Paddlers travel on the Potomac River where it meets the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Described by Thomas Jefferson as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” the town offers views of three states: West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
This scenic spot offers not only boundless natural beauty, but a rich piece of national history. The town was named for Robert Harper, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who in 1747 was sent to erect a mission house in the Shenandoah Valley. On his way, he passed through “The Hole”—the gap in the mountains where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. He recognized the value of the site for water power and transportation, purchased 126 acres of land at the site, then established a mill and began operating a ferry across the Potomac.
In 1799, construction began on the Harpers Ferry Armory, which produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols before 1859, when one of the most famous events in Harpers Ferry history—and indeed, United States history—occurred. Abolitionist activist John Brown and 21 companions led a raid on the armory, hoping to seize weapons from the warehouse to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The attempted takeover of the armory was unsuccessful, however, and the event stoked the already tense relationship between the North and South, ultimately hastening the onset of the Civil War.
Today, the town is home to a national historic park where visitors can explore the historic town, visit museums and battlefields or hike the nearby mountains. It’s also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and is known to hikers as the “psychological halfway point” of the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail.
Image by Will Parson
Polaris, also known as the North Star, appears stationary above the horizon of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Harriet Tubman, who grew up near the refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, used Polaris as her guiding light as she and other escaped slaves fled north on the Underground Railroad, a path forged by freedom-seeking slaves and abolitionists in the 19th century.
On their journeys, Tubman and others fleeing to Canada could rely on several natural signs to point them northward: moss grows on the north side of trees, migrating birds fly north in the summer and Polaris always points north. Over the course of a decade, Tubman risked her life on more than a dozen trips back to Maryland to transport her parents, brothers, family members and friends to freedom.
As the birthplace of Tubman, the Eastern Shore of Maryland holds a rich history in its expansive farm fields, settlements and wetlands that nestle into the crooks and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Along the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which winds through Caroline and Dorchester Counties, visitors can stop at more than 30 sites that tell the story of Tubman’s pathway to freedom, where she lived, worked and fought to free herself and countless others.
Image by Will Parson
At 464 miles in length, the Susquehanna River is the largest in the region and supplies the Bay with about half of its fresh water. This mighty river crosses three state borders, beginning in upstate New York, snaking its way through Pennsylvania and ultimately emptying into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. But while the Susquehanna’s most northern point is in New York, a large branch of the river goes as far west as Blair County, Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River has an incredibly wide reach, flowing past thousands of acres of beautiful scenery and countless numbers of towns with their own unique history and culture. Whether you’ve lived by the river your whole live or are visiting it for the first time, take a trip down the Susquehanna—and through the Chesapeake region—by exploring these seven spots.
1. Glimmerglass State Park
Glimmerglass State Park offers the chance to experience the Susquehanna River where it begins, just outside of Cooperstown, New York, at Otsego Lake. The park features a trail with views of the lake as well as the self-guided Beaver Pond Nature Trail. Also located in the park is the Hyde Hall Mansion, a National Historic Landmark that’s open for tours from May through October.
2. Roberson Museum and Science Center
Follow the river south to Binghamton, New York, and stop in at Roberson Museum and Science Center. Housed in the Roberson Mansion, the museum features art, local history, science and natural history exhibits. Along with its exhibits, the museum is home to a large model train display—one of the largest in the region—depicting Binghamton and the surrounding landscape.
3. Susquehanna River Water Trail
What better way to see the Susquehanna River than by getting out on it? Experience the river first-hand on the Susquehanna River Water Trail. Consisting of four separate sections—the North Branch, West Branch, Middle Section and Lower Section—the water trail covers all of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Susquehanna River and its western branch, totaling over 500 miles. Complete the North, Middle and Lower sections and you can be a member of the elite 444 Club!
4. Shikellamy State Park
Get a glimpse of the river’s confluence—where the west branch and north branch combine into a single stem—at Shikellamy State Park. Consisting of two separate areas, a marina located on an island at the beginning of the north branch and an overlook on the west side of the west branch, Shikellamy offers a unique view of the confluence of hundreds of miles of river.
5. Sproul State Forest
Explore the Susquehanna’s west branch by visiting Sproul State Forest. Covering over 467 square miles, Sproul is the largest state forest in Pennsylvania, with plenty of space for picnicking, hunting, fishing, boating, camping and trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and ATVs.
6. Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art
Continue down the Susquehanna River to Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and stop into nature and art museum named after hometown artist, naturalist and writer, Ned Smith. The museum, featuring the artist’s work as well as rotating exhibits, sits on over 500 acres of land that contain 12 miles of trails as well as views of the Susquehanna River.
7. Susquehanna Museum
End your trip down the river at the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland. There you can visit the Susquehanna Museum, located in a building that originally served as the lock house for the Tidewater Canal. The canal spanned the 45 miles between Havre de Grace and Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, creating a link for easy trade among central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The restored lock house now serves as a museum telling the history of the canal and Havre de Grace.
What’s your favorite spot along the Susquehanna River? Tell us in the comments!
On August 25th, the National Park Service will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, commemorating a century of stewardship, recreation and land conservation. Looking for a way to celebrate? Across the country, you can make use of “fee-free days”—free admission to all National Park Service sites—from August 25th through 28th. Or you can check out one of the many National Park Service Centennial events happening at parks, battlefields and historic sites across the Chesapeake Bay region, such as the ones listed below.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year is the nation’s first water-based national historic trail, a nearly-3,000 mile trail that follows the combined routes of Captain John Smith’s historic voyages on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
On August 25th, both the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail (NHT) and Star-Spangled Banner NHT will be staffing an informational booth at the city dock in downtown Annapolis, Maryland.
On August 27th, a Visitor Contact Station for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT will officially launch at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. The celebration will include programs and activities for all ages, including a birthday cake.
Nicknamed “America’s front yard,” the National Mall is the most visited national park in the country. The National Mall and Memorial Parks consist of nearly 1,000 acres throughout Washington, D.C., including sites located off of the mall itself.
On August 27th, the National Park Service will be hosting a family fun day at Constitution Gardens, feature live music, storytelling, face painting and other activities. Exhibits will include Lego models of national parks, virtual reality park tours and more.
An 800-acre park located just 15 miles from Washington, D.C., Great Falls Park follows the banks of the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia. The northern boundary of the park is home to the Great Falls—a series of rapids and waterfalls that make the site a popular kayaking and whitewater rafting destination.
On August 27, the park will be celebrating both the Centennial and its own 50th anniversary with a night under the stars, including a performance by the Loudoun Jazz Ensemble and a movie screening.
Managed by the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture in cooperation with the National Park Service and Montgomery County, Glen Echo Park is a cultural resource full of visual and performing arts, educational offerings and historic buildings.
On August 27, the park will be celebrating one hundred years of the National Park Service with a day full of events: a performance by the U.S. Army Band, National Park Service history lessons, face painting, historical reenactors and more.
For nearly 100 years, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal provided communities along the Potomac River with coal, lumber and agricultural products. The nearly 185-mile waterway—which extends from Cumberland, Maryland, to Georgetown, Washington, D.C.—served as the primary means of transporting coal from the Allegheny Mountains during its operation from 1831 to 1924. Today, a towpath trail follows the length of the canal, allowing visitors to hike and bike along the scenic route.
On August 25th, the park’s Centennial celebrations will include a birthday card, cake and ice cream. The first 60 participants will receive a free boat ride along the canal, and visitors can hear a program about the legacy of the National Park Service or see a C&O Canal fashion show.
Located where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park includes land in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. Its nearly 4,000 acres are make up what Thomas Jefferson once called “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” after visiting the area in 1783.
On August 25th, Harpers Ferry will be hosting a Founders’ Day Naturalization Ceremony, commemorating the Centennial with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service naturalization ceremony featuring guest speakers, music and reception.
Located in Adams County, Pennsylvania, this historic site protects and interprets the landscape of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, the deadliest battle in the American Civil War. The park covers much of the battlefield and several non-battle areas, including Gettysburg National Cemetery.
On August 25th, the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center will be hosting special programs and tours, as well as giving out free cake. And from April through October, the park hosts Living History Weekends, where Civil War reenactors encamp on the Gettysburg battlefield.
This historic battlefield located near Urbana Pike, Maryland, commemorates the site of the Battle of Monocacy, known as “The Battle That Saved Washington.” In summer of 1864, Confederate soldiers were planning to capture Washington, D.C., but federal soldiers along the banks of the Monocacy River were able to delay their approach long enough for Union reinforcements to arrive and defend the capital.
On August 25th, the site will host programs that focus on the history of the National Park Service, and the first 100 visitors will receive a cupcake and a chance to enter to win a Centennial gift package.
Located along the Potomac River near Fort Washington, Maryland, this park—celebrating its 70th anniversary this year—is home to a 200-year-old fort that served for many years as the only defensive fort protecting Washington, D.C.
On August 27th and 28th, the site will host a Centennial event that includes reenactors from the War of 1812 through World War II talking about military life in their respective time periods, as well as cannon firing demonstrations from the Fort Washington Guard.
