Watching big ships go by, exploring the past, and other complicated pleasures on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

images and photographs by T.F. Sayles

I’d been waiting for two days to see this—a big ship transiting the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal—so it made sense that my pulse quickened a little that night when the lights and superstructure of a giant roll-on/roll-off cargo carrier loomed quietly into view over the trees at a slight bend in the canal just east of Chesapeake City. But I was not expecting the locals to be quite so enthralled. They see these leviathans every day, after all. But they seemed every bit as delighted as I was at the appearance of the enormous ro/ro carrier, easily 600 feet long and 100 feet tall.

“Here comes one!” said a genuinely excited woman at the far end of the patio bar, and immediately she and half a dozen of her fellow barflies hopped off their stools and stepped onto the lawn that sloped gently to the edge of the canal, no more than 50 feet away. The gargantuan ship, with “NYK Line” painted in huge white letters on the towering dark-blue cliff that was its port side, closed the distance more quickly than I expected. And more quietly than I expected. The great beast of a thing ghosted by with a mere thrum, not even canceling out the traffic noise from the towering highway bridge it was about to pass under. No, it was not noise but the ship’s size that really impressed. It was like watching a city block float by, a big slab of Manhattan, all lit up and open for business. “Good grief, look at the size of it!” I muttered. “Oh,” said the man standing next to me, “you should see some of the tankers that come through here. Unbelievable!”

“I hope I do see one,” I said, my eyes glued on the vast wall of ship gliding past, now blotting out the glittering nighttime view of Schaefer’s Canal House across the way. It turned out that the big blue ro/ro was the largest ship I’d see in my exploration of Chesapeake City and the C&D Canal—that nearly 200-year-old shipping shortcut at the top of the Bay, connecting the Chesapeake to the Delaware River. But that was fine with me. For as long as I’ve been exploring the Bay I’ve wanted to stand on the banks of the C&D and watch a big ship go by—and now I’d done that, and done it in style.

The patio bar I speak of was that of the Bayard House Restaurant, and given the perfectly temperate July night, the sky full of stars, the superb meal I’d just had, I couldn’t have imagined a better setting for my big ship-watching moment. Over the next few days, though, I found several worthy contenders: The balcony of my third-floor room at the lovely Ship Watch Inn, virtually next door to the Bayard House; the shady lawn alongside the C&D Canal Museum; the picnic tables alongside the Canal Creamery and Sweet Shoppe near the foot of Bohemia Ave.; and of course good old Schaefer’s, keeping an eye on all of the foregoing from the canal’s opposite shore. As most northern Bay boaters can tell you, Schaefer’s Canal House was a fixture on the C&D for decades before going dark for several years in the mid-2000s. But it is now robustly back in business—with indoor and outdoor dining, indoor and outdoor bars, a banquet hall, a fuel dock and space for 20 or 30 overnight boats at its marina’s two piers. Altogether there’s easily an acre of prime ship-watching space here. During a long, lingering two-appetizer lunch at Schaefer’s near the end of my stay, I watched three giant barges go by (two pulled by tugs, one pushed), plus a small, ancient, rust-streaked freighter that looked like it had just steamed out of 1920 Shanghai.

But now I’ve gone and made it seem like the trip was all about ship-watching, and of course it wasn’t. It was about seeing Chesapeake City at last with my own eyes and, time and weather permitting, following the canal to its eastern end, Delaware City. From there, the plan was, I’d take the hourly ferry out to Fort Delaware. Out in the middle of Delaware River on what’s known as Pea Patch Island, this 19th-century fort—which was never called on to defend Philadelphia but which served as a prison for tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War—has fascinated me since I first read about it decades ago. And now was my chance to see it at last. It was an ambitious plan altogether, but with grudging cooperation from the weather gods, I managed to pull it off nearly to my satisfaction in a matter of three days. Four days if you count the half-day cruise from and back to Annapolis.

Home base for my adventure was Chesapeake Inn and Marina, which dominates the town boat basin on the canal’s south side, directly across from Schaefer’s. My lodging for that first night would be the boat—Liberty, the Albin 28 I’d booked out of the Chesapeake Boating Club. I’m not a big fan of sleeping in V-berths or quarter berths, especially those designed for people who are less than six feet long, but it would just be for the one night. For the following night I’d booked a room at the Ship Watch Inn (that of the great balcony view), and for the third night I had a reservation at the Blue Max Inn, another splendid B&B a few blocks south on Bohemia Ave. The inn-hopping wasn’t by choice; I’d have been happy with one or the other, but neither was available both nights.

