the lovely and peaceful Coan River delivers. [December 2004]
By Paul Clancy
Illustration by Dick Goertemiller
A workhorse tug labors up the Coan River on one engine. Jason Reese, puffing on a cigarette, noses the complaining vessel over to the entrance of the river's left branch and points with pride to a rock jetty that he and his company have built to hold back the shoaling sand that once bedeviled the channel.
The jetty--and the newly deepened channel--mark the end of a 10-year effort to deepen the entrance of the branch and tame the restless sand. "I'm from Ohio," Reese says. "I hated it when we first got down here. I was like, 'There ain't nothin' here.' Now I hate to leave." He waves to boaters flying by with water-skiers in tow. Brett Donohoe, his fellow jetty builder riding in the stern, steps off at a temporary pier as we stop to inspect the jetty. "I've pretty much become addicted to this place," Donohoe agrees.
So have a whole lot of people--for a long, long time. Once home to Native Americans and then European settlers, the Coan and its sister tributaries, Kingscote Creek and the Glebe, have seen much of life's rich pageant. Today the river's shores shelter long-time residents who fondly recall the days when boats were the only way to get around (roads were kind of an afterthought in these parts of Virginia's Northern Neck), as well as new arrivals from Washington and Richmond who have discovered the river's quiet beauty and want to step back a pace or ten. Wide, deep and peaceful, the Coan seems to offer something more than just the beauty of its long shorelines and reflections on its long history. Now that the channel's woes are behind it, the Coan seems ready to reclaim its place as a deep-water refuge for restless cruisers.
Barb and I, sailing up the Potomac on a rising tide, have come to see what it is that has long attracted water folk to the Coan. This is the first big river on the Potomac's southern shore, and we can see its entrance several miles ahead. We've never approached this spot by water, so it's thrilling to see the neat cottages that define the shoreline begin to take shape. Their green and red and gray roofs give it the appearance of a model railroad village.
As I'm sure nearly everyone else does on first entering the Coan, we pull up to the long dock at the Lewisetta General Store--"the Mall," as locals call it. Perched on the tip of a finger of land that curves off the mainland, the store is the center of this small universe, with a well stocked grocery, a full-service marina, boat supplies, sandwich fixings and, perhaps most important, a community gathering place and information-sharing center. It takes about five minutes to see that the store represents what people like about the area--neighborliness. People show up in cars or on foot or bicycle and chat about community concerns, or sit on the porch and pet Shortstop, a beagle that Helen and Mark Scerbo, the store and marina owners, found by the road. It takes maybe another five minutes to feel like the place is home. Mark, as always, is deep in the bilge of some boat in the yard, but maybe we'll have a chance to catch him later.
Ten-year-old Dominick, their son, is whittling on a vine-wrapped walking stick. Elaine, their 11-year-old daughter, walks up carrying the beagle like a baby. Her mom asks her to run an errand: Deliver a quart of fishing worms to the Parsons sisters, Evelyn and Mary, who live around the corner. That's easy because they happen to be two of Elaine's favorite people. We decide to go along, too.
Along the way, Elaine stops to press her thumb into a soft asphalt patch on the narrow, quiet street, then clatters farther along in her flip-flops. "Look! Look! Look!" she exclaims. "In the ditch! Frogs!" Such are the diversions of a young girl in a small community. She knocks on the porch door and the sisters invite us in. Elaine immediately goes to a back room and emerges with Precious, an enormous gray cat, then scrambles onto Evelyn's knee. A ceiling fan whirls.
The sisters remember the wide beach that fronted on the river, the hotel, baseball field and cannery. All of this vanished after the 1933 hurricane took away just about everything but the memories. Their dad worked at an oyster house nearby, capping cans. Their momma did, too, applying the labels.
Those were the good days--bonfires on the beach, hot dogs and marshmallows, softball every day after school. The prizes won at tap dancing contests. The floating theater. Steamboats that came into a landing just up the river. Movies that were shown at the cannery, then later in Callao, after the first theater opened. A Lewisetta boy ran the projector and the sisters got a ride to town with him to see the shows.
"Everybody had a playhouse down at the beach, where we stayed all day," says Evelyn. "Everybody's momma had a different bell, and when they'd ring it, you'd know it was for you." There were chores. "You had to wash dishes before you could go out and play," says Mary. "You had to keep the wood box full. If Daddy was home and he'd catch the wood box empty, it was 'Katie, bar the door.' "
"You all have a lot of information," observes Elaine, still on her friend's knee. The phone rings right next to her elbow and Evelyn, startled at first, picks up and listens a moment. "Do you know the apple dumpling recipe right off?" she asks Mary. "No, I'll get it out of the recipe box," her sister replies.
