Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Denton, MD

Though it's far up the Choptank River, 40 winding miles from 
the Bay, Denton, Md., was once a thriving steamboat port. 
Today the town is working hard to revitalize the waterfront and 
capture echoes of that rich maritime history. [May 2012]

by Wendy Mitman Clarke
photographs by Michael C. Wootton

Trounced, stomped, shellacked. Thrashed, hammered, pasted. There aren't enough verbs to describe the can of whoop-ass the local cognoscenti have opened up on team CBM in tonight's trivia competition at the Market Street Public House in Denton, Md. I always thought I was pretty good at the game, but evidently not the bare knuckles Eastern Shore style played here, on a Monday night in October. It being early fall, there is both baseball and football on the TV screens looming at each end of the long bar--Cardinals versus Brewers and Bears versus Lions--but the sound is off because no one's listening. No one's playing foosball in the back either. Every table in the place and many of the bar stools are occupied by people who all seem to know, for instance, the name of the first African-American woman to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue. 

Jody Argo Shroath, my esteemed Chesapeake Bay Magazine colleague with whom I have traveled up the Choptank River today on an Albin 28, looks at me hopelessly. "Any ideas?" I ask. "Not a clue," she says.

"What kind of question is that anyway?" I fume. Then I write down Iman, the supermodel who's married to David Bowie. The answer, though, is Tyra Banks. Duh.  

Well, it just goes on from there, steadily downhill. We don't end up dead last, just next to dead last, 11th out of the 12 teams competing. On the last round we actually know four of the five answers, but when the fifth one comes--name the gemstones associated with five signs of the Zodiac--I toss in my pen. Norm, the guy who runs the trivia game every Monday night year-round, is conciliatory when he visits each table to chat after the game is over. 

"People didn't like that last question; It made 'em think," he says. "But come on back next week, I guarantee new questions and new categories." Jody and I hang out a while longer, enjoying the lively crowd and commiserating with another less than successful group at the neighboring table. Monday night in Denton, and the place is hopping, who knew? Everybody seems to know everybody else, but fortunately they don't know us, so our dreadful showing may go unnoticed. 

Eventually Jody and I sneak out and scuttle down the street and back over the bridge crossing the Choptank, inky and silent below. On the other side of the bridge, a curving flight of steps leads us down to the narrow road paralleling the river, and we walk along in the darkness half a block till we come to the Choptank River Yacht Club--a long white building with a huge deck and floating docks out front. Most of the boats here are small runabouts and pontoon boats. My favorite pontoon is the one with a tiki bar taking up much of its deck space, complete with chrome footrests and the obligatory plastic palm tree. Its six bar stools are made of rebar (painted in tropical colors, of course), bolted to the carpeted floor and topped with padded seats. The coup de grace is a purloined six-knot speed limit buoy strapped to the bow, like a kind of party barge figurehead.  

"Sure, you can tie up there for a night or two, that's no problem," a fellow named Stu had told me when we'd arrived in the afternoon. I was kind of hoping he'd say that, because we'd already cajoled the Albin into an empty end slip, struggling against the current, which is impressive here. His phone number was posted on a piling to call about slips, and after I'd left a message he called right back. 

I'd come up here with very little plan--in fact, winging it completely. It had been many years since I'd visited Denton, and I wondered how things were coming along. I was curious about the steamboat museum, which back then was only an old building and an idea, and the plans for a waterfront complex to draw visitors and boaters. I knew already about the pretty, historic town itself, the river's current and the limited places to tie up.

Somebody should have warned me about the trivia sharks, though. 

The first thing you need to know about Denton, if you're thinking of visiting here by boat, is that it's a bit of a hike from the Bay. Forty miles, to be exact, from the mouth of the mighty Choptank. For that reason--not to mention the fixed 50-foot bridge down in Cambridge and the fixed 25-foot bridge here in Denton--it's a great trip for a powerboat. "People think it's so far," says Pete Mathews, who in July 2011 bought the only marina up here, right next to the yacht club. Formerly Bob Stine's Black Dog Boatworks, it's now Mathews Landing. "But it's a beautiful river to come up."

Mathews is an understated guy, but even from him, "beautiful river" is subtle praise. Deep, long, mysterious, historic and just plain spectacular in some places, the Choptank is a destination in and of itself--a place to spend weeks, or a lifetime, meandering. Sadly, I had two days. I'd been on the river before of course, but only up to Cambridge.

