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.