For decades downtrodden, Chesapeake City
has transformed itself into one of the niftiest little
boating towns on the Bay. [July 2006]
By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Michael C. Wootton
April showers bring May flowers, but what about April northeasters? "It's not a northeaster," I told my husband Johnny on the Saturday we had planned to leave for Chesapeake City, Md. "It's only supposed to last today." He looked at the sideways rain and thrashing trees, all blown hard away from the wind, which was a chilly blast from . . . the northeast. "If it looks like a northeaster," he said, "feels like a northeaster, blows like a northeaster. . . ."
Whatever. Duly reminded once again never to count on anything—especially the weather—in the month of April, we waited out the rain and took off for the northern Bay the next day, a Sunday. The restless sky was a chilly, dubious pewter, and a foul current was full of logs and other flotsam. Still, it didn't seem to matter; it was spring, we were in our boat and we were headed for someplace we had never really seen before. Though we'd both passed through Chesapeake City countless times delivering sailboats north or south—taking the same shortcut that thousands of ships and tugs take each year, the C&D Canal—we'd never pulled over and spent any time in the little town that has straddled the canal since the early 1800s. What I knew of Chesapeake City was what I saw from the fuel dock at Schaefer's Canal House or from the Route 213 bridge that arches over the town like a giant eyebrow, perpetually surprised. Years ago, en route from our boat on the Sassafras River to home in Pennsylvania, my family would sometimes stop before that bridge and drive beneath its shadow for steamed crabs at the Tap Room—or, if we were feeling fancy, cross over to the northern half of the town and sup at Schaefer's. But that was it. The town and I were merely acquaintances. This trip, I wanted to get to know it better.
Whoa! It'shuge!" This from my son Kaeo, who is nine and who has been near big ships many times before, but never one under way and never close enough to hit with his well-worn edition of
The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes. The
Hual Tramperslides by us like a sibilant wall, eastbound in the canal, and I am reminded that no matter how often I do this it always quickens the pulse. Being in a smallish boat and willingly passing so close to a moving ship is rather like a mouse being asked to stroll calmly past a cat; it just ain't natural. But it's also one of the coolest things about coming to Chesapeake City.
It took us about two hours in the Bertram 31 to travel from Annapolis to Town Point, the canal's western terminus. Now, just ten minutes later, we're approaching our destination. WithHual Tramperpassing astern and the kids having put their eyes back into their sockets, we see the Route 213 bridge ahead, the basin of Captain Dann's towing company to port, followed by the docks of Schaefer's Canal House. We notice that Schaefer's looks decidedly scruffy; the docks on the western end appear to be falling apart, and the parking lot at the same spot has a fence all around it since chunks of it are caved in. The place is dark and empty. We're told later that it's been closed for some time; those in the know in town say the bank repo'ed it from its most recent owner and it's being sold at auction. Nobody seems to know what's going to happen to it, but for now, the only reason for boaters to stop in what's known as North Chesapeake City is defunct.
That's okay with us. We've made plans to tie up at the Chesapeake Inn & Marina in Back Creek basin—the round, sheltered cove on the southern side that's really the entrance to Back Creek. The brick and clapboard buildings of Chesapeake City cling to the edge of the basin and the southern side of the canal like limpets on a sea-washed rock. It's early on a Sunday afternoon, so the secular festivities at the marina's tiki bar are just getting started when we tie up at the T-head. I find the dockmaster, Andy Upp, who tells us we can choose our slip; this early in the season the place isn't as crowded as it will be later. We snug the boat into a cozy spot, settle up with Andy and gather our bags. We've made a reservation at the Shipwatch Inn, and Andy points the way, just up the street. The sun is starting to come out. We walk. Because the street is pretty and invites us, and because walking is what people here do.
As Bay towns go, Chesapeake City is a relative newcomer. It sprang up on the map as Bohemia Village sometime around 1829—after the first, 14-mile version of the canal was completed, connecting Delaware City with Back Creek, which flowed on from here to the Elk River. Two locks were built at Bohemia Village; the town grew to serve them and the canal operations. In 1839 the town renamed itself rather grandly, becoming Chesapeake City, and by 1849, when the town incorporated, 400 people lived here. In those days there was no "north" or "south" to Chesapeake City; it was one community on both sides of the narrow canal (then just 66 feet wide at the waterline), with the locks in between. People routinely, if riskily, walked across the locks to go back and forth. Most of the businesses were on the southern side, and the northern side was mostly residential.