We left Annapolis on a day so calm, and on a full moon tide ebbing so hard, that the shoals off Tolly Point were printed more clearly on the surface than any fishfinder could reveal. Gulls, terns and anglers floated on the corrugated water hoping that hungry rockfish would pile up at the ridged bottom. It was an easy run to Knapps Narrows, where we slowed down enough to admire the monarch butterflies migrating in their miraculous, irrevocable way, fluttering across our bow and cockpit in ones and twos but adding up to dozens. By the time we passed Cambridge and headed into the Great Bend, where the Choptank makes a 45-degree degree turn to the northeast, we'd been cruising for three hours at about 12 knots. It was another three hours to reach Denton, slowing only to await the bridge tender at the Dover Swing Bridge. "You coming back today?" he asked. 

"Tomorrow," we said. 

"Ten-four." (And sure enough, the next day when we called him, he said sweetly, "I been waitin' for ya.")

 The river twisted like a snake through the countryside, its current carving ridiculous depths on the sharp corners; at times, suddenly in 50 feet of water, we'd pick up three-tenths of a knot rounding the fish-hook bends, as if we were playing crack-the-whip. Along the way we passed beguiling creeks, some no more than sloughs, others wending miles back into the marshes. The ospreys had gone south by then, but we saw blue herons and kingfishers, hawks and eagles. (On our downriver trip the next day, we counted eight bald eagles, the most I've ever seen in one day anywhere.) On the lower river we'd seen a few boats, and we'd passed a couple of workboats as far up as the town of Choptank, but beyond that we saw only two other boats. One was a trawler called Hula Girl, and the other a johnboat carrying a man and his black Labrador--possibly the happiest dog alive, standing proud up in the bow. Against the golden marsh and the red-tinged sweetgums, they looked like a Cabela's ad come to life. 

By the time we rounded the last curve before Denton, above the shallows of Pealiquor Shoal, the ochre-colored building of the Maryland Steamboat Company hove into view on the river's western side. I tried to imagine an enormous steamboat tied up here, the Joppa or the Avalon, taking on goods and passengers to head to Baltimore. Even squeezing my vision to eliminate the modern bridge that arches over the river, it was hard to see. The river is so narrow, and those boats were so big. How did they manage it? But so they did. Steamboat, schooner, brig and tugboat captains, Native Americans and colonists, all have navigated this river to come to this place over the centuries. 

Surely, it was busier then than it is now.

A thousand years ago, Native Americans traveled up here with the seasons, knowing they'd find fish like herring and shad migrating with them. In the 1600s and 1700s colonists explored the river, settling in several towns, some now lost to history. By 1773, Maryland's legislature had chosen Denton as the seat of Caroline County. Perched on a hillside overlooking one of the river's many bends, the town's tidy, grid-like layout included Low Street (to complement High) and a courthouse at the top of the hill, built in 1797. The present courthouse, built in 1895, still dominates the town's center in the way a judge's bench holds sway over a courtroom, with lofty grandeur and a certain inferred dignity. 

The river bustled with shipbuilders in the 1700s and 1800s, turning out schooners, brigs, sloops and pungies that sailed coastally as well as between the Chesapeake and the West Indies, Chile and Peru, among other far-flung locales. This from the September 29, 1870, edition the American Union Newspaper of Denton, covering the launch of the two-masted schooner Arrow: "The boat launch on Thursday was, in every respect, a complete success. . . . At the appointed hour the boat glided gracefully from the ways into the river, amid the huzzas of those on board and the crowd of spectators on the shore. She is a model of beauty and sits most gracefully in the water."

By the late 1800s, steamboats rolled up and down the river to Denton (as well as to wharves as far upstream as Greensboro and even to Hillsboro, on the Tuckahoe tributary), delivering and picking up passengers and the Eastern Shore's summer bounty of tomatoes, cantaloupes, melons, corn and the like. But by the early 1900s, of course, railroads and the even newer phenomenon of trucking began to put the steamboats out of business. Like so many once-thriving port towns on the Chesapeake, Denton's river trade dried up, and so did the community it served.

There were other industries, of course, other businesses that kept it going. And it had the advantage of being a county seat, which always ensures a captive audience of law firms and other occupations associated with the business of running a government. But over the decades, as Route 404 bypassed Denton and carried millions of tourists to the coast and back without so much as a glimpse of the historic town on the hill, Denton has struggled to redefine itself.

And progress continues to pose challenges. "Denton is like so many small towns in America; the big box stores have moved in and they're not leaving," says J.O.K. Walsh, executive director of the Caroline County Economic Development Corporation. "We have to rethink and redesign our historic business district. We call it the recommercialization of Denton."

