The author finds that, when cruising, a little context is a beautiful thing.  

by Jody Argo Schroath

All I wanted to do was take a quick look at Old Road Bay because I'd never been there before--and because "Old Road Bay" is an interesting name. I didn't really expect to find anything particularly alluring about it. I mean, a cruiser's heart is not exactly set aflutter by a body of water dominated by a four-mile-long mid-20th century open-hearth steel mill and all the slag heaps and nature-laid-low atmosphere that comes with it. And yet, of course, I was completely taken by it. You knew that was coming, didn't you?

This first time I entered Old Road Bay was a couple of years ago. Skipper, the ship's dog, and I had been just across the Patapsco River on a cruise to Bodkin Creek. We had a few hours to spare before we needed to put the Albin 28 to bed for the night back in Annapolis, so in we went, dutifully following Penwood Channel, the short shipping channel that leads in from the Patapsco, and then exploring both of Old Road Bay's tributaries, Jones Creek and North Point Creek. To be honest, it wasn't love at first sight. The bay was too broad and too exposed to the Patapsco's big-ship traffic to provide a secure anchorage. And outside Penwood Channel-- which makes a beeline for the Sparrows Point steel plant, of course--the bottom seemed to be idiosyncratic. 

Leaving the channel to explore the center of the bay, I tried to follow the deeper soundings on the chart, but I repeatedly found sudden and inexplicable shoal areas. It was more unnerving than entertaining. And the tributaries, while pleasant and dotted with half a dozen marinas in various states of repair, seemed too shallow outside their locally marked channels for a newcomer such as myself to feel comfortable dropping the anchor for an evening. So, having done our duty exploration-wise, I hustled back to the channel and back out onto the Patapsco.

Then I kind of forgot about Old Road Bay . . . until this spring, when I was cruising up the Bay in my new boat, a 2000 Endeavour 36 sailing cat named Moment of Zen. Skipper and I were heading north for a couple of weeks at Bowleys Marina on Middle River. It was my first solo trip in the boat, and I was having a grand time cranking up the sails, trimming them this way and that, and just generally dilly-dallying up the western shore of the Bay. As we were crossing the entrance to the Patapsco, I happened to look upriver and spot Old Road Bay. Maybe it's the kind of place that improves with better acquaintance, I thought, and brought Zen through the wind and off to a broad reach toward the bay's southern boundary. Once inside, I doused the sails. As I stood on the foredeck after flaking the jib, the boat bobbing gently in the breeze coming across the river, I looked around me and realized I was looking at a very different place.

No, that's not quite right. The scene I was looking at was just the same. The wind may have been fresher and the season was spring rather than fall. But it all looked just the same. What was different was me; I was seeing it with different eyes. During the two years I had been away, I had been squirreling away bits of information about Old Road Bay and its surroundings--a little history here, a little news item there. It was nothing startling, nothing I couldn't have picked up in conversation with any of the residents who live along its shore. But it was information that made all the difference. It always does. We can admire a place purely for its beauty or its drama, but we can't really know it without some context. And what better example of that, I thought, than this broad and unlovely bay that I now beheld with utter fascination. 

First I looked to the west, at the awful beauty of Sparrows Point. Now I knew that the point took its name from Thomas Sparrow, who received it as a grant in 1652 from the lords Baltimore. I turned mightily to imagine it was as it was until 1889--a series of small farms. All that changed in that year, when Pennsylvania Steel Co. began production at its new factory, a facility that would grow like Topsy to become the world's largest steel mill in the 1950s under owner Bethlehem Steel, with a union membership of more than 31,000. Then began the decline. The market for steel changed, modernized and moved elsewhere, leaving Bethlehem Steel in 2001 to declare a $1.2 billion loss--the exact amount, as it happens, that current owner Renco paid for the plant last year.

Turning my back on Sparrows Point, I looked toward North Point, home of the handsome and largely deserted Fort Howard Veterans Hospital. North Point itself is chock-full of history. It was from ships anchored in Old Road Bay that the British in 1814 sent ashore about 4,500 men, the largest invasion force in the nation's history, to march up Patapsco River Neck and capture Baltimore. That didn't happen. American sharpshooters right off the bat managed to kill the British Commander, Major General Robert Ross, and then put up a stiff fight, stopping the British at what is now Patterson Park and sending them packing back to their ships. 

 The southern end of North Point was later turned into Fort Howard, headquarters of a series of coastal-defense sites built along the Patapsco late in the 19th century. The property was eventually turned over to the Veterans Administration, which opened the enormous hospital there in 1943. That facility closed in 2002, though a small VA clinic remains.

From my vantage point on the deck, I could see the boarded-up hospital, neatly trimmed lawns, and along the shoreline, boarded-up homes and streets fallen into disrepair. Part of the property is now Fort Howard Park and open to the public during daylight hours. The rest is eerie, forlorn and forgotten. Plans for a multi-use development of the property may or may not come to fruition.

Farther north, beyond my view from the bay, a large section of North Point is also preserved as a park. North Point State Park encompasses Black Marsh as well as the site of the long-gone Bay Shore Amusement Park--an enormously popular summer destination for area residents from 1906 to 1947.

I returned to the helm and closed the circle back to Penwood Channel, once again picking my way around the shoals--some things don't improve with better acquaintance. Besides, it was time to continue my trip north to Middle River. I cranked the sails back up then turned to head northeast for the short trip out to the Bay and past Hart-Miller Island. It had definitely been worth the detour, and I knew I'd be back. After all, I still didn't know how Old Road Bay got its name.  

[6.12 issue]