By Jody Argo Schroath
Here is a tale of woe. Of grandiose plans gone awry. Of lively wharfs now crumbling. Of marinas that are no more and busy waters now empty. Of eels and Sunbeam bread. A destination lost. And then refound.
This is a story about two special places on the Virginia side of the lower Potomac: Lower Machodoc Creek and Nomini Bay, which sit cheek by jowl about 25 miles upstream from Smith Point. They are separated from each other by a two-mile-wide peninsula with--oddly for the Northern Neck--no particular name. Like the Coan and Yeocomico rivers just downriver, the Lower Machodoc and Nomini have much in common, yet distinct personalities. Both were settled in the mid-1600s, and both have subsequently long histories of busy fisheries (George Washington regularly brought his small schooner down to Nomini to seine for sheepshead), oystering, shipping and ferry boats. But, while the Lower Machodoc produced a small but lively town with marinas and restaurants centered around Coles Point, which juts out into the Potomac to form a peninsula of its own, Nomini Bay produced no such thing, unless you count a worldwide shipping center for eels and an old steamboat inn.
My experience with both places has been a long and happy one, with many fine sails into Nomini Bay, often to escape a big blow out on the river, and memorable Sunday morning breakfasts on the lower Machodoc--namely, at Coles Point Marina's general store/baitshop/grill, where a few tables are set in a small clearing for food and conversation. For decades local watermen, workmen and farmers gathered here for dominoes, gossip and Coca-Cola. After breakfast I'd often wander down the rest of Branson Cove, to see what kind of interesting boat Harding Brothers Marine had up on its railroad at the moment.
The idea of making a return visit to these two places came about one day last summer as I was visiting my friends Kathy and Hal Slack in Kinsale, Va., reminiscing about a particularly harrowing sail Hal and I had made coming back from Maryland's Breton Bay several years ago. "Good times," we agreed, and then Hal suggested that we make a return trip to the Nomini, this time on a nice quiet day and on his boat, a 17-foot shoal draft cuddy cruiser. "It's been a while since we were there and . . ."
"We can stop for lunch at the Mt. Holly Steamboat Inn," Kathy broke in, cheered up at the prospect of not having to make sandwiches. "And we can look in at Coles Point and see what's happening with the development at Branson Cove," I appended. "I heard the old marina's gone, but maybe the new marina is in by now."
A few weeks later, the perfect day dawned, and we set off from Sandy Point Marina on the Yeocomico with the rising sun. We soon cleared Lynch Point at the river's mouth and turned north, following the Virginia shoreline. As we cleared Sandy Point a couple of miles later, a light breeze rose off the shore, clearing away some of the morning haze. Now we could see the 44-foot-tall marker at Ragged Point (locally called Raggedy Point) just off the eastern edge of the Coles Point peninsula, about five miles ahead.
Once past Cole's Point Plantation Marina (not to be confused with now-extinct Coles Point Marina on Branson Cove on the opposite side of the peninsula), we boldly cut the marker short and turned west-northwest for Nomini Bay. Kathy was already debating her lunch order at Mt. Holly Inn. "Would crab bisque, crab balls and then crabcakes be too much?" she asked. Heck no, we assured her.
Kathy, Hal and I were soon past the mouth of Lower Machodoc Creek and, at Kingcopsico Point (named, it is said, for an Indian named King Copsico), we entered broad Nomini Bay. To our right was Currioman Island and Bay and to the left low clay cliffs, topped with a jumble of trees, brush and a few homes. A mile and a half later, we funneled through a narrow, winding, but well marked channel to enter Nomini Creek.
Squeezing through another narrow portion of the creek to get around a long spit, we came to the old docks at McGuires Wharf. We looked to see any signs of life at Robberecht Seafood on the wharf's northern side. The building was open and there were a few cars in the parking lot, but we saw no one around. In the 1990s, before the eel population took a dive, Robberecht was regularly sending as much as 35,000 pounds of live eels by air to Europe. The Bay's eels end up on the world's dinner tables because there is no market for them here, except as bait. McGuires Wharf also used to be a busy place. During Prohibition, a car ferry had run regularly between McGuires Wharf and Leonardtown, across the Potomac in Maryland. Empty cars would be loaded on at McGuires and unloaded in Leonardtown. These would be quickly replaced with full cars--full of bootleg rye--for the return trip.
