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

They keep all those boats there for 
a reason, you know! [September 2009]

By Jody Argo Schroath
Photographs by Vince Lupo

Really, what was I thinking? I was so anxious for the boating season to begin this year that I took my boat up to Middle River in mid-April. Mid-April! You’d think I’d know better. But, no, I was eager to explore the upper Bay and figured Middle River would be the perfect stepping off place. So I arranged for a slip for a month at Bowleys Marina. That way, I thought, I would be able to come and go at my leisure. Well, I did have a lot of leisure, as it turned out. But there was very little coming and going, as I sat watching one spring storm after another come rolling down from the north, roiling up the Bay and sending down buckets of cold rain. Day upon day, Skipper the ship’s dog and I sat and watched it rain. Then we watched Fred and Ethel Mallard build a nest inside the steps of our finger pier. Then we went for a long wet walk, after which Skipper cadged dog treats from Mary McDonald in the marina office. Still it rained.

It all came to a head two weeks later when my daughter Kristen and her dog Echo came to visit and found Skip and me watching the weather and investigating whether Ethel had laid her daily egg. “Enough!” Kristen said. “Surely there’s some place we can go.” And she was right, of course, because we had someplace to go right on our doorstep. So for the next two weeks, we spent just about every minute that it wasn’t storming—and more than a few that were—exploring Middle River. In fact, I got to know Middle River so well that now I’m ready to recommend it an excellent cruising destination!

“Cruising destination?” I hear you say, “I thought Middle River was the place you leave from rather than go to? After all, there’s nothing there but a zillion boats and half as many marinas.”  

Well, yes, there are a lot of boats and marinas. In fact, I’d guess that per square foot of waterfront, Middle River has more boats and more marinas than anywhere else on the Chesapeake. But there’s a good reason for that: It has a nearly perfect location. Middle River is tucked in beside Baltimore yet is also convenient to eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It’s also an easy cruise from there to any number of popular destinations, like Rock Hall, Annapolis, the Inner Harbor, Havre de Grace, Still Pond, Worton Creek . . . I could go on.

On the other hand, cruisers tend to overlook Middle River as a stopover because it has about a zillion boats there already and it doesn’t have a destination port of its own. Even the two zillion people who keep their boats on Middle River tend to take it for granted. Yes, they will tell you, there are some nice places to drop anchor for an afternoon or night and, yes, there are plenty of dockside restaurants, but usually we go to Rock Hall or St. Michaels, etc.

In the early days of the 20th century, Middle River was the destination for legions of city dwellers and workers from nearby factories, like Bethlehem Steel, who rented weekend cottages and kept their little runabouts and sailboats there. The story of Miss Barbara, a legend of sorts at Stansbury Yacht Basin is a good example. Miss Barbara kept her canoe for many years at Stansbury on Dark Head Creek. Every weekend in the summer, Miss Barbara would take the street car out from the city to Hawthorne Street, then swim across to Stansbury’s. (In later years, when it became available, she would take the bus and then walk.) Then she would get in her canoe and paddle out onto creek to spend the day, knitting and listening to the Orioles game on her transistor radio. 

For Mary at Bowleys—my dog Skipper’s favorite bookkeeper—the river was a destination too. Mary spent many of her childhood summers on Sue Creek. She got her first boat—an old wooden rowboat—when she was 11, she remembers. Her mother let her take it out, but attached a long line to it that stretched to shore, so she could keep an eye on her. This did not prevent Mary from untying it and going off on her own, or intentionally capsizing it and then swimming underneath— to the acute dismay of her mother. 

With Mary and Miss Barbara in mind, Kristen and I decided that we would treat Middle River the old-fashioned way, as our own backyard playground. We anchored on Frog Mortar Creek and let the dogs paddle around to their hearts’ content. We docked for lunch and dinner at half-a-dozen different restaurants. We tied up at a county park and hiked to the Martin Aviation Museum. We poked around at least a dozen marinas. On one particularly fine day, we did have a ripping good sail outside the river on Hawk Cove . . . but then, as usual, a storm came along and we scurried back for cover. We read, we walked, we kept an eye on Fred and Ethel. But mostly we cruised up one creek after another. It would be fair to say that over the next two weeks we got to know Middle River pretty well. And the more we did, the better we liked it.

So then how can I describe Middle River to you? I could take you with me on a cruise up each of the river’s nine creeks, but I don’t think that’s really practical. Instead I’ve given a very brief description of each of the creeks in a box that accompanies some maps and photos on these pages. But here in the narrative I’m reluctantly confining myself to just a few places on two of Middle River’s creeks, Frog Mortar and Dark Head. My apologies to the other creeks—especially Sue and Hopkins—and all the fascinating places and stories I’m leaving out. Perhaps these gaps will encourage you to plan a Middle River cruise for yourself . . . though I don’t recommend you go in April.

Middle River lies between lovely little Seneca Creek on the north and straight-as-an-arrow Back River on the south. The three make up Baltimore’s traditional summer vacation getaway area. Middle River is the largest and most comprehensively populated of the three. For that reason, its entrance can be a daunting place on a summer weekend, as boats converge from every direction, inside and out, as they skirt the bar off Booby Point on the south and Bowley Bar on the north. Inside, however, the going is much smoother, as the water stays deep nearly to the shoreline. Sue Creek strikes off immediately to port and then broad Galloway Creek appears to starboard. Ahead to the west are the river’s other tributaries—Hogpen, Norman, Hopkins, Dark Head, Stansbury and Frog Mortar—as well as the main stem, which is indistinguishable from one of its tributaries. Each of these branches is deep enough for at least a quick trip inside and most are deep enough to reach their head. All except Hogpen and Stansbury also have public boating facilities. In fact, the shoreline of the entire river is a porcupine’s back of docks, interspersed with a jigsaw puzzle of marina piers. I fancy you could almost tour the entire river by jumping from one boat to the next. 