There's something that keeps people here all their lives, maybe long family ties, maybe the timeless beauty of the water. The homes along the Lewisetta waterfront sit on the Potomac, but their orientation is east, toward the Chesapeake Bay, and from here the horizon is limitless, the Bay seemingly as boundless as an ocean. As Evelyn puts it, "Ain't nothing grander than sunrise over the Bay."
The Coan apparently derived its name from the Chickacoan Indians, according to Frederick Tilp, a consummate Potomac River historian. There was an Indian village, Sekacawone, meaning "stone people." The river's abundant seafood and rich soil drew the attention of early colonialists who designated Coan Wharf as a tobacco shipping center, but it lost out in this endeavor to other Potomac port towns. Instead, the river became a magnet for canneries, fish processing and packing plants, and a bustling town named for Etta Lewis--wife of Charles Lewis, an influential waterman and business owner--sprang up along the western side of the wide entrance to the river. On the eastern side was the equally thriving town of Walnut Point.
Lewisetta, on a point of land that has a wetland between it and higher ground, was once called Travers Island, I'm told by long-time resident Paige Frischkorn, a descendant of one of the oldest families. During the Revolutionary War, the Brits came ashore and John Travers formed a militia and chased them off.
In the 1890s the Coan was home to a summer resort hotel, and from 1910 to 1940 the Lewis family operated a large fish and vegetable packing plant. Charts from 1904 show a 600-foot pier extending into the Potomac. "Here was the center of the largest fleet of sailing and power vessels on the river in the 20th century," Tilp wrote.
With no roads to speak of, residents of the Coan depended upon traditional Bay boats and steamboats for travel and shipping. Among the regular sights was Captain Gus Rice, who skippered the 67-foot pungy Amanda F. Lewis out of the Coan until 1939. Great smoke- belching steamers--including the 200-foot Piankatank and the 229-foot Dorothy Bradford--called at several piers on the river, including Coan Wharf and Bundick's Wharf, according to Tilp.
These days, the steamboats are gone, of course, though some of the wharves or their remains still stand--reminders of the bustling commerce once made on the water and in the fields nearby. Today the commerce is something far different. Every Saturday during the summer in Lottsburg, a town near the headwaters of the Coan, the sounds of an auction can be heard up and down the main street. The auctioneer's cry seems symbolic of a constant churning of the housing market as older families move on and younger retirees and weekenders furnish their new homes with these estate-sale treasures: dishes, fireplace tools, coffeemakers, dressers, bed frames--all somehow personal and a bit sad: "Who'll give two dollahs for this typewriter? This wreath?"
Some in the crowd are antiques dealers--the ones with numbers in their pockets and hands behind their backs who do all their bidding with nods, then examine their shoes when they lose interest. Others, like Edna Dobyns, a come-here from South Hill, Va., are furnishing new homes. She knows what she wants: a pair of framed prints of water scenes. And she's willing to wait, sitting cross-legged on a lawn chair as the auctioneer wails on. "People are selling homes on the water for ridiculous prices," she says. "And people from the Washington area are willing to pay them."
"It's the god's truth," another says. "If you've got a teacup's worth of water, they want it."
i've made a reservation at the Coan River Marina, just inside the entrance of the Coan at Stevens Point and we head over there in late afternoon. It's a picturesque place, with manicured lawns that slope down to its docks. It was once a workboat marina, with a deadrise boatbuilding operation and two marine railways. (The railways went back to the days when horses, walking around a capstan, hauled boats out of the water.) It was in the midst of changing over to a pleasure boat marina when John and Linda Hornby from St. Petersburg, Fla., decided to sell their 45-foot Morgan ketch and buy the place. They brought along Barnacle Bill the Sailor Dog, a big friendly pooch known to all as Barney.
What we notice right away is the presence of several large cruising sailboats, with their wind vanes and radar dishes, sitting side by side on jackstands in the yard. Some have double keels like the ones you see on the coast of England where the fast-vanishing tide leaves them on dry sand. The Hornbys say the cruisers--from Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Italy and England--discovered the marina through a kind of single-sideband network. Typically, they'll leave their boats on the hard, rent or buy motor homes and tour the U.S. for a year or more before returning and re-crossing the Atlantic.
In the slanting shadows of afternoon, we sit on lawn chairs overlooking the cove and realize how lucky we are to be in this lovely spot. Next morning I hear the deep-throated roar of a workboat and I pop out of the cabin to see what's up. What I discover is Bay Quest, a 43-foot Deltaville deadrise owned by David Rowe, a charterboat captain. She's a beauty, even after 18 years of hard work. Rowe grew up on the Coan, crabbed its waters all summer long as a kid, plucking peelers off the bottom whenever he could, and naturally fell into charterboat skippering as an adult. Because it's harder and harder to stay with the fish, he says, he often ranges all the way out to the Atlantic with his groups. Five hours down the Bay and out to sea--and back. You've got to be passionate about fishing for that, I realize. Soon, eight or ten sleepy but hopeful-looking clients show up, and before long they're rumbling out of the Coan and into their day on the water.