After getting Liberty all plugged in and squared way in a slip directly alongside the Chesapeake Inn’s open-air dining area (surprisingly busy for a late afternoon on a Tuesday), I untied my bike and headed up Second Street to explore the town. I hardly needed the bike, it turned out. Even I, with my defective hips—one of them artificial, the other headed that way—could have easily covered this compact little village on foot in an hour or so. But, like I said . . . bad hips. And I’m lazy. Plus, I’d gone to all the trouble of bringing the bike along. So I biked it. There’s George Street and Bohemia Ave., running northeast-southwest; crosswise, there’s First, Second and Third streets. That’s pretty much it—the historic district, though it’s not officially designated as such on any maps. It’s in these six or so square blocks you find most of the Chesapeake City’s architectural history, house after house with placards next to or over their doors—“Beiswanger-Henn House, circa 1849,” “Banks Steele House, 1854,” etc. The overwhelming majority of them are simple two-story clapboard frame houses of mid- and late-19th-century vintage. That makes sense, because that was Chesapeake City’s boom time. Until the canal opened in 1829, there was nothing here but a couple of Federal period taverns and a boat landing on what was then Back Creek.

There’s more to modern-day Chesapeake City—an entire northern half, in fact, on the opposite side of the canal. But except for Schaefer’s, a firehouse and a couple of churches, it’s mostly 20th-century residential on that side.

I would learn that on a later bike exploration, but for now I was content to wheel around the historic district, enjoying the afternoon cool-down and falling a little bit in love with the place. It’s here in these 19th-century blocks, of course, where one also finds the shoppes, boutiques, antiques stores, cafes and inns. So I scouted it all, biking the whole of it three or four times over and noting the locations of my future lodgings (Ship Watch Inn, foot of St. George Street; Blue Max, corner of Third and Bohemia). I even found a couple of places I hadn’t seen in my online scouting—the 1848 Doc Smithers B&B, and, alongside the Bayard House near the foot of Bohemia Ave., a diminutive and very appealing two-story guest cottage. And I do mean diminutive. Think Smurf house, circa 1849. Managed by the Bayard House, it’s called the Old Wharf Cottage. All of 12 feet across at the eaves, it has a porch on the east side, a kitchen bump-out and patio on the west side and nothing but canal to the north.

With an angry-looking evening storm now rolling in, I skedaddled back to the Chesapeake Inn. I made sure Liberty was buttoned up for the deluge and then took cover at the dockside bar. There I sipped an orange crush and watched a horde of nimble waiters take down and stow dozens of table umbrellas. The storm turned out to have much more bark than bite. It rained hard, but only for a few minutes, and within half an hour, all was calm and balmy again. After a simple but excellent dinner (the inn’s signature brick-oven pizza), I hit the showers and then settled in for the night aboard Liberty.

In the morning, after a quiet few hours of reading in the cockpit, I biked back into town for an omelet at the only breakfast game in town: the Bohemia Cafe. After visiting a few of the shops around town—Black Swan Antiques, Al’s Antiques, the Old Gray Mare Gift Shoppe, etc.—I hopped on the bike again and headed for the far side of the basin. The main idea was to visit the C&D Canal Museum, though I got sidetracked along the way. As I rounded the basin I realized this was also the way to the long and ostensibly bike-friendly access road I’d noticed on Google maps, running alongside the canal for what seemed like many uninterrupted miles. So I veered right before the museum and worked my way down to the access road. It turned out to be pretty good biking—a little rocky here and there, with the occasional rut and mud puddle to avoid, but not bad at all. And of course since it runs along a sea-level canal, it’s about as flat as flat gets. As so often happens with this kind of ad hoc exploring, it’s only when you’re on your way back that you realize how much ground you covered on the outgoing leg. Maybe temperatures creeping into the 90s had something to do with it, but I’d gone way farther than I’d intended to. So before heading to the museum I went back to the marina for a shower, a bottle of water and a power nap.

