long Walking Tour of Historic High Street. The tour slowly moves up High Street, discussing the Victorian-era houses and the people who lived in them in the 1700s and 1800s, including several Maryland governors -- the two Goldsboroughs (Charles and Thomas Alan) being the most notable. You'll hear about the house that's moved twice, and see authentic slave quarters. You also get to hear a little about sharpshooter Annie Oakley and the few years she lived in Cambridge in the early 1900s.

After the tour there's several interesting places nearby to grab a bite to eat -- Elliotts offers simple sandwiches, but if you enjoy gourmet cheeses, then do like we did, and head over to A Few of My Favorite Things Winebar. Try a simple melted cheese sandwich with a glass of wine. Then purchase some chocolate for later!

Athough we didn't get a chance to visit it, the Richardson Maritime Museum received some good reviews from folks we chatted with while aboard the Nathan of Dorchester skipjack (which I wrote about last week). Interestingly, the museum also has an old boatworks facility, where restoration of historic/antique/old boats is underway.

Cambridge has several bed and breakfasts right in town, but just off of Rt 50 is the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, which provides a "complete resort experience" -- and offers a pleasant place to relax for a night -- or more. The resort stretches across two miles of waterfront property with breathtaking views of the Choptank River. The facilities are lovely, and the rooms very comfortable. We were placed in a corner room, with windows on two sides, and the balcony providing a direct view to the river.

If you stay there, you have lots of options: swim in the pool, dip your toes into the Choptank River, go golfing, take a bike ride around the resort, go paddleboarding or kayaking... or just walking around the resort is lovely, with views of the wetlands as well as the river itself. Blackwater Peddle and Paddle rents bikes, paddleboards, kayaks, and more right at the resort. As we meandered around the paths, we encountered deer and several herons, who stayed just far enough away to prevent me from taking a decent photo!

Although the resort offers several excellent restaurants, Cambridge also has several noteworthy restaurants right in town, including Jimmies and Sooks. With a name like that, you know it's got to specialize in crab dishes, and it does.

We got to try the crab imperial, the fried shrimp, the crab cake, but best of all, Chef Kelso's Crab Napoleon -- a signature dish of crab imperial layered with fried green tomatoes and crisped in the oven. Amazing. We also tried Kelso's Shrimp & Grits, sauteed jumbo shrimp, green onions and bacon in a light cream sauce over Southern-style stone ground grits. A Northerner by birth, I became a honorary Southerner when I tried those grits!

For those with allergies or sensitivities to gluten, Jimmies and Sooks also offers a number of gluten-free main dishes (including the Kelso's Shrimp & Grits). Main dishes range in price from $13 to $32; also on the menu are sandwiches such as the Sook Chicken, a grilled chicken topped with crab imperial and served on a toasted roll.

Getting there: 
  • The Visitor's Center is at 2 Rosehill Pl; 
  • the Walking Tour of Historic High Street begins at Long Wharf (foot of High Street). 
  • Elliotts Bakery is located at 429 Race Street; 
  • A Few of My Favorite Things is at 414 Race St; and 
  • Jimmies and Sooks is at 527 Poplar Street (in fact they're within a block or two of each other). 
  • The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay is located at 100 Heron Blvd.
  • Richardson Maritime Museum is located at 401 High St.
  • The Visitor's Center is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 
  • the Walking Tour takes place every Saturday at 11 a.m., April through October, weather permitting (call Begin at Long Wharf (foot of High Street), call 410-901-1000.
  • Richardson Maritime Museum is open Wednesdays and Saturdays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dogs: I was surprised to learn that the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay is dog-friendly, although it makes sense since they have a marina. Although we didn't see any dogs while we were there -- it's nice to know!

Visitor Center:
Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay:
Richardson Maritime Museum:

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Living History: Sailing on a Skipjack

This is NOT the Nathan of Dorchester skipjack, but another one, name unknown, which we saw on our recent daytrip on the Passage to Five Lighthouses Tour. 
The skipjack is a traditional fishing boat used on Chesapeake Bay for oyster dredging and was the predominant oystering boat in the Bay -- there used to be thousands of these boats working the oyster beds -- so it was a real treat to get to see one sailing near Tilghman Island one day last June. Although that way of life is fast disappearing, some of the boats that still sail today also provide tours for the public. And how cool is it to take a ride on a real, honest to goodness working skipjack?!!

There used to be 2000 skipjacks sailing on the Chesapeake Bay; today, there's about 40, with less than half of them actively oystering (is that a word?). Many provide tours similar to those run by the Nathan of Dorchester. Unfortunately, as the productivity of the oyster beds continues to decline, so does the likelihood that we'll continue to see these nimble sailboats on the Bay. Because of its central role in Maryland history, the skipjack was designated the state boat of Maryland in 1985.

You can't live near or visit the Bay without trying some of the food that the Bay is famous for: blue crabs, clams, and of course, oysters. Even as late as the 1950s, the Bay supported 9,000 full-time watermen -- now, not so much, thanks to runoff from urban areas and farms, over-harvesting, and invasion of foreign species.