Interestingly, nearly all of these marinas are just as they started out (only bigger and more modern)—family owned and operated. Maryland Marina on Frog Mortar Creek, for example, is in its fourth and fifth generation of Miskiewiczes. The family founded the business in 1946 as the Maryland Marine Manufacturing Company, producing rowboats for Montgomery Ward and Sears until the 1960s, and Lightning class sailboats.

Speaking of the colorfully named Frog Mortar Creek, the anchorage there, which I already mentioned, is probably the most popular on the river, because here the woods come down to a sandy shore—a little misleading since this area is part of Martin State Airport. One of its main runways lies just beyond the anchorage; yellow buoys warn boats, especially those with tall rigs, to stay clear. While the airport is now used primarily by small commercial aircraft and the Maryland Air National Guard, it was once part of Glenn L. Martin Company, where many of the nation’s most famous aircraft were designed, tested and produced—including bombers such as the B-10 and B26 Marauder, and flying boats such as the China Clipper and the SeaMaster. 

Beyond the runway, Kristen and I would sometimes pull in for lunch at the long floating dock belonging to Sunset Cove restaurant, next to Maryland Marina. (Sunset Cove opened this spring, replacing the popular Wild Duck Cafe.) Or we’d fix our own sandwiches and dawdle up the creek, passing Conrad’s Ruth Villa and Parkside Marina on the point just opposite the Martin runway. This spot puzzled us until we learned that is used for parties, weddings and corporate outings. Here’s the story: The site was developed in the 1920s with small summer cottages, including one named Ruth Villa, before being purchased by the Conrad family. During the Depression, the vacation business fell off, so the Conrads tried chicken farming. That didn’t really work out so well either, so the family decided to cook the chickens and open a restaurant. The business eventually evolved into the catering and party-site business that continues today. 

Beyond Ruth Villa and Parkside Marina, Frog Mortar Creek bears right and ends after passing Edwards Boatyard and Chesapeake Yachting Center. A small shopping plaza with a Walmart, hardware store and a couple of restaurants lies a short walk beyond Chesapeake Yachting Center—I mention this because it’s as close as you can get to shopping on Middle River.

Since I’ve chosen to describe Frog Mortar, it seems only right to mention Dark Head Creek as well, since the two book-end Martin airport, and Kristen and I usually explored both on the same outing. Beyond Wilson Point, where Frog Mortar and tiny Stansbury Creek go off to the right, the main channel strikes off into Dark Head Creek, ending in a sharp right at Martin Lagoon, a deep turning basin at the creek’s end. It was along this route that seaplanes were towed out of Martin Airport for testing. Now the basin is used by waterskiers and fishermen. (As a completely unrelated side-note, the basin is bordered by Stansbury Manor Apartments, built by Martin in 1939. Richard Nixon lived in apartment 900-D while working with the company on a flying boat contract for the Navy.) The basin is also bordered by Wilson Point Park, which has a couple of boat ramps with a short dock. Kristen and I tied up here one day and walked to the Martin Aircraft Museum, located in one of the commercial aviation buildings at the airport. It’s a fair hike, but a good occupation for a rainy spring day. The museum is small, but fascinating, with exhibits on Martin airport, one of the nation’s oldest and home of the first commuter airline. A short ride away (the docents will give you a lift) are a dozen or so equally fascinating unrestored old aircraft, some manufactured by Martin.

Leaving Dark Head Creek after yet another visit, I would invariably look for Miss Barbara’s canoe as we passed Stansbury Marina, though of course I would have been very much surprised to find it. That was the thing about Middle River, though. While it seemed so much about the present, with its fast boats and modern marinas, its roots are not so very deep below the surface. And in the end, it was Middle River’s ghosts that made me feel at home.

Even Bowleys had its ghost. Mary the bookkeeper told me about her one rainy day as we sat in the marina office and she handed the ever-eager Skipper yet another Beggin’ Strip. “Her name is Mrs. Quinn. People say they’ve seen her walking by upstairs,” Mary said, pointing over her head. The marina office is in an old building, originally a home and then a duck-hunting club that may have included presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison among its guests. Now it’s the office and home of marina manager Ed Harwood—who had been listening to Mary’s story, and who shrugged when asked if he’d ever seen Mrs. Quinn himself. 

It wasn’t long after this conversation that the ghost of spring appeared at last and the weather turned perfect for cruising. But the calendar had turned too, and my time at Bowleys was up. Kristen and Echo packed up and headed back to Ohio, while Skipper and I undid our docklines, said good-bye to Ed, Mary, Fred and Ethel, and headed out onto Middle River a final time. By the time we reached Hart-Miller Island, I had the sails set and the autopilot on. Skipper was sleeping under the cockpit table, Mrs. Quinn was walking the foredeck and Miss Barbara was seated in the stern, her knitting on her lap. We all had a great sail back to Annapolis.