But that all changed, beginning in the 1920s, when the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a steady widening of the canal that would continue until the waterway was, eventually, its present 450 feet across. The corps also deepened the canal to make it entirely sea level, removing all but the first lock at Delaware City (it was no longer used since the corps had also moved the canal's eastern terminus to Reedy Point, bypassing Delaware City completely). A new lift bridge was built in Chesapeake City in 1924. Even that was still fairly easy to travel across to get from one side of town to the other. And according to the oral histories gathered in Robert Hazel's bookThe Chesapeake and Delaware Canal: Chronicles of Early Life in Towns Along the Historic Waterway, the lift bridge was a constant source of adventure and fun for local kids. "I used to ride up on it," Francis Brown told Hazel. "The operator would let us get on, ride it up, and stand there and wave at the ships, barges and tugs going beneath us." Robert Johnson was even more daring.
"We used to hang on the side of it as it moved up," Johnson told Hazel. "We wanted to see how high we could go up before we let go." The lift bridge was like having an amusement park ride in your backyard, and the canal was for fishing and swimming—although swimmers had to be careful of the current and the ships.
But life in Chesapeake City changed irrevocably in July 1942, when a captured German tanker ship, calledFranz Klasen, crashed into the southern end of the bridge right in front of what is now Bayard House, bringing the whole lifting structure down on top of it. Miraculously no one was killed, but the sound and sight of the destruction rang in the memories of residents ever after. "The sound when it hit is hard to describe," Grason Stubbs, who was standing on the south side when it happened, told Hazel. "It was the grinding, screaming sound of metal on metal when it starts to twist. There was a loud boom when it fell, like a bomb going off. The best way I can describe it is like when I was in Korea—something blowing up beside me."
It wasn't the first time a bridge had been hit on the canal; on January 10, 1939, the freighterS.S. Waukeganhit the lift bridge at St. Georges, Del., killing the bridge inspector and tender. Between 1938 and 1950 alone, eight ships collided with bridges. But the crash at Chesapeake City literally cut the town in half. Although a ferry was quickly established to take people back and forth, and by 1949 the current mile-long, 140-foot-high span was finished, the easy physical link between the two parts of the town was broken.
By the time we drop the bags in our canal-front room at the Shipwatch Inn, the uncertain sky of the morning has given way to bright sunshine, so we immediately head out for a walk. My first view of Chesapeake City up from the marina had reminded me, of all things, of Nantucket—narrow rows of quaint, unassuming and clearly old buildings, many of them still dressed in clapboard and topped with cedar shingles. This first impression continues with our walk down comfortably small streets and past lovely houses, nearly every one of them at least flanked, if not surrounded, by gardens. Birdsong mingles with the laughter of children and the ever-present singsong of the bridge—ka-link-ka-lunk, ka-link-ka-lunk—as the cars pass nearly overhead. Between the main streets, unpaved alleys with names like Pine, Pig and Williams provide shortcuts for someone who might be, for reasons I can't imagine here, in a hurry.
At the corner of Third and George I stop to talk with some women who are sipping iced tea between bedding new plants into the garden, which already is showing its potential with early blooming iris and bushy roses. "It's a fabulous place to live," says Melissa Clark, who owns the home called Savin House, dating from 1848. She snips with authority at a budding blue lace-cap hydrangea. "Everybody knows each other, everybody likes each other.
"It's entirely different now," she says. "When I moved here [in 1991] almost every property was in bad shape. Now there are very few. Almost every property has been reclaimed. And we have really beautiful gardens. The gardens are young, but there are a lot of manic gardeners in this town."
Her sister, Holly Roddy, lives about a block away and moved here eight years ago. Holly's daughter Shannon, visiting from Washington, D.C., is tamping in peonies near a majestic cedar tree right at the garden's corner. "It used to be a biker town, that's the rep it had. Pagans," Roddy says, referring to the notorious biker gang. "Then Mrs. duPont got involved—she and other people started buying property and restoring it—and that's what started it." As she talks, a noisy group of gleaming Harley-Davidsons rumbles past, halting our conversation for a moment. "They still come here," she smiles, watching them go, "only they spend a lot more money, and they're not as rowdy."