Helen Scerbo made us sandwiches the day before at the Lewisetta General Store, and they were piled so high with ham we couldn't finish them. A single leftover half sandwich now provides more than enough ham to go with our scrambled eggs. And then we're off for a tour of the river, where there are vast stretches of undeveloped land. Someone who held a patent for jet fuel, I was told, bought up hundreds of acres along the eastern shore of the river decades ago and just left it in this pristine state.
I've called ahead to one of the Coan's most enduring institutions, Cowart Seafood Corp., a substantial complex of buildings right on the river where a whole lot of shucking, canning and shipping have been going on for the better part of a century. Lake Cowart Sr., who has headed the family business for half a century or so, said he'd be happy to see me. I could come by road or the preferred method--by water. With plenty of depth all the way there, we are able to sidle right up to the company's dock--just like, I imagine, thousands of weather-worn vessels have done for generations. His son Lakey (Lake Jr.) meets us outside and shows us to his dad's office.
The elder Cowart, born in 1923, is a genial gentleman. His office walls display old photographs of vessels pulling up to wharves on the river, and signs advertising the company's products, which still include oysters, menhaden chum and hominy. They were the last company in Virginia to can tomatoes, he tells me, finally giving up that part of the business in 1997.
The Cowarts, originally transplants from Scotland, settled on the Coan at the turn of the last century, Cowart says. His father and grandfather started a cannery on the same spot. Things went well but the Depression hit them hard. "Daddy always said he had five thousand dollars in the bank in Baltimore," Cowart says. "When most of the banks closed, they paid off sixty cents on the dollar; the one in Baltimore paid off nothing."
For children growing up in those times, though, it wasn't so bad. "We didn't know any different," he says. There were Cokes and peanuts at the store, dominoes and checkers at night. "We didn't make any money, but it didn't cost much to live. You didn't go anywhere. Right here, that's where you were." They seemed to always have fun, and the more sons there were, the less helpful they were to their parents. "My father used to say that one boy was a boy, two boys were half a boy and three boys were no boy at all."
The morning is gone and I want to catch the outgoing tide for the long trip around Smith Point and down the Bay. We stop at the Mall for fuel, food and water, and for another visit with the Scerbos. They came here 17 years ago from Sandy Hook, N.J., after seeing an ad for the store and marina in a magazine. Their children, Elaine and Dominick, were born here and have grown up close to the water and close to the neighborhood.
"It's so down-to-earth," Helen says, sitting on the porch, with Shortstop curled beside her on a white plastic chair. "We're lucky the kids can play in a safe and great environment. There's no need for day care. How lucky is that? And since Mark loves to work so much, it's okay because we're together."
Mark, who's been getting an engine ready to install in a boat, puts in a rare appearance. His face is smudged with grease, with at least a day's worth of beard showing and a month's worth of frizzy hair flying out from under his cap. "Most people don't recognize me when I'm cleaned up," he says without apology. "They say, 'I know you from somewhere.' "
Mark's work seems endless. Everybody's got a pier and a boat or two, and they all seem to spend some time at his yard. He doesn't have any interest in being a boatowner himself, though. "I've worked on boats so long I know better." We catch the running tide and leave Lewisetta and the Coan behind, seeming to slumber in a kind of perpetual peaceful haze. As I glance over my shoulder at this scene, I'm reminded of one of Mark's favorite expressions: "Another day in Pleasure Bay."
The Coan has the first deep-water harbor on the Virginia side of the Potomac, about 15 miles from Smith Point Light. There are several pound nets and lots of crab pots along the coast, so we found it best to stand well off the shore. From a distance, the most prominent feature is the shoreline of cottages at Lewisetta beach. They point straight to the river's entrance. Flashing green "5" sits on a dark teepee-like stand, but in the daytime, at least for us, it was camouflaged against the background of houses. After green "5", there's a dogleg to the left, then another to the right before a straight shot into the river.
The Lewisetta General Store and its long pier are immediately to the right as you enter. The entrance to the left branch of the Coan, including the approach to Coan River Marina, used to be badly shoaled but has now been dredged and a large jetty has been built at Walnut Point to protect the entrance. The river is wide and deep, with countless anchorages. About 2 miles upriver there's an overhead power cable listed at 60 feet, but it looked lower to me and I was uninterested in testing it with our 45-foot mast.
Both the Lewisetta General Store (804-529-7299) and the Coan River Marina (804-529-6767) have full-service facilities, with marine shops, and offer gas and diesel fuel. The store normally does not offer transient slips. The marina does.