Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Choptank River

Following the meandering curves of history along Tuckahoe Creek and the Choptank River.

by John Page Williams
photographs by Michael C. Wootton

While launching First Light into Tuckahoe Creek at the New Bridge ramp on Tuckahoe Creek, a few miles beyond Easton, Md., on Route 328 (Matthewstown Road), I was thinking about a Greek word derived from the ancient name of a river in today’s Turkey: meander. In general use, the word conjures up casual, lazy, wandering movement, at least when applied to creatures like humans and Irish setters. When a river meanders through sinuous curves, though, its power is remarkable—anything but casual—especially here on the tidal portions of the Chesapeake system.

I love these curving river sections, which occur on our waterways mostly in their upper tidal reaches, where the water ranges from mildly brackish to outright fresh, depending on rainfall. In general, as a river flows around a curve, the outside flow accelerates and the inside slows down, just as runners might do to stay side-by-side going around a track. In the river, the accelerating water erodes the outer bank and the channel, while the decelerating water allows some of the sediment it is carrying to settle to the bottom. The result is a deep hole next to a firm bank on the outside and a marsh or a wooded swamp on the shallower inside. We humans have made good use of these natural features on rivers all over the world through several millennia of our history. River meanders represent a profound intersection of natural and human history.

Mind you, it takes homework, close observation and imagination to appreciate that intersection on a cold, windy day in early winter. But we—my boat-loving sister-in-law, Dorothy Brown, photographer Michael Wootton and I—were going to try. Thoroughly bundled in wool, fleece and Gore-Tex, we were ready to enjoy a meander of our own around Tuckahoe Creek and the Choptank River, for no other reason than the urge to go exploring had struck.

A Chilly Morning on Tuckahoe Creek

We hadn’t even splashed the Whaler on the well kept ramp when we got our first look at life on the river, finding commercial catfish potter Mike Malczewski filleting several pretty channel cats that he had culled out of his day’s catch for a friend. Malczewski told us he makes a decent living here on Tuckahoe Creek and the Choptank River, to which the creek flows, selling both live fish and fillets to a wide variety of markets. When I asked where his boat was, he told me that his mate was taking her to a nearby dock where they keep her when fishing the Tuckahoe. Channel cats are among my favorite fish, and I took careful note of where we saw them on First Light’s sounder as the day progressed. From the James in southern Virginia to the Sassafras and the Susquehanna in the Upper Bay, they love the deep water on the outsides of river meanders.

By contrast, the marshes on the insides of Tuckahoe Creek’s meanders have great value for a wide range of birds and for furbearers, especially river otters, muskrats and beavers. A couple of miles above the ramp, we found a gut running out of a large marsh. On the outside of a curve in the gut (of course), we found a large beaver lodge. This location is ideal for beavers, because the relatively deep hole on the gut’s curve (about ten feet) gives them guaranteed depth for an underwater entrance, while alders and red maples at the back edge of the marsh give them both food and building materials. Meanwhile, a wide range of fish feed the creek’s otters, and the plants in the marshes keep the muskrats happy.

These tidal freshwater marshes are veritable food factories for birds, ranging from red-winged blackbirds to migratory ducks. Most of the plants in the marshes are seed-producing annuals like smartweed and tearthumb—both members of the high-protein buckwheat family—and high-energy wild rice. By early December, these plants have died back from their late summer glory, so the marshes look like corn stubble in the nearby fields after the combines have done their work. We did glimpse a couple of rice stalks, though. These plants begin growing in late March each year and get as tall as seven feet by August and September when they flower and the grains ripen.

The contrast between a riotously rich tidal fresh marsh in August and the austerity of December is amazing. Despite the cold, however, there were only a few wintering ducks on the Tuckahoe on the day of our visit. A small raft of them that had been resting in the lee of the wind got up and flew as we approached Reese’s Landing, a mile or so upstream of the New Bridge launch ramp. We did, however, see our first two bald eagles of the day soaring there.