Mrs. duPont—Allaire C. duPont, who bred and owned the great thoroughbred racehorse Kelso at her Bohemia Stables a few miles from here—is ever present in Chesapeake City, even though she passed away at age 92 early this year. Her influence in the town's revival continues to be felt and appreciated by everyone I talk with.
"Allaire duPont always expected you to do your part and she would do hers," says Jayne Foard, a lifelong Chesapeake City resident who owns the Back Creek General Store on Bohemia Avenue. Dating from 1861, the store retains its original shelving and glass cabinets; the metal plate protecting the wood at the doorstep is worn paper-thin and cupped from so many travelers over the years. "She was a great cheerleader. She always said, 'You can do that.' ''
After the lift bridge fell in 1942, Foard tells me, the town began to deteriorate. "Most businesses were on the south side, historically," she says. "They were going out of business, because people couldn't get back and forth from the north side." By the time the new high span was built, people's habits had changed. If you had to hop in your car to drive to the store anyway, she says, it was just as easy to go a few miles north to Elkton, which was a bigger town. And as the businesses here began to fail, people moved away, and houses fell into neglect.
By the 1960s, walking the town's alleys could be a dangerous proposition, and hardly anyone went down to what is now known as Bayard House and its historic bar, still called the Hole in the Wall, since that's where the Pagans hung out. The sewer and water systems were shot. "The town was pretty dilapidated," Foard admits.
But in the late 1960s, a group of investors from Pennsylvania put in an offer on Franklin Hall, one of the most historic and imposing buildings in town. This worried the town residents, who didn't know what the out-of-state company might do with it. It was a wake-up call, Foard says. At the time, she was secretary of the Chesapeake City District Civic Association, a group that had been formed by local clergy ostensibly to help kids stay out of trouble. But the group was also interested in beautifying the town. Two of the clergymen—Rev. Walden Pell and Rev. James Reynolds—knew Allaire duPont and suggested asking her for financial help to buy the building for the town (which has since been used as the town library, offices and the headquarters for the local civic association). Foard remembers that first meeting, when duPont told the group that if they could raise $2,000 in two weeks, she'd put up the remaining $18,000. "She wanted to see people say, 'This is what we want,' '' Foard says. "Well, two thousand then was like two million. But people started pledging. And in about a week's time we had the two thousand."
The rest, as they say, is history. Mrs. duPont helped the town buy Franklin Hall, and she bought the Bayard House, restoring that establishment and shooing away the bikers. And soon duPont and others were buying and restoring properties left and right.
Several buildings along the waterfront at the city dock were demolished to make room for Pell Gardens, named for Rev. Pell and designed by award-winning architect John Paul Lucas, who grew up here. This section of the town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The water and sewer systems were upgraded. Town committees began keeping close tabs on everything from tree health to remodeling (and they continue to do so). It wasn't simple, Foard says, and it wasn't without controversy. "You have to learn how to compromise and accept things," she says. "But if you have a goal and you stick to it, you will get there."
I've lost my family. I pop into the toy store on Bohemia Avenue and hear that they whirled through a little while ago. Eventually we catch up to each other—the town's not big enough to separate us for too long—and head for the Canal Creamery, a small square building, more windows than anything else, right at the edge of the canal and just across from Pell Gardens. The kids get ice cream and we all sit at the picnic tables outside, watching rafts of seagulls drifting on the current. It rips through here; that's one thing that hasn't changed. I watch a sailboat motoring east at what has to be 10 or 11 knots over the bottom, while a small powerboat heading the other way struggles against the current and barely seems to move. By now, the sounds of a calypso band are drifting from the tiki bar in the basin, and more and more powerboats are pulling in for the afternoon.
The new town dock takes up the western side of the basin between Chesapeake Inn & Marina and the canal entrance. There's a long dock with good depth, and two good-size boats—both trawler types—are tied up for the evening. Also tied up here isMiss Clare, a 42-foot deadrise owned and skippered by Ralph Hazel (brother of author Robert Hazel). A fourth-generation Chesapeake City resident whose forebears ran tugs and moved timber through the canal, Ralph Hazel runs sightseeing cruises on the canal, as well as a free ferry to the north side during summer. Toward the back of the basin, the dock curves into a U-shape with several slips for small, shallow-draft boats. All the slips there, Hazel tells me, are first-come-first-served—and free.