Oysters are at the center of Chesapeake Bay history, as well as that of the Maryland skipjacks.

The plentiful oyster harvests of the 1800s led to the
development of the skipjack, which, by the way, is the only remaining working boat type in the United States still under sail power (a nugget for you trivia fans). These sailboats remain in service due to laws restricting the use of powerboats in the Maryland state oyster fishery.

During the 2-hour tour on the Nathan of Dorchester, the crew demonstrated dredging for oysters. When the yield came up, they tallied the number of live clams (about 10, a third of a bushel) as part of a research study, then carefully retraced the boat's path to return the live oysters to their homes at the bottom of the Bay.

While the Bay's salinity is ideal for oysters, the last 50 years has devastated the remaining population. Maryland once had roughly 200,000 acres of oyster reefs. Today it has less than 36,000.

Although the primary problem is over-harvesting, which has made it difficult for them to reproduce, the drastic increase in human population all around the Bay has caused a corresponding sharp increase in pollution flowing into the Bay. (And still Maryland and Virginia find it difficult to enact meaningful legislation that will help the Bay.)

The depletion of oysters has had a particularly harmful effect on the quality of the bay. Oysters serve as natural water filters, and their decline has further reduced the water quality of the bay. It has been estimated that in precolonial times, oysters could filter the entirety of the bay in just over 3 days; now it takes close to a year. Imagine being able to look down into the water and see the bottom!

The decline of the wild oyster beds is one reason why remaining skipjacks are turning to the tourism industry to help make ends meet. And that's even more reason to go on a skipjack tour, although quite honestly, any excuse to get out on the Chesapeake Bay -- or in our case last weekend, the Choptank River -- will do). Although oyster season is in months with an R (with the exception of April, I believe), warm weather rides still give you a glimpse into the what it was like to dredge oyster beds aboard a skipjack. And, it's just lovely to move across the water, silently, under the billowing sails.

The good news is that there are dedicated individuals and organizations determined to keep these boats and a core aspect of Maryland history alive. Several skipjacks, like Caleb W. Jones, Rosie Parks, and Ida May, have been restored in recent years and are again sailing the Bay. Others are currently undergoing major restoration or repairs, including Kathryn, Helen Virginia, and Martha Lewis. Helping support these boats will help keep some Chesapeake Bay history alive.

The Nathan of Dorchester was built by volunteers and launched 20 years ago, on the July 4, 1994. She is the youngest of the Bay's skipjacks -- and probably the last to be built -- and still is owned, operated, crewed, and maintained by the nonprofit Dorchester Skipjack Committee's volunteers.

The original idea had been to restore
an historic skipjack. After making a search of some of the old skipjack ports, many old derelicts were found. None seemed worthy of reconstruction, and the better maintained boats were not for sale.

So they decided to build a new skipjack, using hardware salvaged from older boats -- fitting for a skipjack serving as a goodwill ambassador. The winders that were originally on the Nathan’s deck were from Nellie Byrd, built in 1911, as were some of the rigging blocks. The davits and dredge rollers came from Susan May, built at Oriole, MD, in 1901. The windlass is from the Clarence Crockett, built at Deep Creek, VA, in 1908. The wheel and gear box came from Wilma Lee, built at Wingate, MD, in 1940.

Designed by Harold Ruark along the lines of a previous family-built and -operated skipjack, Oregon, she is a medium-sized dredge boat capable of harvesting and carrying about 200 bushels of oysters.

Captain Robert “Bobby” Ruark, a lifelong Dorchester County waterman and boatwright, directed the construction of Nathan at Generation III marina at the head of Cambridge Creek. She was built only a few hundred yards from where the first Dorchester skipjack, Eva, was built more than 90 years earlier.

Ruark is a venerable name among boatwrights -- in fact, in Cambridge there is the Ruark Boatworks, named after Harold, where restoration and demonstrations are still held. 

Tip #1: Visit local Cambridge boutique "A Few of My Favorite Things Winebar," owned by Carol and Joe Ruark (the grandson and son, respectively of Harold and Bobby). This "gift and gourmet" shop and winebar offers wines, chocolate, and cheese, as well as upscale gifts. Stop by for a quick lunch before boarding the Nathan of Dorchester: I recommend either the Drunken Goat Cheese Sandwich (try it with prosciutto) and the Gouda Cheese Sandwich -- both delicious! While you're there -- enjoy a glass or two of wine as well!

Tip #2: There is an interesting podcast by Stuff You Missed in History Class about the Oyster Wars, a series of sometimes violent disputes between oyster pirates and authorities and watermen from Maryland and Virginia in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River from 1865 until about 1959. Check it out at

Getting there: The Nathan's regularly scheduled public sails depart from Long Wharf, at the end of High Street, in Cambridge.

Hours: The Nathan's public sailing season runs from May through October, Saturdays and some Sundays at 1 p.m. The Ruark Boatworks may be toured through the Richardson Maritime Museum in Cambridge, which is open Wednesdays and Saturdays 1 - 4 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

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Much thanks to Choptank Communications, which arranged the tour on the Nathan of Dorchester and the visit to A Few of My Favorite Things.