With a teenager's diary as her guide, a modern-day explorer retraces a month-long Potomac River odyssey by a dozen Sea Scouts in the summer of 1931. [1.07 issue]
by Jody Argo Schroath
I'd like to say that, as we pounded across the choppy Potomac in 20-knot winds, I was entertaining profound thoughts-- say, something about Heraclitus's insight that we never step twice into the same river. But in fact I was more concerned about falling into the river. My sailing pal Hal and I had left Breton Bay, near Leonardtown, Md., at dawn, fighting an unfriendly chop and a 20-knot wind smack on our nose. And it wasn't going to get any prettier. The forecast that morning was for several days of this, and worse. So, following the old discretion-as-valor principle, we had decided to hightail it back home to the Yeocomico River instead of continuing to bash our way up the Potomac toward Washington.
So, no, I wasn't thinking about Heraclitus and the philosophy of eternal change. I was thinking about staying in the boat. And, more to the point of this tale, I was thinking about the 11 Sea Scouts who had explored the same river 75 years earlier and whose figurative footsteps I had been following in a series of summer outings. Specifically, I was thinking that, while I had so far seen nothing but rough conditions, the Scouts had encountered stiff winds only once in their month-long odyssey--a windy night at anchor off Maryland Point. It hardly seemed fair . . . but for their sake, of course, and for the sake of this story, I suppose it was a good thing, because they were able to stop and visit wherever they pleased. And that's what their trip was all about--stopping and visiting.
This story, then, is about two adventures on the Potomac. The first, made in 1931, was a 28-day cruise by the aforementioned Sea Scouts, who, under the direction of their skipper Frederick Tilp, set out to visit every bay, wharf, store and fishing village on the tidal Potomac. They did so in two boats--Bobcat and Wildcat, a pair of sturdy 23-foot gaff-rigged catboats, retired from service as training boats at the U.S. Naval Academy and donated to the Scouts. They were tough and versatile boats, drawing only 30 inches with the centerboards up and a respectable five feet six inches with the boards down. The boats were also equipped with oars--to provide, a "white-ash breeze" when the winds failed them. Bobcat had a crew of six Scouts; Wildcat had five Scouts, plus Tilp.
The second adventure (or series of them, actually) was by me--sometimes alone and sometimes with anyone I could con, cajole or bribe into coming along. I did so in Snipp, my 27-foot, 30-year-old Albin sloop. The object was to retrace the Scouts' passage and, as much as possible, see how today's Potomac compares with the one they saw in 1931.
But don't worry, I'm not going to be so predictable as to start at the beginning and end at the end. And I'm not going to give you a stop-by-stop, blow-by-blow description of either trip. First of all, the Sea Scouts' trip, as recorded by 15-year-old Robert Fountain Hedges Jr. in his journal and eventually published in Tilp's charming 1978 book, This Was Potomac River, deserves to be read all on its own for its completeness, its naivete and its liveliness. You will fall in love with it. (The book has been out of print for years, but limited-edition reprints are available at www.thiswaspotomacriver.com.) And second, there are better and more complete guides to the modern day Potomac than what I can give you in this context.
In the great wide world, 1931 was an interesting year. It was two years after the American stock market crash and the nation was just settling down hard into the Great Depression. Prohibition was still the law. The "Star Spangled Banner" was made the national anthem that year, U.S. Route 1 opened in Virginia, changing forever the importance of the Potomac as a river of commerce and transportation, and it was the year that Maryland outlawed oyster dredging, changing forever the lives of Chesapeake watermen. It was the year that Washington temporarily closed the Potomac for 10 miles downstream because of the severity of the pollution. And it was the year the Potomac officially got its name from the Board on Geographic Names--permanently eliminating from the running more than 70 historically legitimate though little-used variants and alternate names, from Cohongarooto to Patowmeck.
Today the youngest of Tilp's Sea Scout charges would be pushing 90. Robert Hedges, our diarist, did not survive to his 30th birthday, I'm sad to say; he was killed in combat in Germany in 1944. He had given Tilp his journal of the trip in 1941, just before leaving for infantry training.