By the time we rounded the next turn, we could see the docks at Mount Holly Inn off the port shore, with the Route 202 bridge just beyond. Perched on a bluff above the creek sat the large white hostelry itself. The Mt. Holly Steamboat Inn was built in 1876 to accommodate travelers and merchants. It was restored and reopened in 2002. We have stopped to eat here a number of times since then, both by boat and by car, enjoying the great view of the creek and, of course, the food and Sunday morning juleps. But as we drew up to the dock, we saw a large yellow sign tacked on the outermost piers: Auction by order of lender.
"Auction?" Hal, Kathy and I cried like a Greek chorus. We looked up at the inn. Yes, it was sealed up as tight as a tomb. We hadn't seen that one coming! As Hal pointed the boat back into the channel, Kathy, ever the resourceful Scout leader, rummaged in her bag for a few minutes and then pulled out three battered granola bars. "Who wants the raisin and peanut butter?" she asked.
We munched our granola bars with birdlike bites, trying to make them seem filling. Suddenly, Hal brightened. "Let's try Branson Cove," he said. "There's always something at Coles Point, even if it's only 6-ounce bags of barbecue potato chips."
"Mmm, sounds pretty good," I agreed, with growing enthusiasm.
Once back on Nomini Bay, we picked up speed and rounded Kingcopsico Point to enter Lower Machodoc Creek. The Lower Machodoc is nearly as wide as Nomini at its mouth, but within a mile its channel draws in tight like a corseted waist to avoid the long shoal off Coles Point. The channel then broadens for another mile before drawing in again to squeeze past Narrow Beach. Behind Narrow Beach the channel broadens once more to provide an excellent anchorage between Narrow Beach and a place called Meter. (Whether it was named to coincide with the development of metered mail at its new post office or for residents named Meter is anyone's guess; both possibilities have been proposed in local histories.)
But it's Branson Cove that has long been the economic center of the Lower Machodoc. Its entrance lies to port after the cincture at flashing green "1LM". This small inlet, kept dug out regularly by the Army Corps of Engineers, has oystering houses on either side of its entrance, plus two marinas and Harding's Marine inside. It was a busy place, especially on summer weekends, with workboats and pleasure boats jostling for space--a kind of Northern Neck version of Annapolis's Ego Alley. The oyster houses have been closed for years now, and we knew that developers had bought Branson Cove Marina and planned to tear it out and rebuild slips for the new residents that were going to move in. Coming into Branson Cove now, we knew we'd find changes. But still, we weren't ready for what we found--which was pretty much nothing. The marina was gone, except for one crumbling pier and a lot of no-trespassing signs. Beyond the former marina, the sites for 40 or 50 homes had been laid out along a grid of streets. In all that empty space rose a single two-story building of three condominium units. Hal put the boat into neutral as we gaped at the new Branson Cove. We couldn't even find a place to tie up. The place was utterly deserted, except for a military landing craft pulled up in front of Harding Brothers. Then we spotted Breezy 'Harding at work on a small skiff up in the yard.
Since there didn't seem to be anyone around to object, we pulled up to the least crumbling part of the old marina dock we could find and tied up. Stepping as lightly as possible on only the best looking boards, we jumped ashore. We decided to split up. Hal and Kathy would canvass the area for food--maybe the Driftwood Restaurant out on Coles Point Road was open. I would stay and talk with Harding to see if I could find out what had become of the Coles Point we remembered.
Harding was definitely the right person to ask. His family, at least as far back as his schooner-captain grandfather, had owned all this property, including the old marina and store. His grandmother had operated the store for years, and then his mother. After that it was leased out until its sale to the developers. His father had operated the oyster house next to the marina. Breezy had operated the boatyard, becoming well known nationally for his skill with wooden boats, though he works on everything from fiberglass to Dahlgren Naval Station's small craft.