In February, 1732, George Washington was born on his father’s farm in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Although the original home was destroyed in 1779, a memorial house was built in the early 1930s, where the National Park Service now operates a colonial farm and living historians demonstrate the typical life on an 18th-century plantation.
On August 27th, rangers and volunteers will celebrate the Centennial with a look back at the period when the monument was created—the 1930s—by showcasing the fashion, music and games of the era.
From authors to world leaders, inventors to entrepreneurs, the Chesapeake region has been home to some pretty remarkable people. Men such as George Washington, Thurgood Marshall and Edgar Allan Poe are well known for being from the region—but for Women’s History Month, we wanted to celebrate a few of the historic women who have lived and worked in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
1. Harriet Tubman (1822 – March 10, 1913)
Harriet Tubman, the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Born into slavery, she escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. Tubman eventually set up a home in Auburn, New York, but returned Maryland not once but 13 times to free family, friends and other slaves, earning her the moniker “Moses.”
During the Civil War, Tubman served as cook, scout, spy and nurse to black Union soldiers. In June of 1863, she guided Colonel James Montgomery and his Second South Carolina regiment, becoming the first woman to command an armed military raid. They destroyed several important Confederate sites and freed over seven hundred slaves. After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn and continued her career as an activist, humanitarian and suffragist. In 1903, she opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, where she later died in 1913.
2. Euphemia Lofton Haynes (September 11, 1890 – July 25, 1980)
Euphemia Lofton Haynes was a lifelong educator and the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Born into a prominent family in Washington, D.C., Haynes received her bachelor’s degree from Smith College in 1914. She then began what would turn into a 47-year teaching career, which included elementary, high school and college classes.
In 1930, after receiving her master’s from the University of Chicago, Haynes began teaching at Miner Teachers College (later the University of the District of Columbia), a school dedicated to training African American teachers. She founded the college’s mathematics department and remained its head until she retired. In 1943, she earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the Catholic University of America, becoming the first black woman to do so. Haynes was appointed to the D.C. Board of Education in 1960 and spent her eight years there fighting racial segregation.
3. Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964)
Rachel Carson is famous for Silent Spring, her groundbreaking book outlining the dangers of pesticides. After receiving her bachelor’s in biology from the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) and her master’s in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, Carson went on to work first as a professor at the University of Maryland and then as an aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Writing was always an important part of Carson’s work, and she found early success when she began publishing her own work. Her first three books, released between 1941 and 1955, were all well-received. The third, The Edge of the Sea, became a best seller, won many awards and allowed Carson to retire from the Bureau of Fisheries to concentrate on researching pesticides.
The resulting 1962 book was the wildly successful—and controversial—Silent Spring. In it, Carson describes the effects of large-scale pesticide use, particularly DDT. While Carson never called for an outright ban of pesticides, the book caused a firestorm nonetheless. President John F. Kennedy established a committee to investigate pesticides, and Carson was asked to testify before a Congressional committee in 1963. She died a year later, but is remembered by many as someone who ignited the environmental movement.
4. Frances Payne Bolton (March 29, 1885 – March 9, 1977)
Frances Payne Bolton had a lasting impact on the Chesapeake Bay as the founder of the Accokeek Foundation. Born into a wealthy Ohio family, she attended schools in Cleveland, Ohio, New York and France. It was after her husband Charles’ death in 1940 that Bolton’s political career began, when she was appointed to serve out his term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Bolton was heavily involved in issues of healthcare and foreign policy, becoming the first woman delegate to the United Nations. She continued to serve in the House until she was defeated for reelection in 1968.
Outside of politics, Bolton was involved in philanthropic work and was particularly fond of Mount Vernon. It was her love of the estate that led her to buy a 500-acre farm in 1955 just across the Potomac River, in order to prevent development that would spoil the view from Mount Vernon. Bolton then founded a land trust, the Accokeek Foundation, in order to preserve and protect the land forever. She served as the foundation’s president until her death in 1977.
5. Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – present)
Vera Rubin is a trailblazing astronomer who first proved the existence of dark matter. Although born in Philadelphia, her family moved to Washington, D.C., when she was young, and it was there that her fascination with stars flourished. She attended amateur astronomy meetings and, with her father’s help, built a telescope when she was only 14. In 1948, Rubin graduated from Vassar College as the only astronomy major. Rejected by Princeton because of her gender, she received her master’s degree from Cornell, then returned to D.C. to complete her Ph.D. at Georgetown. From there, Rubin taught at Montgomery County Junior College in Maryland, then worked at Georgetown as a research assistant and later as assistant professor. In 1965, Rubin joined the staff of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where she remains today.
In the 1970s, Rubin began researching galactic movement and found that stars on the edges of galaxies moved just as quickly as those in the center. This was unexpected, because from what she could see, there was not enough gravitational pull to keep fast-moving outer stars in orbit. Rubin’s calculations showed that galaxies must contain invisible dark matter that keeps those outer stars in orbit. In recognition of her accomplishments, Rubin was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in 1993 received the National Medal of Science, the highest American award in science. Being all-too familiar with the challenges women face in the sciences, Rubin makes it a point to be a mentor to other women, saying once that “it is well known that I am available 24 hours a day to women astronomers.”
What other remarkable women have ties to the Chesapeake? Let us know in the comments.
February is a month to think about the ones you love, and there’s nothing we love more than the Chesapeake Bay. From the first blue crab of the season to the last day out on the water, the Bay brings us so much joy that we have to share it. Here’s a list of fourteen reasons why we love the Chesapeake Bay.
1. Blue Crabs
No list about the Chesapeake Bay is complete without blue crabs. Not just iconic in commercial and recreational fisheries, blue crabs are a keystone species in the Bay, acting as both predator and prey to many underwater creatures. And while harvest pressure and habitat loss affect the crustacean’s continued health, blue crab populations were on the rise in 2015.
3. Smith Island Cake
Smith Island, located in the middle of the Bay on the border between Maryland and Virginia, is famous in part for the delicious cake that originated there. Consisting of eight to 15 layers, Smith Island Cake not only looks beautiful but tastes great, too. Want to make your own? The Smith Island Cultural Center has a recipe you can follow. You’ll need a lot of cake pans, but the taste is worth the clean-up!
4. The food
The Bay has too many fantastic food traditions to be bound to only one entry. From oysters and crab cakes to fried chicken and anything you can put Old Bay on, the area has a specialty for every taste. They say the best way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs, right?
5. Natural spaces
Did you know the Chesapeake Bay region has over 130 state and national parks? And that number doesn’t even include the many other community parks, trails and nature preserves. No matter if you’re on the Bay itself or elsewhere in the area, there’s somewhere nearby to visit and get in touch with nature.
6. Something for everyone
One reason to love the Bay is that it has something for everyone—mountains, beaches, countryside and large cities are all nearby. For those who like being outdoors, there are ample hiking paths and public access points. For water-lovers, there’s boating, kayaking and swimming. History buffs can visit the many historical sites dotted throughout the area, while museumgoers have their pick of art, history, science and cultural museums.
7. Year-round activities
The Bay doesn’t give you any excuses for not enjoying all it has to offer. Even when it’s too cold for lounging on the beach, there are ample opportunities to love the Bay. When you can brave the elements, there are plenty of hikes to go on and museums to visit—and when it’s just too cold to go outside, there’s birdwatching and virtual tours that make you feel like you’re out on the water. Some might even say winter is a great time for a swim!
The Bay has a long maritime history and is home to boats of all types. For generations, watermen have taken their boats out on the Bay to gather the day’s catch of crabs and oysters. Annapolis—known as “America’s sailing capital”—sits on the Bay’s western shore and is home to the U.S. Naval Academy. The Bay is not just for work, though; each year there are countless boat races, sailing competitions and boat shows where all manner of crafts glide through the water. Outside of official events, people enjoy the Bay in personal boats, canoes and kayaks.
9. The beauty
You can’t beat waking up early to see the sunrise over the Bay, or watching a fog roll in over the water. They may say that love is blind, but looks are just another reason why we love the Chesapeake Bay.
10. The Atlantic Flyway
One example of the Bay’s rich diversity of wildlife is the Atlantic Flyway, a migration route that many birds follow up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The Bay’s prime location in the middle of the route gives us the chance to see birds at the beginning, middle or end of their migration. Birds such as the Canada goose begin their journeys up north in Canada and make their way south to the Bay-area for winter; other birds, such as the osprey, spend their summer months in the Bay and continue further south for winter.
Lighthouses have been a part of the Bay since the first one was built in 1792. But these beautiful structures are more than iconic landmarks: of the 74 lighthouses that originally aided sailors, over 30 are still standing and 23 are still in use. The Bay’s lighthouses stand as a symbol of the area’s maritime history and serve both a functional and aesthetic purpose.
12. Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
Not only do these dogs make adorable puppies, but they can grow up to be valuable companions. Named for the region in which they were bred, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever—or Chessie—is said to be descended from two Newfoundland dogs that survived a shipwreck off the coast of Maryland and were bred with local retrievers. Perhaps due to their maritime history (but mainly their genetics) these dogs are excellent swimmers. They are prized waterfowl hunters and have been known to retrieve hundreds of birds from icy waters in a single day. These dogs are more than workers, though, and make great family pets.