The docks were funded by Program Open Space and the Waterway Improvement Fund, a good example of the town's aggressive pursuit of grants, awards and other sources of money, says Harriett Davis, current president of the civic association. Davis and I take a seat across from the docks in Pell Gardens, under a silver maple next to the pretty bandshell. The shell's roofline is arched, she says, to mimic the arch of the bridge and the iron arched gate at the garden's entrance. It's a popular place to tie the knot, as well as listen to free concerts in summer. I can smell the lilacs blooming on either side of it.
"Hello, Mr. Mayor," Davis calls out to a fellow strolling by in jeans and a T-shirt accompanied by two young boys, one on a bike with a complete Tigger motif. She introduces me to Rob Bernstine, the city's mayor for six years now, and he introduces me to his sons Eric, 5, and Ethan, 3 (he of the Tigger bike). They're headed to the Ferry Slip Park, which is about a block away, just beyond the end of the town dock. He loves Chesapeake City, he says, "because it's a great family town, and a walking town. I enjoy walking and saying hi to my neighbors. And it's also the mix of businesses and residences together; we don't separate them." Before his boys tug him impatiently away, Bernstine tells me what he believes to be part of the town's secret to success: "We have volunteers who really put their heart and soul into it."
A little later, on the way back to the boat, Johnny and I stop by the beautiful garden of native Maryland plants across from the town dock, next to Pell Gardens. A woman on the far side of the gardens stands up with a fistful of phlox; her name is Mary Ioppolo, she tells me, and she and her husband Al own the Inn at the Canal. Half of this garden is hers. "I had a perennial bed and when the town bought this building they had an Open Space grant," she says. "So we merged them."
She and her husband have been here 18 years; they opened the first bed and breakfast in Chesapeake City. "Even though there was a lot that needed to be done in the town," she says, "we had a good feeling for what was happening here."
Talk to enough people in town and they will tell you that the basin can get rather rowdy later in the season on week- ends, particularly during the annual Canal Days celebration in June. Bill Henry, who lives nearby and had cruised into town aboard his Monterey 32, says he and his wife Carolyn like it best on the edges of the season and in the less busy times. "The end of last season was awesome," he says. "We came here for the Halloween party and it was great, fewer people and lots of locals."
It's nearing dinnertime and we choose Bayard House, overlooking the canal. One more walk after dinner, this to check on the boat one more time. On the way back we stop by the Tap Room, known for its year-round crabs, Italian food and, back in the bad old days, literal knock-down-drag-out shuffleboard tournaments. "On Wednesday nights they'd have shuffleboard and then a riot in the street afterwards, no matter who won or lost," Davis had told me earlier. "When Joe Montefusco bought it, the first thing he did was drop the shuffleboard. Quieted the place right down." It's a side of shuffleboard I never knew existed.
The Tap Room is just as I remember, a long rectangular room with a bar on the left and jukebox on the right, tables in the middle. Only it's a lot cleaner and brighter than when I visited as a kid with my family. They're happy to sell us a bottle of wine (in a white paper bag with a huge hoagie on the side), and we carry it back to our room to sip on the porch. It's peaceful watching the water moving heavily westward now, oily and dark in the canal's yellow lights.
Next morning, after a delicious breakfast of pancakes and fruit at the Shipwatch, we pack up and stop by Bohemia Cafe, where they whip us up some sandwiches for lunch later. We drop our gear on the boat and walk around the basin to what is, for my money, the neatest museum on the Bay—the C&D Canal Museum. It's located on Army Corps of Engineers property along the canal, right next to the office of what mariners know as WB33, the canal controllers' office. There's also a free public boat ramp, and as we walk by a gentleman is launching his aluminum johnboat. "What are you going for?" I ask.
"Anything I can get!" he laughs.
The canal museum is located in a group of joined, low stone buildings that were named a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Inside, photographs, maps and various other sources detail the canal's history. A working model of the lock at Chesapeake City shows how a waterwheel, powered with two walking-beam steam engines, pumped water from Back Creek into the lock to raise tugs and barges. In the next room we've come face to face with the real thing, and it takes my breath away. The wheel, made of cypress, is 38 feet across and 10 feet wide. Iron rim gears on either side were engaged by a cast-iron, 3,360-pound pinion that connected the wheel to two walking-beam steam engines on either side. Sitting in a well 22 feet deep, the wheel's 12 buckets could lift 20,000 gallons per minute (1.2 million gallons an hour) and raise the water level 14 feet.