"What happened?" I asked.
The developers had gotten their plan approved by the Westmoreland County planning commission, despite strong opposition from Coles Point residents, Harding explained. The property had then quickly changed hands twice, and the last owner built the lone condo building before running into financial difficulty. The property was now in the hands of the bank, and Coles Point and Branson Cove had been left with nothing--no fuel, slips, food, ice or bait. "Boats used to cruise into the cove constantly in the summer, now they have no place to go, not even the watermen." Harding said, looking out at the cove. "Now it's dead. It's killed the town."
I left Harding and set out to find Kathy and Hal. I found them wandering the main road like a couple of waifs. The Driftwood was closed until dinner, they said. "Did you try Jordan's Store across the street?" I asked. They hadn't, so we headed over and found it up and running as always. Johnny and Margaret Jordan had moved to Coles Point from Richmond half-a-century ago and started a general store and filling station. Johnny, a retired firefighter, placed his rocking chair between the cash register and the beer cooler and never left. After he died (with a wallet full of hundred-dollar bills, the local story goes) his wife kept Jordan's Store just the same, with Johnny's rocking chair next to the cooler and her gun just under the counter. After she died, a neighbor took over the store. Now Daisy Saunders is Jordan's proprietor. She moved to Coles Point 43 years ago after her marriage at age 15 to a local waterman. Her husband still works on the water, as does their son. Saunders presides over the store that Johnny and Margaret built, still stocked with fishing lures, loaves of Sunbeam bread, canned goods, Johnny's rocker, Margaret's gun and the memories of several generations of Coles Point residents.
We chatted with Saunders for a while, picked out some sundry canned goods and a loaf of bread and headed back to the boat. As we walked, I passed on what Breezy had told me about the bankrupt development and the near death of Branson Cove. We settled under an old black walnut tree near the little post office and made ourselves an odd but surprisingly tasty lunch.
A little while later, we hopscotched back along the dock to the boat. Hal eased her out of the cove, and we started back to Kinsale. As we followed the shore along the top of Coles Point, I pointed out a dozen or so log cabins that shared the waterfront with more modern summer homes. "Those are what's left of a Coles Point development that could be counted a success," I said. The log cabins were built in the 1920s by Schmidt and Wilson, a Richmond firm, on the old Salisbury Park plantation, which had once belonged to the point's namesake, Richard Cole, who had owned pretty much all of Coles Point in the 17th century. Schmidt and Wilson created a summer resort, with bathing beaches, rustic cottages and lots of log cabins. Quite a few of those log cabins remain, many of them now disguised by later owners who built more conventional walls and roofs around them. But many others remain as they were built. One of the biggest and grandest of these is used as a vacation cottage at Cole's Point Plantation Marina.
In another moment, we had left the Nomini and Lower Machodoc, Coles Point and Branson Cove well to stern. "It's a shame to lose such a good cruising destination," Hal said a few hours later, as we settled ourselves on their dock with drinks. "But really, with no place to eat now and no place to dock, there's not much point."
Still smarting from the recently missing crab balls and crab bisque in our diet, Kathy and I made no reply, so we left it at that. Until a few months later.
Early that fall, I was back on the Potomac, this time with my husband Rick--the poor dear, who works rather than boats for a living and so misses out on a lot of my adventures. He and I had picked up the Chesapeake Boating Club's Albin 28 in Occoquan, where CBM editor Tim Sayles had taken it a few days earlier. We were heading down the Potomac, aiming for no place in particular, when Rick noticed we were getting low on fuel.
'And fuel is not a commodity you can find on every street corner of the lower Potomac. We had already passed Colonial Beach, so we ended up putting in at the aforementioned Cole's Point Plantation Marina. Hal, Kathy and I hadn't counted this marina in our places to go and things to do on our Lower Machodoc and Nomini Bay trip because, strictly speaking, it's on the Potomac side and so not really on the Lower Machodoc, and because it's a fair hike from the marina to the town of Coles Point. But I was about to overturn that ruling.