Soon I was back on the bike and pedaling around the basin again, this time headed to the C&D Canal Museum, alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers canal headquarters. Maybe it’s the armchair (or wannabe) engineer in me, but I found this place fascinating. The utilitarian stone building itself is part of canal history, built in the mid-19th century to house the massive boiler and steam engines designed to pump water into the depth challenged middle section of the canal. Turning a huge water wheel (10 feet wide and 38 feet in diameter), the engines could lift 1.2 million gallons out of Back Creek and into the canal per hour, when necessary. You can stand next to and touch both of the enormous engines—painted glossy black and looking as if they’d work just fine if you fired up the boiler.

But the boiler is long gone, replaced by the main exhibit area. Here, if you’re willing to linger long enough for it all to sink in, you really get a good sense of the extraordinary long and complex engineering (and economic) history of the canal. The first serious efforts to fund and build the canal began around 1800, but it wasn’t until 1829 that it finally opened for shipping—10 feet deep and 66 feet wide, with four locks. It operated for nearly a century as a private-shareholder business, with sporadic government support, but it was never much of an economic success. And, in the first half of 19th-century in particular, it was plagued by serious engineering problems. Its banks frequently caved in, its locks occasionally failed. And sometimes the problems were serious enough to shut the canal down for weeks or months at a time.

Though its worst engineering problems were eventually solved, the canal did not substantially change until the 20th century, and then it evolved rapidly. In the 1920s, after being purchased by the U.S. government, it was converted to a sea-level canal, straightened in a few places and reopened in 1927—though it was still only 12 feet deep and 90 feet wide. A five-year expansion project in the 1930s nearly tripled that, to 27 feet deep and 250 feet wide. But even that wasn’t enough to keep pace with the size of ships; in the 1960s and 70s the canal was widened and deepened one last time, to its current 36-foot depth and 450-foot width.

I was so captivated by it all—the maps, the scale models, the giant photos of ships and locks and bridges—that I could scarcely believe it when 4 p.m., closing time, rolled around. (It’s the museum’s only flaw: Monday through Fridays only, 8 to 4.)

With one eye on the weather, I’d chosen day three as my best bet for the much anticipated jaunt to the other end of the canal. That turned out to be the right call, though you wouldn’t have thought so at 9 a.m., with clouds swirling about restlessly, spitting rain. But by 10:30 it began to look much more promising, so I got under way.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, something grander, I suppose. Without giant boats in it—and there were none that morning—the canal is really just 12 or so nautical miles of straight, deep and thoroughly riprapped river, with more than its share of extraordinarily high bridges. I was at the eastern end before I knew it. Just a mile beyond the last of those extraordinarily high bridges (Reedy Point, Route 9) I turned left up the Delaware River. Up the shoreline on the left I could make out a miniature skyline of what I figured was Delaware City. And off to the right I could see the green smudge of land that was clearly Pea Patch Island, with a distinct gray protrusion on the east side—Fort Delaware, my destination for the day.

Tempting as it was to make a beeline to the long pier I could see on the near side of the island, I knew I couldn’t; visitors are allowed by ferry only—the Delafort, to be exact, an 80-passenger double-decker that shuttles visitors from Delaware City to the fort and back eight to ten times a day, five days a week, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In fact, the Delafort came along just as I was approaching the town. Having heard there can be skinny water at Delaware City’s front door, I hung back and let the ferry boat show me the way in. Of course this was the eastern end of the canal until the 1920s, when it was converted to sea level and rerouted straight east to Reedy Point. If you want to see what the 19th-century canal looked like, here is where you’ll see it.

There indeed was a distinct speed bump across the mouth of the old canal, but I felt pretty confident following in the footsteps of a much bigger boat. Once inside, and staying roughly center, I had 7 to 10 feet all the way to the long stretch of canal front that is Delaware City Marina. There I paid $10 to tie up for the afternoon, and before long I was aboard the Delafort, on my way to a forgotten corner of the Civil War. By the war’s end in 1865 there were some 33,000 Confederate soldiers imprisoned on Pea Patch Island—officers inside the pentagonal, moated fort and enlisted men in wooden barracks that sprawled across the rest of the island. It was a fascinating afternoon, with musketry and artillery demonstrations, history lectures and plenty of free time to just roam around the fort and ponder. Ponder things like this: The canal I had traveled that very morning was likely used to transport many thousands of the Confederate soldiers at Fort Delaware. And to ponder something I had just read in David Berry’s 2010 book, A History of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal—that the country’s canals were never more profitable or busy as they were during the Civil War. Something to ponder, indeed, as I headed west out of Chesapeake City the next morning and bid good-bye to the C&D.

[September 2014 issue]