In 1931, though, Hedges and his fellow explorers were full of youthful industry--weighing anchor, for example, at 4:30 in the morning in Saint George Creek, making Leonardtown at the head of Breton Bay by late afternoon, visiting three shipyards, wandering through tobacco fields to watch turkeys eat budworms, talking to 10 people along the way, sailing up the St. Clements to Coburn Wharf, and picking blackberries "like mad" (a harvest that ended up in six pies, baked by tobacco farmers Miss Lettie Dent and Miss Fannie Jo Dent) before going to bed "in perfect peace, plenty of food and ice; no mosquitoes, no moon."
It was this very energy that I found so astonishing. In fact, early on in the project I felt compelled to make lists and more lists--to count up how many times they did this and that. Pretty soon I was wielding a fistful of colored highlighters like some latter-day Jackson Pollack: food was marked in blue, boats in pink, stops in green and overnights were marked yellow with orange boxes.
What did it get me besides a nearly illegible photocopy? Well, among other things, I can tell you that the Sea Scouts were out 27 nights, made 96 stops, and talked with 89 people whose names we are given in addition to "many, many" fishermen; that young Hedges recorded 28 different kinds of boats, including 23 bugeyes (six of them derelict), 23 skipjacks (and once "many skipjacks"), 29 schooners (13 derelict) six ferryboats, five steamboats (two derelict), two pungies, two police patrol boats, and an unspecified number of scows, tugs, log canoes, push boats, fish lighters, one yawl, motorboats, two rowboats, each containing two professional frog-giggers, 23 skiffs containing as many sun-bonneted women with poles, and one ram (a boat, not a swimming sheep).
What does it add up to?
Boats: You will no doubt already have noted that every one of the boats mentioned, with the possible exception of the yawl, is a working boat. Either young Hedges didn't consider pleasure boats worth mentioning or there weren't any to mention. Either way, in 1931 the Potomac was a working river, as busy in its way as Interstate 95--with gravel barges and lumber schooners instead of semis and dump trucks--but just as vital, just as busy and, at times, just as congested. There were also floating stores--or "arks," as Hedges called them--that catered exclusively to the legion of working boatmen. Aboard these, the men could buy anything and everything, legal and illegal, without ever setting foot on shore. Hedges describes an "ark city" that the Scouts encountered on their first day in a cove near Piscataway Creek. "Lots of flat-bottom (houseboats) scows moored here, selling everything--haircuts, rope, marlin, sardines, whiskey, Vienna sausage and beans, flour, coffee . . . all kinds of things, even clothes. They have a gambling slot-machine on one ark, but the owner will not let us play it--says 'we are too young.' Skipjack Elmer and longboat George, stacked with cordwood, are anchored close by. Their crew is probably 'carousing' in one of the nearby arks."
In contrast, on my trip, the shopping wasn't nearly as interesting. And, except for the crabbers and fishing boats, I saw only a handful of working vessels, all barges of one sort or another. As for pleasure boats, though, on busy days in busy places, I could have counted them by the hundreds if I'd been so inclined.
Wharfs: In 1931, there were still so many wharfs on the Potomac that even the eager and energetic Sea Scouts couldn't stop at them all. Wharfs served as the delivery entrances to the towns and were the very centers of commerce, to say nothing of social intercourse. Each bend in the river, each stream, bay and tributary had at least one wharf and one store. In 2006, by contrast, I was hard pressed to find one. Nowadays there are jetties, docks and piers, to be sure, but the wharfs are all but gone. And precious few stores remain. One of the most precious may be the store at Bushwood Wharf (no wharf, of course) on the east side of Maryland's Wicomico River, just upstream from Cobb Island. Here the Sea Scouts tied up for the night on their 24th day out--and they "Mail 12 postcards of 'thank you for the pies' to the two Misses Dents at Oakley, Md." Here, too, they talked with Captain Edmund Plowden of the Maryland State patrol boat Potomac, filled their stomachs with Carry's ice cream ("Better than the watered stuff we got in Virginia") and talked with the storekeeper, Mr. William S. Thrall.
When I stopped at Bushwood Wharf (you now have to drop anchor and take your dink to shore), I found a store, too, though this one had an Optimist Club sign over the door that said Alice Morgan Quade, Merchant of the Century. Inside I found a small, tidy general store, a lunch counter and, lo and behold, Alice Morgan Quade. Her son George was behind the store register. George's wife was behind the lunch counter. Miss Alice herself was sitting at a table reading.