After we had fueled up and been directed to a slip (a covered one, with a canopy so tall it might have accommodated my sailboat and with a fine view of the cove and the Potomac), we relaxed in the cockpit with a cold beer as I told Rick about the summer's outing here and its disappointing results. Then we wandered over to A.C.'s, the marina's restaurant. Yes, the marina is in fact a kind of low-key mini-resort all on its own, with fuel, a restaurant, pool, excellent beach, the aforementioned rental log cabin and a big campground, all staged around the intriguingly, though probably inaccurately, named Blackbeard's Pond.
On the way back from A.C.'s we ran into marina owner Trina Sobotka. She and her late husband bought the 340-acre property 15 years ago as an investment. Over the years, the marina has also been called Pond-A-River and Ragged Point Harbor, before the Sobotkas came along with the far grander current name, Cole's Point Plantation Marina and Campground. Over the years, under one owner or another, there have also been a multitude of plans for development here too, including condominiums and a golf course. But right now, Sobotka is just concentrating on keeping the marina and campground running.
As we parted, Sobotka offered us a ride to breakfast the next morning. "Be ready at 8:30," she chimed. Breakfast turned out to be at an unlikely venue, Coles Point Tavern, at the top of Coles Point--a rickety-looking shack, perched on an equally rickety pier reaching out into the Potomac. I've passed Coles Point Tavern any number of times over the years, always marveling that it continues to withstand the onslaught of innumerable storms and not a few hurricanes. The building, located out over the water, is of course legally in St. Mary's County, Maryland, rather than Westmoreland County, Virginia, since the river belongs to Maryland. Businesses like this one were built to take advantage of Maryland's more liberal gambling and drinking laws. From the water it had always been difficult to tell whether the tavern was still operating . . . or even safe. But the inside looked considerably better than its exterior. We found a table next to a window and ordered omelets and bacon. Soon, it seemed, half the population of Coles Point had arrived for breakfast as well.
That afternoon a steady rain set in, so Rick and I curled up in the Albin's cabin with a few good books and the ship's dog for a lazy afternoon. That evening we had another offer of a ride, this time to the Driftwood Restaurant for dinner. We jumped at the chance. The 'Driftwood has long been Coles Point's culinary claim to fame. It's wildly popular, especially on the weekends, and draws patrons from as far away as Richmond and Fredericksburg. The restaurant was started by the parents of current owner Pam Standbridge, though it was located next door to the present building.
"I was born in that restaurant," Standbridge told us as we settled ourselves to the pleasant task of deciding what to order. After her parents sold the restaurant years later, she decided to build a restaurant of her own next door. When the original building was destroyed by fire, she renamed hers Driftwood, and so it has been ever since. The fish was remarkably fresh and perfectly prepared, the vegetables were cooked just right and the bread was hot and delicious. By the time we had finished our coffee, the waiting time for a table had gone up to 30 minutes.
"I don't know what you people are talking about," Rick said a little later, as we walked back out the dock to the boat. "This place is a great destination!" Well, I had to admit that he wasn't wrong. Clearly the place still had plenty to offer. Perhaps, I thought, a reassessment was in order. And our visit to Nomini Bay removed all doubt.
We slipped our lines early that next morning and backtracked upriver to Nomini Bay. As we turned to enter the bay, the last of the previous day's clouds scudded into the east and the pale morning sun came bursting over the horizon. As it rose, its light caught the long sand beach of Currioman Island, which forms a great arched eyebrow over the Nomini's western side. Suddenly the entire island glowed incandescent yellow against the deep blue of the sky and the reflected blue in the water. We were utterly bewitched! No Caribbean Island or Pacific atoll could have done better. Carefully we picked our way across the narrow strip of 4- to 6-foot water between the channel and Currioman Bay. Giving the long shoal off Elbow Point plenty of, well, elbow room, we circled around the underside to within a few feet of the beach and dropped anchor. The tide was beginning to run out, so our time would be short before our exit would be closed. We opened up the stern door and walked out onto the swim platform and jumped into the warm blue water. As I floated between the boat and the island in complete content, I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't recommend this place, after all . . ."