As to humans, the Native Americans who lived here prized both sides of the meanders. The high, wooded banks on the outsides of the curves gave them sheltered village sites, good lookout points up- and downstream, and frequently water in the form of springs. The insides of the meanders formed what modern-day anthropologists call “breadbasket marshes” that grew plant foods like wild rice, arrowhead tubers and cattail bloom spikes, while also providing opportunities to trap birds and fur-bearing mammals, the former primarily for food and the latter for hides.

The same pattern of settlement worked for the English settlers who moved into the Tuckahoe/Choptank watershed in the late 17th century. Although Captain John Smith never visited these rivers on his explorations in the summer of 1608, the settlers of the places he visited and mapped, especially Kent Island, spilled over into these rivers with the founding of Talbot County in 1662.

Tuckahoe Creek (or River, as it is often known) is the Choptank’s largest tributary. In colonial times and even up into the early 20th century, it offered enough depth that sloops, bugeyes, small schooners and steamboats could travel ten miles or so upstream to carry produce and grain crops out and bring in manufactured goods. Doree, Michael and I marveled at the navigational capabilities those vessels’ skippers and crews must’ve had as we considered the way the wind and the channel shifted back and forth through the meanders.

Having traveled a few miles up the creek, we reached Reese’s Landing—which today, offers a soft launch for canoes and kayaks, but in the late 19th century, was a stop for the Wheeler Transportation Line, the only steamboat company based on the Eastern Shore. Reese’s Landing is typical of the farm and public steamboat wharves that grew up on the outsides of most of the meanders on both sides of the creek. We could see the remnant pilings of the Reese’s Landing wharf, still standing in the Tuckahoe and obvious on this day’s super-low tide, and we marveled at how the 130-foot Minnie Wheeler could have maneuvered in this narrow channel, even with the 20-foot-deep water at those pilings.

The Wheeler Line was based upstream in the Caroline County town of Hillsboro, but its uppermost landing was Wayman’s Wharf, about three miles downstream. This wharf is named for the family of another distinguished Tuckahoe Creek native, Bishop Alexander Walker Wayman, one of the most active clergy in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church during the Civil War and after. Bishop Wayman was born into a free black farming family on the river in 1821. He started and ministered to congregations all over the United States during that turbulent era of our history, and many A.M.E. churches are named for him today.

Two more important 19th-century African-Americans had roots along Tuckahoe Creek. The fiery abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born a slave upriver on a Talbot County farm in Kentucky Ravine, and his autobiography recounts incidents along the creek before he escaped to the north. The woods and marshes of the Tuckahoe also played a role in Harriett Tubman’s Underground Railroad.

By the time we reached Reese’s Landing, the cold and the wind began to cut through our little party, so we decided to head back to the ramp, where we pulled First Light back onto her trailer and headed into Easton for hot soup and coffee.

Choptank Wharves

After lunch, we drove east again, this time out Dover Road (Route 331) across the Dover Bridge over the Choptank’s main stem. Built in 1932, this steel swing bridge marks the Choptank’s transition from brackish salinity to tidal fresh. We turned north in Preston, Md., on Rt. 16 and then left onto Gilpin Point Road, headed for Ganeys Wharf, a historic steamboat landing just opposite the mouth of Tuckahoe Creek. There we splashed First Light and continued our exploration.

In the late 19th century, the upper Choptank was a major thoroughfare for agricultural trade, with many canneries shipping their products to Baltimore and beyond. Ganeys Wharf was an important stop along this commercial trail, and as we headed out onto the river, we could still see remnants of the old steamboat wharf close to the ramp and its pier.

Just upstream of Ganeys, we passed the mouth of Tuckahoe Creek and Prices Landing, where small Tuckahoe Creek vessels transferred passengers and cargo to the Baltimore-bound steamers. For years, a ferry connected Prices Landing to Gilpin Point, which was home to the local Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Richardson.

True-to-form, Prices is on the outside of a curve, with a 30-foot-deep trench where First Light’s depth sounder marked a stack of (presumably) channel cats. I made a note to come back here when the weather was a little more conducive to fishing.