Walsh is one of Denton's and Caroline County's most tireless boosters. Among the many hats he wears, he's president of the Caroline County Historical Society. And in his role with the Economic Development Corporation--on which, he notes, he and other local businesspeople volunteer to tackle the community's problems--he has pushed hard for the project called the Wharves at Choptank Crossing. This includes the already completed Steamboat Wharf and Heritage Museum on the West Denton side (that ochre-colored building we passed on the way to the yacht club). The project's centerpiece is across the river in Crouse Park, a piece of prime real estate owned by the town and now occupied by a public boat ramp, a basketball court and some open space. Already, the town has installed a new launch ramp, new bulkheads and dredged and bulkheaded a pocket-size basin just below the bridge, ostensibly to become a small-boat marina. The full plan calls for a seafood restaurant, transient dockage at the wharf, a park for kids, a nature trail and a visitor's center that describes the county's history and launches people off on various ways to explore it. 

It took nearly eight years to get the environmental permits and six years to get about 90 percent of the $3.2 million project's funding, Walsh says, much through state and federal grants. Last November, the Town Council approved a bond bill and an application to the state for money, both of which will provide the last $200,000 needed to fund the project. So, while not a done deal yet, it's closer than ever.

Jody having left me to go on to her own adventure exploring Denton, I set out solo to check out the town. I have a fondness for small, historic towns and a soft spot for underdogs, and so as I walk up Market Street, which is an easy stroll from the Albin docked across the river, I'm enjoying everything. Even the county jail looks handsome, a red-brick building behind the courthouse overlooking the river, and while walking across the bridge I could see some inmates out playing hoops on a fenced-in court with a heck of a view. Here on the main drag, tall sycamores grace the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, and birdsong fills the air (as does, in the droning distance, the steady hum of the oblivious vehicles on Route 404).

Downtown is small, a few blocks of businesses, homes and public buildings sharing the tree-lined streets. Directly across from the courthouse is a beautiful county library, as well as Delmarva Crop Insurance and some law offices housed in a stern granite building that once was, by the name carved Rushmore-like into its face, Peoples National Bank. A few steps away is the scene of last night's excellent dinner and subsequent trivia humiliation, the Market Street Public House, already prepping for a steady lunch trade. Just past here are some antiques shops, a tattoo parlor, a Royal Farms Store (which sticks out like a sore thumb among the otherwise largely historic architecture, but does supply basic necessities like coffee, bread and Krispy Kremes), B & G Seafood and a deeply stocked hardware store. As I walk by, the scent of fertilizer wafts into the street; out front, two brightly colored kayaks are for sale and/or rent. 

Catty-corner to Denton Hardware is the second anchor in what Walsh and others see as the town's economic redesign, the Denton Artsway. Conceived as yet another way to draw new people, talent, businesses and energy into the downtown, the Artsway is comprised of ten historic buildings concentrated within about a two-block area, which are undergoing, or are slated to undergo, restoration to become a retail, entertainment and arts-based crucible. Most of the buildings were built here, but other historic structures from outside of town, in the county, will be brought in to serve a new purpose. The Foundry, dating from 1850, is already completed and open--displaying the work of more than 50 Caroline County artists, everything from woodworking to textiles, painting to ceramics and photography. The building also houses the Caroline County Council of the Arts. 

"It will be a critical mass of art spaces and cultural and historic elements, too," says Marina Dowdall, the council's executive director. The council, she says, recently won a grant to use one of the buildings as a regional quilt and textile center, which will include studio, exhibit, retail and instruction space for fiber-related art. Already under restoration, the Hardee House, circa 1810, will house this new hub. 

Like other movers and shakers in this town, the arts council seems to have a way of getting things done even in a difficult economy, and the energy it exudes is palpable. It spearheads dozens of events, including free programs every other Saturday at the Foundry for people to work with local artists; "Friday Nites in Caroline" performing arts programs during fall and winter; the free "Second Story Live" concert series at the library, which brings in performers and singer/songwriters, both national and regional; free summer concerts on the courthouse green called "Twilight Tunes;" annual short story, poetry and youth art contests; and a new High School Open Mic Night at the Foundry. Considering this list of events, I found myself wishing that I'd come up here in the summertime, just to meander the downtown, hang out with local artists, take in a great meal and then walk to the courthouse green to listen to live music under a summer night's sky. 