13. The history
The Bay has a rich and full history going back hundreds—even thousands—of years. There is evidence of people living here at least three thousand years ago. Today, historical sites are dotted throughout the region, from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. No matter what period of history captures your interest, there is somewhere in the area for you to visit.
14. The people
What would the Bay be without the people who live here? The Bay’s prime location and many resources attract people of all types; farmers, artists, fishers and politicians all call the Bay home and make it what it is today. We might not all talk the same, but no matter how you say it: we love the Chesapeake Bay!
Why do you love the Chesapeake? Let us know in the comments!
The tale of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is revered as one of the most influential moments in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. As the birthplace of Tubman, the Eastern Shore of Maryland holds a rich history in its expansive farm fields, quaint settlements and wetlands that nestle into the crooks and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Many individuals, municipalities and organizations have learned the stories of those that traversed the trail, risking their lives for freedom, and have collaborated to permanently preserve important landmarks along the Underground Railroad.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway spans 125 miles through Caroline and Dorchester Counties in Maryland. Along it, visitors can explore the secret network of trails and buildings of the Underground Railroad, a path forged by freedom-seeking slaves and abolitionists in the 19th century. It does not take long for those on the trail to learn the trials, tribulations and successes that occurred along the way - all because a few people decided to band together to overcome adversity and do extraordinary things.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Captions by Jenna Valente
Nearly 18 million people reside in the Chesapeake Bay region, with more moving to the area each year. Growing disputes over land use have conservationists working hard to protect the robust natural resources that can be found within the Bay region. A significant part of these efforts include developing and improving public access points as means for people to experience, explore and develop connections to the land, water and wildlife.
Nestled in between Accokeek Creek and Potomac Creek, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford, Virginia serves as one of the state’s highest land conservation priorities in the past 10 years. “This is a priority site because it’s such a large intact ecosystem. You have thousands of acres of mature hardwood forest on the coastal plain in Virginia,” explained Michael Lott, Crow’s Nest Manager and Northern Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
In addition to around 2,200 acres of mature hardwood forest, the site boasts 750 acres of nearly pristine wetlands and more than 10 miles of hiking trails, and it acts as a safe haven for wildlife and countless viewing opportunities for critters such as migratory waterfowl, white-tailed deer, river otters and beavers.
The preserve and those who manage it have faced many obstacles over the past few decades, including population growth and development encroaching on the area. “In the 1970’s, there were around 30,000 people in Stafford County; a few of the subdivisions were vacation homes for people in D.C. Now, the population is about 130,000. This is the best remaining tidal marsh in Stafford County, so our priority here is conservation,” said Geoff Austin, Northern Region Operations Steward with DCR.
Despite the vastness of the preserve and the great potential it holds for environmental education and recreational opportunities, the property is largely closed to the public until further operational resources can be effectively implemented.
The dynamic duo of Lott and Austin dedicate 90 percent of their working hours toward maintaining the preserve and trying to make it accessible to the public, but one major hurdle stands in their way – a mile-and-a-half long access road. “The big obstacle is the access road to the [completed] parking lot. We need to raise the money to fix that road. That road has been there since the colonial era, it’s been dug down and needs a lot of work before it’s passable for cars,” explained Austin. The team – with help from volunteers - keeps the trails clear, maintains the parking lot and plans to install proper trail signage once the road is completed.
Lott and Austin measure their success one victory - no matter the size - at a time, their latest being the installation of a handicap-accessible boat ramp to be opened to the public within the next couple of months. The ramp overlooks acres of tidal marsh, provides access to Accokeek Creek and lays adjacent to a half-mile trail complete with benches for wildlife observers. “It’s a great birding spot,” said Austin. The launch is part of a larger plan to connect a water trail system along the Potomac River.
DCR wants the public to be able to experience the preserve’s natural wonder. “In the past, this landscape did not lend itself to farming very well, and so a lot of the soil we have out here is still very much intact. Researchers have said that throughout the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, you can’t find soil like this in very many places anymore, which is why the forest out here is so productive," explained Lott. “A lot of the forest, particularly in the ravines, hasn’t been logged intensively since the Civil War, so it’s trending back toward mature forest. [For this reason] we keep the trails clear and have been holding open houses twice a year for five years now, so people have had the opportunity to see it and enjoy the trails.”
Tending to nearly 3,000 acres of forest and wetlands is no simple task for two people, but the work is done out of a place of deep caring and passion for protecting and sharing the special places in life with the public. “I grew up in this area and it’s nice to have an intact piece of hardwood [forest] that is going to be preserved in the area for years to come. It’s great to be able to walk out there when I’m working or hunting and see the big trees; you don’t see that in many other places in this area. As stewards of the land year-round you spend a lot of time here – it means a lot to be able to take care of this place.” said Austin.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
For more than 11,000 years, humans have lived in the Chesapeake Bay region. And for more than two hundred years, lighthouses have helped them navigate the waters of the Bay. Since the first lighthouse was placed at Cape Henry in 1792, 74 lighthouses have dotted the shores of the watershed, guiding wooden vessels, steam-powered boats and cargo ships through the Bay’s channels and around its obstacles. Today, more than 30 of these lighthouses still stand—and 23 still aid navigation. To whet your appetite for the region’s maritime history, here are 11 lighthouses in the watershed today.
Image courtesy Randy Pertiet/Flickr
1. Turkey Point. Located in Cecil County, Maryland, the Turkey Point lighthouse marks the point where the Elk and Northeast rivers enter the Chesapeake Bay. At 38 feet high, the conical structure was built by Havre de Grace resident John Donohoo in 1833. Between 1928 and 1947, the light was maintained by Fannie Salter, America’s last civilian female lighthouse keeper. The light was automated in 1947, deactivated in 2000 and re-lit two years later as a private aid to navigation. In 2006, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took ownership of the light, and it is estimated that 40,000 tourists visit the signature landmark of Elk Neck State Park each year. The lighthouse is open to visitors from April through November.
2. Sandy Point Shoal. The first lighthouse to stand in this location—an onshore brick tower built in 1858—was replaced in 1883 with the structure that stands today. Located offshore of Sandy Point State Park and about 1.5 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the eight-sided, red brick tower is owned and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Standing in 5 to 7 feet of water, the structure marks the shoals at Sandy Point. It was electrified in 1929 and automated in 1963.
Image courtesy pamramsey/Flickr
3. Sharps Island. The 900-acre island that gave this lighthouse its name in 1838 disappeared shortly after the structure was built, succumbing to wind, waves and erosion. In 1866, the original light was replaced with a screwpile structure, which was pulled from its foundation by floating ice fields just 15 years later. A caisson structure was placed on the site in 1882, and while it still stands today, it did suffer an ice-induced tilt in 1976. Located offshore of Tilghman Island, the light marks the entrance to the Choptank River and the shoals off Poplar Island and Black Walnut Point.
4. Bloody Point Bar. Located off the southern tip of Kent Island, this rust brown, iron structure was built in 1882 and marks the entrance to Eastern Bay. Just one year after its construction, severe storms pulled sand out from under the structure’s northwest side, causing a severe tilt. In 1885, 760 tons of stone were piled at the lighthouse’s base, which have kept it upright to this day. In 1960, an electrical fire destroyed the keeper’s quarters and the lens. Ever since, the light has been automated.
Image courtesy E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography
5. Cove Point. Built in 1828 by John Donohoo, the Cove Point lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Maryland. The conical brick tower marks the entrance to the Patuxent River, and in October of 2000 it and its keeper’s house were transferred to the Calvert Marine Museum. Here, visitors can tour the light from May through September and rent out the renovated dwelling for vacations and special events. Because the light is still an active aid to navigation, the U.S. Coast Guard remains responsible for its operation.
Image courtesy E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography
6. Drum Point. Like Cove Point, the Drum Point lighthouse sits at the Calvert Marine Museum, where it is open to the public year-round. Built in 1883, the light was decommissioned in 1962; in 1975, it was moved from the mouth of the Patuxent River to its present spot along the museum’s waterfront. The hexagonal wooden structure on top of a wrought-iron screwpile base is one of three remaining lighthouses built in this style, from the 45 that once served the Chesapeake Bay.
7. Point Lookout. Built by John Donohoo in 1830, the Point Lookout lighthouse marks the north entrance to the Potomac River. Just three decades after the light’s construction, the point was transformed by the Civil War. In 1862, the point became home to a Civil War hospital; soon after, a camp was built that would come to hold 20,000 prisoners of war. Deactivated in 1965, the light was turned over to the U.S. Navy before becoming part of Point Lookout State Park in 2006. Said to be one of the most haunted lighthouses in America, members of the Point Lookout Preservation Society hold paranormal investigations to raise funds and offer tours of the light from April through November.
Image courtesy E. Guy Stephens/Southern Maryland Photography
8. Point No Point. The Point No Point lighthouse sits six miles north of the Point Lookout lighthouse and the entrance of the Potomac River. While construction began in 1901, it was not completed until 1904. During a storm in 1903, a temporary construction pier collapsed and winds pushed the caisson structure 40 miles south to the Rappahannock River. In 1904, ice floes dislodged a second construction pier, delaying progress once again. Today, a two-story white tower sits atop a red, cast-iron base. Automated in 1938 and converted to unmanned operation in 1962, the light remains an active aid to navigation.