When a powerful tributary’s currents meet the main river’s flow, the resulting turbulence causes sediment to settle out along the line of the collision. On the Choptank, the result is a bar in the middle of the river with channels on either side, with reds “62” and “64” firmly planted on the south side of the channel to guide vessels along that side. This kind of turbulence also occurs in the meanders, and it is strong enough to suspend the eggs of spawning striped bass, a condition that they need to develop. The Choptank and the Tuckahoe together form a very important spawning and nursery ground for the Chesapeake’s beloved rockfish. The rivers also sustain significant runs of American shad, hickory shad and white perch.

We continued upstream six miles or so Denton, Md., which was a major business hub for river-borne commerce in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Actually, Denton itself stands on the inside of a meander, connected with the outside of the turn by first by a walkway across a marsh and a ferry and then by a moveable bridge that dates back to 1811. The outside was founded as Harford Town in 1774, but by the time the bridge became operational, the town had been renamed West Denton. Here the river carved its channel right against the bank, creating an ideal location for construction of wharves for granaries, fertilizer warehouses, a passenger terminal, and at least one shipyard that produced sloops and schooners.

Steamboats from Baltimore began running regular routes up the Choptank in 1842 and continued into the 1920s. Thanks to fertile soils and skillful farmers, the Denton wharves attracted canneries and large warehouses for fresh produce. Other industries included a flourmill and a shirt factory. The area around the wharves also blossomed into a local commercial center, with general stores, a blacksmith’s shop and other necessary enterprises. Imports to the wharves consisted of manufactured products and bulk goods like coal, kerosene, gasoline and fertilizer.

Today, the only commercial operation on the West Denton waterfront is Mathews Landing, the launching, service and storage yard for Mathews Bros. boatbuilding operation, whose primary shop is nearby in Denton’s busy new industrial park. The old wharves were preserved and some were restored, including a steamboat freight warehouse and passenger waiting room, by the Old Harford Town Maritime Center, but the museum closed several years ago. Even so, its buildings still offer a remarkable look into West Denton’s glory years.

Today, Denton continues to prosper, but now its industrial artery is Maryland Route 404, the most popular link from U.S. Route 50 to the Delaware Shore. That transition, driven by the radical changes in transportation during the 20th century, has left the human history side of the river to fade.

By now, our light was fading too, so we turned First Light around and headed downriver, taking particular note of the remnants of old steamboat landings. Pealiquor Landing, just below the mouth of Watts Creek, is the site of a cannery where the Phillips Packing Company stripped peas out of their hulls, pressing the hulls and selling them for cattle forage. The juice simply drained into the river in quantities that certainly didn’t help the water, but such matters escaped public attention at the turn of the 20th century. As we passed Pealiquor’s remnants, two more bald eagles circled over the cove beside the landing.

Potter’s Landing, just downstream, dates back to the mid-18th century. For the next hundred years, the Potter family served with distinction in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, while helping to establish the University of Maryland Medical School and building Potter’s Landing into the largest port in Caroline County, with ships trading all the way across to Europe. In the mid-19th century, Colonel John Arthur Willis bought the landing and changed its name to Williston. By that time, the settlement included the usual prosperous mix of canneries, stores, a hotel, a grist mill, a tannery, and even a dance hall, as well as warehouses and wharves for sailing vessels and steamboats.

Williston may have had a dance hall, but the big late-19th-century entertainment attraction on the Choptank was Two Johns, named for a father-and-son team of vaudeville actors who established a mansion with playhouse a couple of miles downriver from Williston. Baltimore steamboats brought many people to the shows, while several canneries, a store, and a guesthouse sprouted up there. Like all of the other river landings, however, the end of the steamboat era in the 1920s and ’30s killed the action at Two Johns, and the mansion burned to the ground in 1947.

Continuing on past the mouth of Tuckahoe Creek, we saluted Col. Richardson as we passed Gilpin Point and tucked First Light into the ramp at Ganeys Wharf. At the edge of dark, ours were the only vehicles in the parking lot. We secured the faithful skiff on her trailer, marveled at how quiet this once-busy river had become, and headed home.

Our final eagle tally for the day nearly matched the waterfowl count, at 12 versus around 18. Human activity may have declined along this part of the Choptank, but its natural riches remain strong. In all but the worst weather, the upper Choptank and Tuckahoe Creek will always make an observant explorer smile the way Doree, Mike, and I did at the end of that day.

[April 2014 issue]