Creating the arts district out of existing buildings, as well as moving historic structures from outside the town to be part of the Artsway, is another way in which this community is innovating to preserve what it values. Already, the County Historical Society has done this in a big way with the Museum of Rural Life, which is just around the corner from the Foundry and across from the courthouse. Comprised of a restored home built in 1819 and a modern addition seamlessly attached on the back, the museum includes artifacts, interpretive exhibits and photographs you'd expect documenting the county's past. But its most extraordinary offerings are buildings, all or in part, safe and sound inside. For instance, there's an entire log cabin dating from 1828 and built near Preston that was moved here, an intact one-room subsistence farmer's dwelling. Still thick with the smell of woodsmoke, its white oak logs, slab chinking, mantle, stairway, floors and batten doors, are all original. Also here is the parlor of Chance's Desire, built in 1790 by a middle-class planter, with original walls, ceiling, fireplace mantle and doorframe. Each building or fragment gives a glimpse into the living conditions and circumstances among the different classes of people, farmers and planters, slaves, wealthy landowners and immigrants, who lived and worked in the town and county. 

At its core, the historical society acts as a guardian angel to save and restore the county's historic buildings, sometimes buying buildings outright, other times working with property owners. One large room of the museum is essentially a gallery showcasing photographs of the 46 buildings the society is working on right now. Carol Stockley, the museum's director, points to a photograph of a humble cabin, built circa 1852 by freedman James Webb. "Architecturally, he was a master. . . . We're restoring it in situ, with a preservation plan for each and every log."

Another photo is that of red-painted corncrib against a bright blue sky. Located downriver at Poplar Neck, this little structure was on the Thompson Plantation, where Harriet Tubman was enslaved. After fleeing to the north and then returning to Caroline County to save her family, she described hiding for two days in this very corncrib, or fodder house, while rescuing her two brothers in December 1854. And there's Marble Head, an 1812 home that was in the way of a farmer's irrigation system and slated to be burned down. The society got involved, put an ad in Preservation Magazine, and found a buyer who has restored the house and earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Once they're gone, they're gone," Stockley says, when I ask her what motivates the group to work so hard on these projects. "It is sad." 

Finding a clever new use for old buildings is icing on the cake, and there's an example right on Denton's courthouse green, in a bright yellow cupola-type building with a red roof. If it looks like it was put there, it was; it's the restored Octagon Garden House, dated from 1902, from a county estate. Now it's an information kiosk, open 24/7 with brochures about driving tours, history, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and everything else a tourist might need. Other such buildings are dotted around the county, among them the Hog Island School and the Ridgely Telephone Exchange, each a historic one-room structure that will serve as a guidepost on tourism paths throughout the county. 

After my tour of the Foundry and the Museum of Rural Life, I'm starved, and it's to yet another lovely building that I go for lunch, this one on the National Register of Historic Places. The Lily Pad Cafe is housed in the 1883 Schoolhouse, which resembles more a Gothic Revival church than a school. The Women's Club of Denton owned the building from 1926 until Joann Redden purchased it in 2007 to open the new cafe. Inside, the vaulted ceiling and arched windows allow plenty of light and airiness. It's a Tuesday, nothing special about it, but by 1 p.m., about a dozen groups of diners are filling the place up, and my Portobello mushroom sandwich is delicious. I leave with a lemon-sugar cookie that later will melt in my mouth.

My final visit is to the Maryland Steamboat Company building across the river. I'd stopped by the day before but, since it was Columbus Day, a holiday, no one was around. The place was tidy and bright, with fresh mums in pots and festive lights strung along the railing on the deck facing the river. The new bulkhead and wharf looked strong and stout--and also fairly off limits for recreational boats, since the place was obviously closed and gated. On an interpretive board placed by the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, I read that this terminal "was one of the largest on the Choptank, and that a shirt factory, fertilizer warehouses, canneries and rolling mills clustered close to the terminal." The building next door, unrestored and closed, attested to the fertilizer trade; an enormous steer, painted maroon against the yellow wall, was deconstructed into its various parts in a kind of gruesome yet artful display. This was Baughs, founded in 1817, "the oldest brand in America  . . . for soil improvement use Baugh's pure raw bone meal," read the wording on a photo of a 167-pound sack of the stuff that was, evidently, shipped from this wharf. 

It's a great building, and a terrific restoration, but what it seems to be used most for, at the moment, is to house the Caroline County Office of Tourism in what was the waiting room and the ticket room. The museum itself is only open on occasional weekends and for special events, although the tourism folks will be happy to let you walk around and examine the various artifacts inside, if you happen by during their regular office hours of 9-5, Monday through Friday. Like much of the waterfront here, it seems absolutely poised, waiting for a firmly defined future. 

Even as it stands now, though, with much left to do, Denton remains well worth the trip. There's a timelessness to it that the river itself passes on, and its enduring history, coupled with the energy and ideas of the people here, surely will help it find its way. I've been trounced in trivia, introduced to new artists, wined and dined, and reacquainted with a fascinating part of the Chesapeake's past. And now, I get to cruise back down a storied river to the wide saltwater below, and take all of those pleasures with me until the next time.