Image courtesy vhanes/Flickr
9. Cape Charles. Marking the northern side of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, the original Cape Charles lighthouse was built in 1828, but destroyed during the Civil War. A 150-foot brick replacement was built in 1864, but succumbed to floods and shoreline erosion about three decades later. The fully automated, 191-foot, cast-iron skeleton tower that stands today was erected in 1895, and is the second tallest lighthouse in the United States.
10. Wolf Trap. The first lighthouse to mark the shoals of Wolf Trap near the mouth of the Rappahannock River was built in 1870 to replace the lightships that had been in service here since 1821. In 1893, ice floes dislodged the light from its foundation. A replacement was built in 1894; its red, octagonal tower stands 52 feet tall.
11. Chesapeake Light. Built in 1965 to replace the lightship Chesapeake, the Chesapeake Light Station marks the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, which has been lighted for mariners since 1933. The blue “Texas tower” sits on steel piles and resembles an oil drilling platform; a rooftop landing pad allows for helicopter access. Automated in 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard considered demolishing the station in 2004, but because it was still structurally sound, it remains an active aid to navigation.
Millions of ducks, geese and other waterfowl visit the Chesapeake Bay each year, finding food and habitat in marshes across the watershed. Hunters have long gone after these birds as a source of food, using wooden or plastic decoys to attract them to their blinds. But in recent decades, what were once tools of the hunting trade have become works of art, and modern decoys showcase the carving styles of the artists behind the birds.
“[Decoys] started out as a means of putting food on the table, of attracting live birds,” said Kristin Sullivan, a Ph.D. candidate who studies the heritage behind decoy carving at the University of Maryland. But this soon changed: “By the 1950s, decoys started to become mass-produced, so hunters could get fairly cheap plastic or wooden birds and didn’t have to carve them out themselves.” This, paired with a burgeoning collector’s market created by hunting parties who kept hand-carved decoys as souvenirs, turned decoys into decorative, collectible items.
Now, tourists are a big customer for decoy carvers. So, too, are people who have “some sort of connection to hunting, or some… sort of connection to the landscape from which the bird came,” Sullivan said. Indeed, decoys carved in the Bay region are often evocative of the estuary. “A decoy is going to reflect the landscape,” said Sullivan.
But decoys also reflect the personality of the carver. We interviewed five carvers at the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md., to find out how they started carving, what makes their work unique and how the Bay has informed their birds. You can find our questions and their answers below.
What drew you to decoy carving?
This show did. In about 1987, I came down here for the first time, and decided that once I retired from the Secret Service, this was going to be my job. So way back when, in 1987, is when it all started. I was cutting through one of the buildings, and in a little hallway, there was a gentleman… who was hand-chopping decoys. And I thought that was the neatest thing in the world, that someone could do that. So I’m all self-taught. After I retired, I got a bunch of reference books and I sat out in my workshop and that’s all I did until I felt that [my work] was at a point where I was comfortable with it.
Describe your carving style.
What I like to do is what they call contemporary antiques. It’s just a new bird they try to make old. [Another carver] told me to come up with your own style, don’t copy anybody else, do what you want to do. And that’s exactly what I decided to do.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
I grew up in Takoma Park, and we had relatives around the Bay. I wasn’t a typical Bay guy, but being in the state of Maryland and [experiencing] all the history related to the Bay—you can just get caught up in it.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
The whole hunting type person—you’d be surprised how those people are more in tune with the environment than the techno guys with their iPads and iPods. I think the hunting guys—the old guys especially—can give you a perspective of exactly how they did things in the beginning and how they do things now. It’s probably a 180 degree turn.
What is your favorite bird to carve?
It’d have to be a wood duck. I hate painting them, but they have so many colors in them the bird just pops. It’s a pain to do, but it’s probably the prettiest bird out there.
What drew you to decoy carving?
I’ve been carving for about 30 years. We used to visit the Waterfowl Festival all the time, and I was down here and I said to myself one time, I think I can do that.
Describe your carving style.
Well, it’s my style. I have never had a lesson, and I don’t give lessons, because I want to do birds my way. I don’t want to do a bird like somebody else, and I don’t want somebody else to do a bird like mine.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
At one time, I was a commercial hunter. I took hunting parties [out] and grew up on the Bay. It’s just bred into you.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
More than a lot of people think. You know, they preserve what they have. And if they don’t, there’s not going to be any [more birds].
What is your favorite bird to carve?
A mallard drake. Why? I don’t know. I don’t like to do wood ducks; I don’t know anybody that does. I did one a couple of months ago, and that’s probably the last one I do. I don’t mind the carving. But I don’t care what you do, you can’t make one look natural.
What drew you to decoy carving?
A necessity. When I first started hunting in the early sixties, we couldn’t afford to buy decoys, so we made them. And the first ones we made were made from two by fours and two by sixes. Kind of looked like something a little kid would make, but they worked. We were making blue bills and canvasbacks, and we made some mallards, but they weren’t that good. Back in the old days, all you had to do was paint a tin can solid black and it would work. You could decoy a duck with just a painted one-gallon can. Now, they’re manufacturing decoys for the hunter, not for the ducks. The prettier a decoy is, it draws the hunter to them. It doesn’t, per se, draw the duck to the decoy.
Describe your carving style.
My carving style today is Upper Chesapeake Bay. I worked for [Havre de Grace decoy carver] Madison Mitchell for approximately seven years. While I was working for him, I worked for the federal government at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where I tested military equipment. The person you go to if you live in Havre de Grace and you want to learn how to make decoys is Madison Mitchell. I don’t think there’s a decoy maker in Havre de Grace that did not work for him.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
I’ve always lived in Havre de Grace. I’ve never lived beyond three blocks from the water. When I was a kid, back in the early fifties, our whole summer was spent around that water, swimming, fishing, crabbing or doing whatever kids seven, eight, nine, 10 years old do. It’s a heritage thing with me, just like the rest of the guys here on the Eastern Shore. They grow up on some of the islands around here; they were brought up fishing, crabbing and eeling. We just followed the path of our forefathers and our grandfathers and our fathers. It’s in our blood. I’ll probably never leave Havre de Grace or leave the water.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
I’ve always been associated with Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited and even this organization here, the Waterfowl Festival. I’ve always given decoys so they can raise money. Of course, they transfer the money into their conservation efforts. I donate the material or the products, so they can raise the money and do the [conservation] work.
What is your favorite bird to carve?
I have two. Widgeon, a.k.a. bald pates, and pintails. Canvasbacks are okay, but there’s just so many of them around. I tend to lean toward the more colorful ducks: mallards, pintails and widgeon. That’s generally what I like to carve, something more colorful.
What drew you to decoy carving?
My husband, [Patrick Vincenti], is a carver. I work with him on a daily basis, and I run our store in Havre de Grace. My husband was drawn to [carving] because he was a hunter, and as a hunter, he had a need to make his own decoys. As he started making them, people wanted them, so he left his full-time job in 1986 to be a full-time carver.
Describe his carving style.
It’s definitely a Maryland-style bird. But more specifically, it’s an Upper Bay working decoy.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed his work?
Living next to this estuary—which is probably one of the best in the world—the duck hunting here was outstanding. It still is. So I would have to say, the availability of the ducks made the desire to make the decoys and hunt, and as you hunted all those years and you made the decoys, you develop a tremendous respect for that Bay and its richness.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
Just like deer hunters or anything else, you have to keep the numbers of birds in check, because there’s not enough food. And as we infringe upon their space, there’s less food for them. So by following the rules and the guidelines of waterfowling, you’re doing it in a fair and right way, and you’re keeping the numbers in check, just like you would for deer or any other animal.
What is your favorite bird that you and your husband sell in your store?
My husband’s would be the canvasback; mine would have to be the black duck. I like the way he paints it, and it just has a look that I like. But the canvasback is the bird that is most desirable, and [Pat] has a strong fondness for canvasbacks.
What drew you to decoy carving?
My dad has made decoys for 63 years. We all made decoys as kids; I’ve got two brothers, younger brother Joey, older brother Bobby. My dad worked for Madison Mitchell in Havre de Grace, Madison Mitchell is my godfather. So we more or less worked for my dad, all of us coming up. As the years went on, we always worked on the water crabbing, fishing and making decoys. And I’ve made decoys for a living for probably 35 years. We all make decoys for a living now.
Describe your carving style.
The carving style is a Chesapeake Bay decoy—an Upper Chesapeake Bay decoy. Where we live, the carving style of the decoy [features] an up-curved tail [and] regular, slick paint. It’s a regular gunning decoy paint style and carving style, made out of white pine and cedar and basswood.
How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
When we were kids, we body booted on the Susquehanna Flats, [standing in the water, surrounded by decoys]. It’s an area that years ago, in the twenties and thirties and even before that, was home to hundreds of thousands of canvasbacks. Everybody would come to the Flats to kill canvasbacks, black heads and redheads. The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary where all the ducks and geese come in the wintertime, and that was the first place that they stopped, coming down. Then they would disperse through the whole Bay. We grew up on that water.