The two engines that powered the wheel are also here. The only ones of their kind in America still on their original mounts, they were designated National Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks in 1985. That's what I enjoy most about this museum: Its context. Everything is where it was, as it was, not removed from some other location and put on display here. While our kids are awed by the sheer size of everything, Johnny is knocked out by the artful engineering. He points to a steel connecting rod, probably 20 feet long, perfectly machined. "Look at the tapers in it," he says. "It's beautiful."
We linger a while at the museum and then make the brief walk back to the boat. The sky has closed in again, looking like storms, but it's time to go. We pull out of the slip and cruise past Pell Gardens. I look up at the little street that had first reminded me of Nantucket, and think about all that this town has seen and endured. And I'm pleased that now it feels less like an acquaintance, more like a friend.
Cruiser's Digest: Chesapeake City, Md.
Getting to Chesapeake City is simple. Go north in the Bay up the Elk River until the C&D Canal branches off to the east, just about at green "23" and red "24". Herring Creek bends off to the southwest just beyond Court-house Point (Harbour North Marina is back here). From here it's just under 4 nautical miles to the Route 213 bridge. The southern side of Chesapeake City, where the shops, restaurants and most businesses are located, is on the right just past the bridge. The basin has just been dredged to about 9 feet, so depth is far less of a problem than it has been in the past. The free town docks are immediately to the right as you enter the basin. Chesapeake Inn & Marina is straight ahead. The basin is a popular anchorage for those who would rather not tie up; you can dinghy into the town dock and walk from there.
A few words about the canal: The current, whether east- or westbound (and yes, it does change with the tide) is very strong, up to 4 knots. Ships, tugs and barges obviously have virtually no maneuverability, and therefore have right of way, so stay out of their way. If you tune your VHF to scan or channel 13 you can often hear the canal controller talking with ships and tugs, so you can get a sense of who's moving where. As you head east, there's a no-wake zone from the basin on the north side before the bridge (where Captain Dann's towing is located, as well as the Delaware Responder, an oil-spill response ship). You'll see the large no-wake signs here, and the zone continues until you're past the defunct Schaefer's Canal House and the pilot boats' docks on the north side and the Back Creek basin on the south side. At night, the entire canal is lit with lights along the sides.
For a guided tour of the canal, check in with Miss Clare Cruises at the town dock (410-885-5088). The C&D Canal Museum (www.nap.usace.army.mil/sb/c&d.htm) is free and open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Also, the Army Corps of Engineers operates a walking trail network along both sides of the canal west of Chesapeake City. Trail maps are available at the museum. For more information and contacts in Chesapeake City go to www.chesapeakecity.com.
Chesapeake Inn & Marina(410-885-2040; www.chesapeakeinn.com) is the only marina in Chesapeake City proper. It has showers, a restaurant and pump-out, but no laundry facilities or fuel. As of this writing, Schaefer's Canal House, which was the only place right on the canal to get fuel, is closed.
Summit North Marina
(302-836-1800), about five nautical miles east of Chesapeake City and just off the northern side of the canal with about 8 feet of depth, has gas and diesel, as well as showers, laundry, swimming pool and a restaurant. To the west, where the Elk River branches away from the canal opposite Herring Bay, Harbour North Marina (410-885-5656) has overnight slips for shallow-draft boats (31/2-foot depth), service and marine supplies .
Chesapeake City has several beautiful bed-and-breakfasts, but call ahead. We tried for a last-minute reservation on a Saturday night and found out that two weddings had booked every room in the town. The Inn at the Canal, 410-885-5995; Old Cottage Wharf, 410-
885-5040; Blue Max Inn, 410-885-2781; Shipwatch Inn, 410-885-5300.
Bayard House, 410-885-5040; Tap Room, 410-885-9873/885-2344; Yacht Club Restaurant (410-885-2267; Bohemia Cafe, 410- 885-3066; Chesapeake Inn Restaurant, 410-885-2040.