After chatting briefly with George about nothing in particular, I told them about my Sea Scouts mission. The Scouts, I say, had stopped at Bushwood in 1931 and had mentioned a Mr. William Thrall, who owned the store, and Mrs. Julius Oliver, who ran the post office. Mrs. Oliver? No, that doesn't ring a bell, but Mr. Thrall, yes, of course, he was the man they bought the store from back in 1935, said Miss Alice, inviting me to join her at the table.
"My husband and I had just gotten married when we bought the store. When Mr. Thrall owned the store, it was in a building at the end of the steamboat wharf, like it is in that painting," she said, pointing to a picture hanging next to the refrigerator. "But that building burned down, so they moved the store onto the shore, into a dance hall that Mrs. Thrall operated. That's this building, only it was moved back farther from the water after a bad storm."
The steamboat stopped coming in 1930, and the wharf eventually washed away, but the store remains. It was a full-line grocery store until the 1970s. "There were so many more people around in the old days," George said, "and people didn't get around so much, either."
Miss Alice, meanwhile, had produced photos of Bushwood Wharf's livelier days. She tells me about taking the steamship with her sister to visit a relative in Washington for two weeks every summer. She also told me how a pirate--a certain Captain Morgan--stashed treasure in the house next door. And she insisted that I come back for her crabcakes, the best on the river. Only later did I make the connection to the pirate's name, Morgan, and understand why Alice Morgan Quade's eyes sparkled when she told me about him.
I have mentioned this stop particularly because it seems to me that for this hour I have come about as close to the Sea Scouts and their Potomac as I am ever going to get. I have a link--Mrs. Quade at 91 would have been 16 when the Scouts stopped. Maybe she was even there that day, maybe eating Carry's ice cream too. Maybe they all said howdy. As I leave, I peer hopefully into the ice cream chest for Carry's. Tragically, there is none.
The Scouts didn't always find everything they were looking for. Seven days into their journey, at the entrance to Potomac Creek--at the river's big eastward bend below Quantico, Va.--they anchored between Indian Point and Marlboro Point to look for evidence of the vanished 17th-century town of Marlborough. "[We] talk to a few fishermen and lumber cutters (no girls) but find no town, so off we go to Belle Plain. . . ."
Though you'd never know it by looking at it today, Belle Plain, on the south shore of Potomac Creek, was the southern terminus of the very first steamship service out of Washington, started in 1815. It was the jumping off point for Fredericksburg, Va., just an hour or so away by stagecoach. Later, during the Civil War, the landing was used as a staging area for thousands of troops, first by the Confederacy and later by the Union. And, on April 27, 1865, the body of John Wilkes Booth--Abraham Lincoln's assassin, tracked down and killed at a nearby farm--was brought to the wharf at Belle Plain for transport back to Washington.
Since then, Belle Plain has slipped quietly into oblivion, not even appearing on most road maps (though hinted at by "Belle Plains" road). This place where thousands of travelers arrived and de-parted by steamship and where thousands of soldiers, wounded and prisoners once awaited transport, now boasts only a small boat club and a handful of no-trespassing signs.
In other places along the Sea Scouts' route, time and tide have done their work and I have no hope of getting in with my 4-foot-10 inch draft--at least not without waiting for a flood tide and jettisoning several gallons of Kool-Aid. Piscataway Creek, Mattawoman, Hunting, Broad, Nanjemoy and Aquia . . . all are now so depth-challenged that they were off-limits to me, as they are to other sailing cruisers. Even Bobcat and Wildcat frequently ran aground--although, presumably, there were more vestigial steamship channels in their day.