What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
When they started the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal] Duck Stamp in 1937, when Ding Darling made the first Duck Stamp, that was the first conservation stamp. All that money goes to waterfowl. If you didn’t have waterfowlers that hunt, there would be no money to go to the wetlands that Ducks Unlimited restored in North Dakota, South Dakota, the boreal forest. There wouldn’t be anything.
What is your favorite bird to carve?
Canvasback. Drake canvasback. They’re probably the easiest duck to make, but they’re the king of ducks. They’re just so pristine, and they’re a neat duck. They’re the king of the Chesapeake.
It is 1862 and the nation is in the midst of the Civil War. You are standing at the southernmost tip of the western shore of Maryland. To your left, the rising sun dances over the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. To your right, a ship chugs up the Potomac River, making its way to Washington, D.C. The wind whips and there is a nip in the air; winter is coming and all you have to keep warm is one wool blanket and a small tent.
For many Civil War soldiers at what is now Point Lookout State Park, this scene was a reality. Once a popular summer resort, this tract of land became home to a hospital and prison camp in the 1860s. One hundred years later, the site became a state park. Today, it is a place where history and the environment meet.
Although the park’s picturesque surroundings make it an ideal spot for visitors, it faces a number of environmental challenges. During strong storms, the site can experience coastal flooding. At times, rising tides create a temporary island, cutting off the point from the rest of the park. To protect the land from the rising seas of climate change and to combat erosion, staff have placed riprap barriers along much of the park’s shoreline.
“It has been very interesting to see how the weather affects the park throughout the year,” said Melissa Boyle, assistant park manager at Point Lookout. “When it’s stormy or during a hurricane, I can see how rough the water is and I think about what kind of place this could have been one or 200 years ago, when we didn’t have all of the luxuries that we have today.”
But the park’s history began before the Civil War, with the construction of the Point Lookout Lighthouse.
Built in the 1830’s, the Point Lookout Lighthouse was a much-needed navigational beacon to ships travelling up the Potomac River and the Bay. While advances in technology mean the lighthouse is no longer in use, the Point Lookout Lighthouse Preservation Society continues to care for the structure. Once a month, the volunteer group even opens the building for guided tours to show visitors what it might have been like to be the lighthouse keeper that lived here.
Some visitors have reportedly experienced paranormal activity in the lighthouse and around the park. Although park staff cannot confirm these allegations, these experiences could be linked to the old age of the lighthouse and the rich war-related history of the park. Because of its haunted reputation, the site sees an increase in break-ins and vandalism around Halloween, forcing park police to step up their patrol.
After the Civil War began, Hammond Hospital was built at Point Lookout. At the time, the hospital was considered to be a state of the art facility: its wagon wheel shape kept different wards separate and created an advanced ventilation system to suppress fire.
In addition to the hospital, three forts were built. But, due to sea level rise and erosion, only one—a reconstructed Fort Lincoln—remains.
Point Lookout was also home to a Civil War prison camp that held Confederate soldiers. The camp was designed to hold 10,000 people, but it regularly held 20,000; over its lifetime, it held 52,000 prisoners. The prisoners would often eat off of the land and were known to scavenge for blue crabs, oysters and rats. At the end of the war, the prison was largely deconstructed. Most of its materials were recycled, but some remain underwater near the park’s fishing pier.
Aside from a handful of park staff and public citizens, the people who once lived at Point Lookout have been replaced with wildlife. Pelicans, eagles and osprey abound, and the park is even home to a great blue heron rookery. Point Lookout is also a popular resting spot for migratory birds and monarch butterflies.
Today, recreation is the primary use of the park. Point Lookout offers more than 100 campsites, a life-guarded beach, canoe and kayak rentals, fishing sites and more than 1,000 acres for visitors to explore. “People should visit Point Lookout State Park because it is where history and the environment meet,” Boyle said. “There is a lot to learn from the park, and fall is a good time to visit. It is a period of transition. Come learn about the Civil War history while taking in the marvelous views and imagining what it would be like to be a soldier that was issued only one wool blanket to sleep under through the winter.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
This Halloween, thrill-seeking river rats can take a trip to a graveyard—a ship graveyard! Mallows Bay, located on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River, contains the largest known shipwrecked fleet in the Western Hemisphere. A quick search on Google Maps or a look at this image from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows the fleet’s massive imprint on the waterway.
This steamship fleet was intended to be used during World War I. But faulty construction and the war's end rendered the fleet useless. The steamship vessels, totaling more than 200, were towed to Mallows Bay, where they were packed together so tightly that you could, according to reports, walk for a mile without touching the water.
Local watermen protested, afraid that such a high concentration of “garbage” would affect their livelihoods. Some vessels were burned, but many others were left to sink and rot.
Today, many are visible above water, but some 140 more lurk beneath the Potomac’s surface.
The above-water steamships are now home to non-human inhabitants. Great egrets can be found nesting on the decks, while vegetation peeks out from beneath the rust. On some vessels, trees as high as 50 feet tall have sprouted!
Perhaps the “haunting” nature of Mallows Bay is not one of humans that have been left behind, but resources that have been ill-disposed and forgotten.
Want to see this ghost fleet for yourself? Launch a canoe or kayak at Charles County’s Mallows Bay Park to explore the ships up close!
The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail is open and ready for visitors. The 560-mile land and water route connects historic sites in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia while telling the story of the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay region.
One of 19 national historic trails administered by the National Park Service, the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail allows visitors to explore the region's unique landscapes and waterways while experiencing the places that bring to life the nation's Second War of Independence. Part of the nation's bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812, the trail traces American and British troop movements and introduces visitors to regional communities--Bladensburg, Baltimore, Washington, D.C.--affected by war.
Visitor centers, wayside signs and road markers connect the hundreds of sites located along the trail, some of which are accessible by bike or even boat. There is the Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House in Havre de Grace, Md., where British raids in 1813 destroyed close to three-quarters of the town. There is the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, which houses the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. And there is the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., which the British burned along with the White House before a storm managed to put out the flames.
The trail's launch was celebrated in Fell's Point, Baltimore, by more than 100 partners, friends and tourism professionals.
By the 1760s, the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s first settlers were pushing farther west; they negotiated new lands and redrew the lines between European and Native American territories. But when surveyors visited one of the newly acquired regions – Lycoming County, Pennsylvania – they met a European settler named Larry Burt. Disregarding the “territories” concept, Larry had lived in the area for several years, trading with the Native Americans and marrying a Native American woman. The stream became known “Larrys Creek,” and is the only creek in the county whose Native American name remains unknown.
(Image courtesy AWCattani/Flickr)
For the next few years, this 23-mile-long tributary to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River would become a disputed border between colonial and Native American lands. Settlers living in the area were considered “Fair Play Men.” These residents were not governed or protected by the colonial government of Pennsylvania, and even made their own Declaration of Independence.
The first fork of Larrys Creek begins in northern Lycoming County in Cogan House Township, just south of a stretch of Appalachian Mountains known as Steam Valley.
Flowing southwest, the creek runs through the village of Cogan House and under the Cogan House Covered Bridge. The oldest of Lycoming County’s three covered bridges, the Cogan House Covered Bridge has survived massive floods and storms since its construction in 1877.
(Image courtesy Gregg Obst/Flickr)
Larrys Creek then winds through Pennsylvania State Game Lands Number 114, where a rough trail follows the stream for a few miles. It meets the second (westernmost) fork of Larrys Creek at Salladasburg, and flows south into the mouth of the Susquehanna River at the town of Larrys Creek.
If you travel to Larrys Creek today, you may find it to be a rather remote destination. But just over a hundred years ago, the creek and its watershed were home to 53 sawmills, making Larrys Creek a bustling industrial center. A 1903 newspaper article claimed, “No other stream in the country had so many mills in so small a territory.” As a result, much of the land was clear cut and virtually devoid of forests.
Today, more than 80 percent of the watershed is forested and nearly 9,000 acres of second-growth forest are protected for hunting and trout fishing.
More from Larrys Creek:
For most of us, a leap year simply means adding an extra day to the schedule in February. But in other cultures, leap years are symbolic. In the British Isles, folk tradition says that women must propose marriage in leap years, whereas in Greece, it’s bad luck for couples to get married during leap years.
While Chesapeake Bay region folklore does not mention February 29, we decided to take this opportunity to mention a few Bay “oddities”: natural occurrences that only come along every so often – just like leap years.
(Image courtesy Alpaca Farm Girl)
Like other Chesapeake Bay species, blue crabs need oxygen to survive. But when oxygen levels are too low, blue crabs come out of the water and onto land, an event known as a crab jubilee.
Despite the term “jubilee,” the event is not a celebration. Crab jubilees occur only when water quality in the Chesapeake Bay is extremely poor. Typically, a combination of hot weather, offshore winds and algae blooms fueled by nutrient runoff quickly deplete oxygen levels in the water, sending crabs and other critters running toward the shore for air.
In Mobile Bay, Alabama, a similar event known simply as the jubilee occurs regularly and has become a community celebration, renowned for an opportunity to easily catch seafood.
(Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation)
Thirty-five million years ago, a bolide (an asteroid-like object) crashed into what is now the lower tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, creating a 55-mile-wide crater that’s the largest known in the United States. It’s called an impact crater because the deep depression impacted the lay of the land: influencing the course of the region’s rivers and determining the eventual location of the Chesapeake Bay. As sea level rose and fell over the next few million years, the Chesapeake Bay fluctuated between dry land and a shallow coastal sea.
(Image courtesy psyberartist/Flickr)
In 1994, the first Florida manatee ever was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay. This mammal, which can stay underwater for as long as 12 minutes, typically does not travel into waters below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. But this particular manatee, appropriately named Chessie, seems to occasionally prefer the cold. Chessie, which biologists recognize by distinct markings on his body, visited the Bay again in 2001 and 2011. Chessie even swam all the way to New England, the northernmost known point to ever receive a manatee visit.
Manatees are endangered because of habitat loss and harmful human activities, making a Chessie sighting all the more rare. Also, while most wild manatees live for 8 to 11 years, Chessie is at least 20 years old!
(Image courtesy Ken-ichi/Flickr)
North Atlantic humpback whales feed in polar waters in the summer and mate in warm waters in the winter. But each winter, a handful of humpback whales mate in the Chesapeake Bay instead of the tropics. This year, 30 whales were counted off the coast of Virginia Beach – much higher than the average of five or six. An unusually mild winter attracted the whales to these Chesapeake waters.
Luckily, humpback whales are friendly and curious; they’re known to surface beside boats and put on a show for lucky whale watchers. Care for something even more rare? If you’re daring enough to stick your head in the water, you may be able to hear a mating song. Biologists can determine where a whale comes from by listening to its song. For example, Hawaiian humpback whales sing a different song than those from Virginia.
Although we always encourage our readers to get outdoors, we know many of you would rather stay inside when it’s cold. But there’s still plenty of ways to explore the Chesapeake Bay from the comfort of your own home. We’ve compiled a list of eight great Bay-related reads to curl up with this winter. From John Smith to watermen and sailors to the life of a blue crab, there’s an abundance to learn about the Bay, even in the depths of winter.
“My husband, who just turned 76, grew up on the Chesapeake and worked the fish boats. He was thrilled to see this book.”
– Amazon customer
If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live and work on the Chesapeake Bay, the authentic personal narratives in This Was Chesapeake Bay will show you both the glory and the demise associated with this body of water. Be sure to pick up a copy of this collection of true stories as told by shipbuilders, steam boat workers, oystermen, fishermen and dockhands.
Many of these voices would be lost or inaccessible, along with their wisdom, if not for this work.”
– Author Tom Horton
Voices of the Chesapeake Bay first began as an Annapolis radio show that interviewed local personalities about their connection to the Chesapeake Bay. Show host Buckley has transcribed these “voices” into a collection of narratives. An Eastern Shore family farmer describes his farm along the Choptank River; frostbitten sailboat racers tell what it’s like to experience the Bay during winter; local artists talk about their struggle to capture Chesapeake culture. You’ll hear from state senator Bernie Fowler, Piscataway Canoy Tribal Chairwoman Mervin Savoy, waterfowl decoy carvers, and AmeriCorps volunteers. This is a must-read for anyone seeking an all-encompassing depiction of Chesapeake life today.
“Not only an engaging account of Smith's travels around Chesapeake Bay but also a fresh and exciting introduction to the native peoples in their natural environment at the time of English exploration and settlement.”
– Brooks Miles Barnes, co-editor of Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands
If your family first arrived in the Chesapeake region in the early 1600s, you may be especially interested in this account of Captain John Smith’s two Chesapeake journeys. Smith’s voyages are reconstructed day-by-day and illustrated with vintage artwork and maps. Because he was attempting to map the entire Chesapeake Bay region, Smith covered a lot of ground, and encountered plenty of flora and fauna and met many natives. This book, drawn largely from Smith’s detailed journals, describes the land and waterways as they were in the early 1600s and portrays the differing perspectives of the native peoples and the newly arrived settlers.
"Tom Horton has a poet's touch and a realist's frankness as he writes of the delicate ecology of this great aquatic system in chapters whose subjects range from the role of marshes to the life of the watermen to the growing pressures of urban development…This book is a singing tribute to the bay."
– Islands Magazine
Prose and photography join forces to illustrate both the nostalgic romance of Chesapeake Bay culture and the economic and ecological threats to the region’s way of life. Infused with a sense of awe and respect for the Bay, Horton and Harp guide you to “those rare, hidden nooks of the bay country where nature still appears as glorious and untrammeled as it did a thousand years ago.”
“This is a magnificent naturalist book, for anyone who has ever eaten a blue crab, caught one, spent time anywhere along the Chesapeake, wondered about the lives of fishermen, or the cycles of the sea.”
– Amazon customer
If you live near or have ever visited the Chesapeake Bay during the summer months, chances are that you’ve had your fair share of blue crab. Warner examines the life cycle of these creatures and the lives of those they have affected: from watermen whose livelihoods depend on their existence to consumers who have spent plenty of summer evenings at crab feasts. A must-read for anyone who ever wanted to know more about what they’re eating or learn why this creature has become such a prideful tradition.
“Christopher White's Skipjack is not only a powerful elegy for a great American fishery, it's an act of defiance against all that has conspired to empty the dredges of these beautiful boats. White's prose is like the oystermen he portrays: tough, lyrical, and soaked to the bone in the waters of Chesapeake Bay. I've still got a lump in my throat from its last page."
– Richard Adams Carey, author of Against the Tide: The Fate of New England Fishermen and the Philosopher Fish
In March 1978, biologist and science writer Christopher White joins the crew of a skipjack: a wooden oystering boat that, at the time, is “among the last sailboats still employed in commercial fishing in North America.” Based from a cottage on Tilghman Island, White spends the next year chronicling the remote village and its oystermen, whose livelihoods are threatened by dwindling oyster populations. On-the-ground research infuses this book with the perspectives of those confronted with a degrading ecosystem and a suffering community.
"He has captured in full the life of the island."
– Washington Post Book World
Horton paints an intimate portrait of a community where people live much as their ancestors did three hundred years ago: by the tides, blue crabs and waterfowl. To write the book, Horton and his family moved and lived on the remote, sinking island for three years. A new afterward brings the story of Smith Island up to the present.
“As I was reading "Chesapeake" I thoroughly became engrossed in the story to the extent that I forsook sleeptime to enjoy hours of late-night reading. I literally could not put the book down!”
– Amazon customer
Michener gives readers a full picture of the region’s history and culture in this fictional account of life on the Chesapeake. He follows Edmund Steed and his family from pre-Revolutionary days to the Civil War. The style of prose allows Michener to depict how the region’s geography and peoples have changed throughout the centuries.
Looking for more Chesapeake Bay-related books? Check out our comprehensive reading list, which contains nearly 140 titles about the Bay and its rivers, wildlife and culture. And don’t forget to tell us about your favorite Bay book in the comments!
Look around the Chesapeake Bay watershed this time of year, and you'll find ghost tours all over the place: Annapolis, Gettysburg and Richmond, to name a few.
And why wouldn't there be ghosts here? The Chesapeake region was among the first areas in the United States settled by English colonists. Since that time, the Bay has experienced land-altering and life-taking hurricanes, mysterious shipwrecks, and bloody battles during the nation's early wars.
Just in time for Halloween, we've compiled an eclectic list of hauntings, sightings and purely strange spooks from throughout the Bay watershed. Many of these places would make a perfect outdoor escape this weekend – if you’re brave enough, that is!
"All of a sudden, the room turned bitter cold - even though the thermometer still read 100 degrees." –Eyewitness encounter at Point Lookout lighthouse
The most consistently haunted feature of Point Lookout is the lighthouse, which was first constructed in 1830. It has been featured on shows such as the Travel Channel’s Weird Travels and TLC's Haunted Lighthouses for paranormal activity ranging from strange odors that come only at night to spirits that have saved the lives of park employees living in the house.
After years of reported sightings, smells and sounds, the famous pioneer paranormal researcher Hans Holzer investigated. He recorded 24 different sounds and voices in and around the lighthouse using electric voice phenomena (EVPs).
One of these voices – heard saying, "This is my home" – is suspected to be Ann Davis, wife of the lighthouse's first keeper. Ann maintained the lighthouse long after her husband died. She has been seen standing at the top of the staircase, wearing a white blouse and blue skirt. But she is far from the only apparition people have experienced at the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is now maintained by the state of Maryland and is open only a few times a year. But if you’re really fearless, you can sign up for a Paranormal Night, when small groups can investigate the lighthouse after dark.
(Image courtesy Vicki Ashton/Flickr)
It’s true: Point Lookout is so haunted that it earned two spots on our list of spooky places.
Point Lookout's location – a peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Potomac River – made it an ideal watch post for spotting British ships during the War of 1812.
Its isolation from the mainland offered little chance of escape for the 50,000 Confederate prisoners held here during the Civil War.