There are still other venues where I had no entree--like Camp Humphries, renamed Fort Belvoir in 1935, where the Sea Scouts tramped ashore on their second night out, and the U.S. Marine Barracks at Quantico, where they spent the Fourth of July, dining nervously with the base commander, General Smedley Butler, and other officers and their wives. "We were so scared that nobody really enjoyed the food, not even the ice cream--BUT--we are all going to 'join the U.S. Marines' as soon as we get out of school." Not everything about the Marines, though, met with their approval. "After eating we are taken around the post on a sightseeing trip, and shown where a new airfield is being built, filling up the Chopawamsic wildlife refuge and swamp, which we think is terrible but say nothing to our hosts." These places were not crucial to my scheme, though; I knew they were still there. The same could be said of Dahlgren, Va., where the Scouts anchored off the Naval Proving Grounds on July 9. That afternoon they caught "about 200 soft shell crabs" at Gambo Creek and had them prepared by friendly cooks from the Navy tugboats Choptank and Choctaw and served for supper with Kool-Aid, ginger ale, root beer and vegetable salad. "Now everybody wants to join the Navy," Hedges wrote.
I was just about to pull another couple of peanut butter sandwiches out of their plastic bags for lunch, wondering aloud if it was too late for me to join the Navy, when my husband Rick (my sailing buddy for this part of the trip) reminded me that soft crabs, if not Navy cooks, were within striking distance. The Scouts' next overnight was Colonial Beach, and their first stop on the way there from Dalhgren was Wilkerson's Store at Potomac Beach. The store is no longer there, but the name lives on in Wilkerson's Seafood Restaurant, recently relocated and rebuilt after Isabel washed it away, but still right on the river.
Soon we were cheerfully laying waste to a plate of seafood and looking out over the hazy blue water of the Potomac. I congratulated myself for the decision not to try to keep strictly within the Sea Scouts' budget. Their price of admission for the trip was 30 cents per day per Scout, or $8.40 for the 28 days. This bargain-basement sum did not include the glaciers of ice cream or seas of soda pop they consumed every chance they got, but then a lot of that was donated--like doughnuts to cops--by benevolent shopkeepers and indulgent commanding officers, like Captain G.L. Schuyler at Dahlgren, who also gave them the run of his vegetable garden.
For the most part, the Scouts took their fun where they found it, swimming as often as they could, with an occasional "soap swim" thrown in for hygiene's sake. At Colonial Beach, however, Hedges complained that "swimming at the front beach almost put us in the jug by the cops who enforce a law: 'males must wear a swim shirt' (and pants) . . . even after dark."
Some of the time, the adventurous boys ended up paying for their fun in more subtle ways. After climbing all the way up Nomini Cliffs on Day 13, digging footholds all the way, Harlan McClure, who kept the weather-cloud-wind log, was unable to write on Day 14 because of the severity of his poison ivy. More poison ivy was to be had when they climbed the bluff to Stratford Hall, home of the Lees (and birthplace of Robert E.). For our part, we simply ghosted by Nomini, Stratford and Horsehead cliffs later that afternoon on a rare light wind and looked, but didn't touch, since it is now both illegal and unwise to do so.
A free trip to a silent movie at the Lyric Theater in Occoquan, Va., was the Scouts' sole commercial entertainment of the trip. But there was one source of entertainment that is not dimmed by time or changing fashion: girls. At Colonial Beach, after the Scouts had gotten their fill of snow cones, they spent the remainder of the evening, until midnight, girl-watching on the boardwalk. And at Walnut Point on the Coan River, the southernmost point of their journey, where the Scouts worked for several days at a tomato canning factory, it was all about girls for Hedges. "Six pretty white girls work at cannery pasting paper-labels on filled tomato cans," he wrote. "After work, Mr. Wilmer's daughters, Ruby and Myrul, and four of their Baltimore feminine friends, and us twelve city-slickers sit on fish-net pound-poles ashore and 'discuss our Future, Present and Past.' . . ."
"Next time," he wrote on Day 28, the final entry in his journal, "I intend to sail straight to Walnut Point in Coan and stay there all summer." Hedges was particularly taken with a young lady named Mabel Clark, who had blond hair, blue eyes and "a big quiet smile." That night he fell asleep swatting mosquitoes, watching bats and thinking of Mabel.
But Mabel or no Mabel, on July 21, after spending 17 days coming downriver and another three in and around the Coan River, working at the canning factory at Walnut Point, the Scouts boarded Bobcat and Wildcat once again and set out across the wide Potomac in the early morning darkness, headed for Smith Creek, near the mouth of the St. Marys River. And so began their trip home.
Ahead of us all lay what was then, and is now, one of the most beautiful views in all of the Chesapeake.
Read part 2 »