The prisoners of war lived year-round with nothing but canvas tents to protect themselves from mosquito-infested summers and freezing cold winters.
Between 3,000 and 8,000 men died in the camp and were buried in mass graves – many of which are now underwater.
As if that isn't enough, a Civil War hospital was also on the peninsula and housed wounded soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg.
One of the most frequently seen ghosts at the park is a man in ragged, homespun Civil War clothing, reeking of mildew and gunpowder, and stumbling away from what was once the camp's quarantined smallpox unit. It's thought that the man feigned illness to escape from prison – but it seems he never did...
Brave enough to visit? The Maryland Department of Natural Resources lists information about Point Lookout's hours, trails, fishing opportunities and more.
(Image courtesy Southern Maryland Online)
Many people on the streets of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park have seen the ghost of abolitionist John Brown. He’s sometimes so realistic that tourists, thinking he is a historic re-enactor, ask him to pose for a photograph with him – only to find later that their camera has not captured him. Those who have seen Brown say they recognize him by “those piercing fire and brimstone eyes that would put the fear of God in anybody he looked at.”
Brown led an uprising at Harpers Ferry in 1859, raiding the armory in the hope of freeing the South (and Brown’s wife and children) one plantation at a time.
But when he heard about Brown’s rebellion, Confederate General Robert E. Lee left for Harpers Ferry so quickly that he didn’t even have time to put on his uniform. Lee and his one hundred troops sent Brown to the gallows; however, his proposed revolution would become a catalyst for the Civil War.
But perhaps a more frightening paranormal experience surrounds one of John Brown's opponents, John Wilkes Booth, who visited Harpers Ferry to witness the his nemesis’s hanging. Booth stayed in a house known as the "Haunted Cottage."
According to an article in the Martinsburg Journal-News, the house has been the site of 12 deaths. Many have witnessed objects disappearing and then re-appearing. The house is now the office of the Harpers Ferry Society for Paranormal Research.
Another haunted spot in Harpers Ferry is St. Peter's Catholic Church, where a priest can be seen walking down the aisle and a wounded Civil War soldier whispers his dying words, "Thank God I'm Saved," as he reaches the church doors.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed states were home to the greatest number of battles in the country's early history. Spanning the border of the North and South, the region was particularly hard-hit during the Civil War.
But public access to these locations also means that there are thousands of reports of wandering soldiers, loud booms in the night, broken cameras, and even entire battles being fought in plain view.
In one alleged incident at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, re-enactors working on the film Gettysburg were visited by a man dressed as a Union soldier, who they assumed was also in the movie. He passed them ammunition, which was later discovered to be pristine musket rounds that dated back to the exact time of the famous Civil War battle.
At Antietam – where 23,000 troops were lost during some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles – a famous creepy spot is Bloody Lane. This old farm road got its nickname after one particularly deadly battle, when thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers were killed and their blood flowed down the road like a river.
Have you visited one of these battlefields? Which one do you think is the most haunted?
(Image courtesy LostBob Photos/Flickr)
Perhaps paranormal activity is expected at a military base that has been inhabited since 1608. But one would be hard-pressed to find a line-up of big named spirits anywhere else but Fort Monroe.
Reported sightings at the base include a young soldier named Edgar Allen Poe, President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Chief Black Hawk and Ulysses S. Grant. Other, lesser known personalities have also been spotted, such as a spirit that hates roses, and even something dubbed the "moat monster," rumored to be a relative of Scotland's Loch Ness Monster.
Orbs, lights and temperature changes are other creepy phenomena experienced so often and with such intensity that the U.S. Army has featured a story about "haunted" Fort Monroe on its website.
Sitting at the mouth of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, the military base was a “freedom fortress” where fugitive slaves took refuge during the Civil War.
Since the fort closed last month, ownership has been turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia. There has been talk of turning the land into a national park or even a math and science high school. But when new people move in, will the spirits stay?
(Image courtesy Patrick McKay/Flickr)
Just across the Potomac River from Quantico Marine Base lies the greatest concentration of sunken ships in North America. Mallows Bay is a graveyard of half-submerged steamships, some of them poking out from the water’s surface.
This steamship fleet, which cost the government $1 billion, was intended to be used in World War I. But faulty construction and the war's end rendered the fleet useless.
More than 200 steamship vessels were towed to Mallows Bay on the Potomac River. The ships were packed together so tightly that you could reportedly walk for a mile without touching the water.
Watermen protested; they were certain such a high concentration of “garbage” would affect their livelihoods. Some vessels were burned, but many others were left to sink and rot.
Today, the giant steamships are still there, but now they are home to non-human inhabitants. Great egrets can be found nesting on the decks, while vegetation peeks out from beneath the rust.
Thankfully, the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem has found a way to use these vessels for their benefit. (For proof, check out these great photos from kayakers who ventured through the wreckage.) Perhaps the "haunting" nature of Mallows Bay is not one of humans that have been left behind, but resources that have been ill-disposed and forgotten.
Want to see this ghost fleet for yourself? Explore the old boats by kayak or canoe, which you can launch from the nearest boat ramp.
Even when he was alive, people thought Blackbeard was a sort of devil re-incarnate. And it's no wonder: the pirate arranged lit torches in his beard before he ran into battle.
When Blackbeard – real name Captain Edward Teach – moved his operations north, Virginia Governor Spotswood ordered an expedition to capture or kill Blackbeard and his crew.
One big, bad, bloody sea battle later, Blackbeard was killed. The governor demanded that Blackbeard's head be placed on a stake at the entrance to the Hampton River as a warning to other pirates.
According to some Hampton locals, Blackbeard's spirit haunts this area, which is still known today as Blackbeard’s Point.
(Image courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Approximately one hundred years ago, Holland Island was a five-mile-long, 300-person fishing community, with more than 60 homes, a church and a doctor.
But then sea level rose – and rose fast. Residents abandoned the island in the 1920s, some of them bringing their homes with them.
Stephen White, a former minister and waterman who first visited Holland Island as a young boy, was inspired to save the island after visiting one of the island's three cemeteries, where he saw a gravestone that read, "Forget me not, is all I ask."
White was taking a photograph of the gravestone when he noticed a ghostly girl standing nearby.
Inspired to honor the gravestone inscription, and not let the world forget about this little girl and her home, White launched a massive campaign to save the island, hoping that a donor or the government would assist him. But they didn’t.
Still, White and his wife made it their personal mission, spending hours distributing sandbags to try and stop erosion along the island’s edges.
But last October, the island's final house fell into the Bay, despite White's best efforts. Today, two of the island's three graveyards are reportedly underwater.
More vanished islands: Captain John Smith first described and mapped Sharps Island, once located at the mouth of the Choptank River. A lighthouse built here in the 1880s is now surrounded by more than 10 feet of water. And that’s not nearly the only one: pick up a copy of The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake to learn about the dozens of islands that have vanished beneath the Bay’s waters.
Experts say that Smith and Tangier islands – both still inhabited – may be next. Sea level in the Bay is rising faster than the world average due to a warming climate and natural sinking of the land. In Maryland alone, 260 acres of tidal shoreline erode into the Bay each year, drowning these vulnerable islands under more water and burying any historic artifacts (or graves!) that may remain.
(Image courtesy baldeaglebluff/Flickr)
"This is a thin place, where the veil between this world and the next is transparent." - Mindie Buroyne, author of Haunted Eastern Shore: Ghostly Tales from East of the Chesapeake
1665. That is the year the Old White Marsh Episcopal Church in Talbot County, Maryland first opened. In the 1720s, the church’s Reverend Daniel Maynadier’s wife, Hanna, died. Upon her request, she was buried with her favorite ring on her finger. But the graverobbers, or “ringrobbers,” were ready. When they couldn’t get the ring off her finger, they began to slice away…
And Hanna arose.
The Reverend’s wife was not dead, but in a coma She gathered her shroud around her and walked home to greet her grieving husband.
Hanna went on to have several children, but the bloodmarks on her hand would never wash away. Rumor has it that she can still be seen walking home from the cemetery, her shroud around her and her hand leaving a trail of blood.
For more Eastern Shore hauntings, visit some of these scary places listed in Haunted Eastern Shore.
(Image courtesy Sarah Stierch/Flickr)
Now it's your turn to scare us! Do you know of a creepy, spooky Chesapeake story or place we didn't include here? Share it in the comments!
Chesapeake Bay Program Acting Director Jim Edward has been appointed by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to a two-year term on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Advisory Council.
The 25-member council advises the National Park Service on matters related to the trail, including trail management, public access, recreational opportunities and indigenous cultural landscapes.
The council includes representatives from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, a range of governmental and non-governmental organizations, and American Indian associations.
“The people appointed to service on the Advisory Council will contribute in many ways to the development of a rich educational and recreational trail experience for the public,” said John Reynolds, Advisory Council chair.
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail follows the routes of John Smith’s 1607-1609 voyages throughout the Bay and several tributaries. The 3,000-mile trail offers visitors recreational and educational experience both on land and water.
For more information about the trail, visit www.smithtrail.net.
The National Park Service has developed a teaching tool about Chesapeake Bay history, geology, ecology and restoration as part of its online educational resource Views of the National Parks.
The Chesapeake edition of Views of the National Parks provides readers with a background on the Chesapeake’s natural world, from its geologic formation as an estuary to its diverse species and ecosystems. Chesapeake Views also describes the region’s human history and cultural environment, how it has changed over time, and how people can get involved restoring and protecting it.
A Visit section highlights some of the many places to experience the Chesapeake Bay. Other teaching tools include photographs, maps, a glossary and links to additional resources.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, the National Park Service administers the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The Park Service is a Bay Program partner, helping to promote Chesapeake stewardship by connecting people to the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has launched its eighth “smart buoy” in the Chesapeake Bay region as part of a network of interpretive buoys that display real-time information about environmental conditions.
The buoy was deployed in the upper Potomac River near Washington, D.C.
The network of buoys, called the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS), reports real-time weather and water conditions, such as salinity, temperature and wind speed, at each buoy location. People can call a toll-free number or visit buoybay.org to access the buoy data at home or on the water.
The buoys are set up at points along the Captain John Smith Trail, which Smith traveled during his 1608 voyage of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. Each buoy also offers historic information about what John Smith may have encountered at that location during his exploration.
At the newly deployed upper Potomac Buoy, interpretive podcasts explain that John Smith is believed to have visited the area twice in June of 1608 when he and his crew visited the Patawomeck tribe and then continued upriver in search of the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to the upper Potomac River buoy, interpretive buoys are located in the Susquehanna, Patapsco, Severn, lower Potomac rivers in Maryland and the Rappahannock, James and Elizabeth rivers in Virginia.
For more information about the Upper Potomac River buoy and the rest of the interpretive buoy system, visit buoybay.org.
Each February, we celebrate Black History Month, but we often don’t take the time to reflect on the important people and events in black history that occurred right in our backyards. In the Chesapeake Bay region, the African-Americans who lived and worked here helped define our history.
Keep reading to learn more about six key events, people and occupations that influenced the history of the Chesapeake and the entire nation.
Slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region began in 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying 20 African men arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. These men were indentured servants, rather than slaves. Many eventually earned their freedom and went on to own land, trade, raise crops and livestock, defend their rights, and eventually hire their own servants.
(Image courtesy CORBIS/History.com)
Slaves were part of many great milestones in the Chesapeake region, such as rowing the Bay’s first ferry between the future sites of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1636. By 1780, it is estimated that slaves made up approximately 40 percent of the population in the Chesapeake region.
In the 1800s, the Chesapeake region was on the brink of controversy over slavery. The northern Bay watershed states were considered “free states” that did not support slavery, while the southern states were “slave states.” This division foreshadowed the battles to be fought in the region during the Civil War.
As the Civil War progressed, the Union Army was suffering from increasing numbers of casualties and needed reinforcements. Blacks were granted the right to serve in the Union Army and fought in battles throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In Maryland, 8,700 men served in six black regiments that played major roles in Union battle plans. The 36th U.S. Colored Infantry guarded the Confederate prison at Point Lookout and disabled Confederate torpedoes in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
More than 180,000 black men served in the Union Army and 18,000 black men in the Union Navy. Twenty-one of these men were awarded the highest military honor in the United States, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she lived until she escaped in 1849. After escaping from slavery, she returned to the South 19 times to help other slaves along the Underground Railroad.
As part of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses was formed and slaves were transported with the help of ship captains in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, as well as other slaves working on boats. For many slaves, the Potomac River, the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay were vital links in the route to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Like Tubman, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In his first two attempts to escape slavery, Douglass and five other men planned to canoe up the Chesapeake Bay into Pennsylvania, but another slave turned them in. Eventually, Douglass was brought to freedom on a steamboat traveling from Delaware to Pennsylvania.
In colonial times, tobacco was the mainstay of the economies of Maryland and Virginia. Many of the workers at tobacco plantations were slaves or indentured servants from Africa. Plantations were often located along the Chesapeake’s rivers, where soil quality was better and tobacco could be transported via local waterways.
(Image courtesy The Great South/Documenting the American South)
Once the Chesapeake’s tobacco and agricultural industries began to decline at the end of the 18th century, blacks turned to the water to make a living, ultimately helping the region’s economy and cultural history flourish.
By the 1860s, the Chesapeake Bay was the United States’ primary source of oysters, which created plenty of opportunities for black watermen to make a living shucking oysters, processing seafood and even building boats for the industry. New African-American communities formed along the Bay’s shores, creating cultural and economic centers for blacks in the area. Their traditions became part of the local fishing industry, and many of them still exist today.
A replica of the shallop Captain John Smith used to explore the Chesapeake anchored at City Dock in Annapolis on July 14 for two days of festivities that focused on the Bay's history and environment.
The shallop — a 17th century-style boat — and its 12-member crew are retracing Smith's voyages, stopping at various points along the route to showcase their journey and educate the public about the Bay.
Smith's original voyage 400 years ago paved the way for the English colonization of Virginia and subsequent settling of the New World. In December 2006, Congress authorized the nation's first all-water trail, naming it the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail to commemorate the voyage.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley joined the shallop crew in rowing the final mile of the leg from Eastport into Annapolis Harbor. Along with the John Smith crew and their exhibit, environmental and historical groups provided interactive displays and activities.
The modern-day shallop crew began its journey from Jamestown, Virginia, just as Smith did in 1608. From its departure on May 12 to its arrival in Annapolis on July 14, the crew sailed and rowed approximately 700 miles. By the voyage's end, the shallop will have covered 1,500 miles and spent 121 days traveling to the headwaters of almost every tributary of the Bay.
Those interested in following the shallop as it travels the Chesapeake can visit www.johnsmith400.org for daily updates. The shallop's remaining stops are Baltimore and St. Leonard, Maryland, and Tappahannock, Fredericksburg and Deltaville, Virginia, before returning to Jamestown on September 8.
The John Smith project is the work of Sultana Projects, Inc. For more information about the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, stay tuned to www.nps.gov/cajo.
The Chesapeake Bay faces environmental threats from over-development, nutrient pollution, chemical contaminants and many other sources. But there is another threat that becomes more evident in many coastal, low-lying areas along the Bay with every passing year: rising sea level.
The Bay, which was formed by the rising sea that flooded the ancient Susquehanna River valley, is constantly being reshaped by erosion. Since the Bay took on its modern form about 6,000 years ago, sea level in the Bay has risen about six inches per century. However, U.S. Geological Survey tide gauge records show that sea level in the Bay rose more rapidly during the 20th century. Currently, sea level at the mouth of the Bay is rising at a rate of about 1.3 feet per century—twice the worldwide average.
This relatively recent increase in sea level rise may have several causes. Land subsidence due to groundwater extraction is one common explanation. Another is human-induced global climate change, which is causing glaciers to melt and ocean volume to increase. Shoreline development that removes or blocks the migration of wetlands can also increase the effects of sea level rise. Without a wetland buffer between the land and the Bay, low-lying areas become more prone to flooding and erosion.
William B. Cronin's The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake documents the history and acreage losses due to sea level rise of over 40 Bay islands.
Less than one hundred years ago, Holland Island was a community of over 350 residents, complete with a church schoolhouse, a post office and a community center. In 1914 the island, which lies west of Deal Island in Somerset County, Md., was five miles long and about a mile and a half wide. Around that time, islanders began moving to the mainland to escape erosion that was threatening their homes. Today, Holland Island is less than 100 acres, and the remaining population is made up of terns, egrets, bald eagles and other wildlife.
Despite its name, Barren Island once held a church, a school and more than a dozen farms on its 582 acres. As recently as the 1950s, a fully functional clubhouse welcomed wildfowl hunters to the island, which is located just west of Hoopers Island in Dorchester County, Md. Today, Barren Island has been reduced to less than 120 acres, and the clubhouse is underwater. Recognizing its importance as a wintering ground for several species of ducks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made Barren Island part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
Sea level rise is not just threatening the Bay's islands; many low-lying mainland areas are also at risk of being lost. The Blackwater NWR loses about 130 acres of marsh each year to rising sea level. The U.S. Geological Survey forecasts that most of the refuge will be open water in approximately 50 years. Blackwater provides critical habitat to hundreds of species of wildlife, including osprey, hummingbirds, bald eagles and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.
While the effects of sea level rise seem dire, efforts are underway to bring back some of the Bay's islands and low-lying coastal areas. Poplar Island, in Talbot County, Md., is being rebuilt by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with dredge material from Baltimore Harbor. The island, which served as a retreat for presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, was once 1,500 acres. By 1997, Poplar Island had become six separate islands totaling about 120 acres. The Poplar Island project, which is expected to be completed in 2016, will restore 1,000 acres of diverse habitat for wildlife that have historically used the island as a nesting and wintering ground.
Will more of the Bay's still-inhabited islands—such as Smith, Hoopers and Tangier—see the same fate as Holland or Poplar islands? Scientists continue to study the causes of sea level rise, as technology develops to combat erosion and restore the land, history and habitat that are being eaten away by the Bay's relentless waves.