Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: St. Mary's River

 

A summer day on the St. Marys River, where the only 
impediments to heaven are heat and hunger. [October 2007]


By J ody Argo Schroath
Photograph by Scott Sullivan

Everything was serene in the land of the saints. As serene as hell. First, it was about as hot as the Inferno’s eighth ring (in case you lost count, that’s the one where the great sailor Ulysses is eternally slow-roasted for his part in the Trojan War). Second, it was humid enough to bathe in. Third, there was no wind. And fourth, I was beginning to quote poetry. Saints,
preserve us!

It had begun well enough. My husband Rick and I, along with our friend Hal, had decided to celebrate a kind of midsummer All Saints Day by cruising the St. Marys River and visiting its related nominal holinesses—St. Mary’s College, Historic St. Mary’s City, St. George Creek, St. George Island and St. Inigoes Creek—names further sanctified by being crucial to Maryland’s founding story. Maryland’s first settlers landed on St. Clements Island, but learned that the Yaocomaco Indians were holding a kind of going-out-of-business sale along the St. Marys River (not its name then, of course) because the tribe wanted to consolidate its numbers farther upriver as protection from attack by another more fearsome Native American organization. In addition to the land, the Indians also threw in their old houses and all their cultivated fields, so the newcomers pulled out their chests of pretty beads and closed the deal. Then they named everything in sight for various saints and settled down to make a new colony.

On the morning before the official cruise was to begin, Rick and I sailed across the Potomac from the Yeocomico (same Indians, different side of the river) and then idled away the long, still afternoon with iced drinks and good books under the ancient oaks at St. Mary’s Yachting Center on Carthagena Creek. (Carthagena was named by William Hebb II for a spectacularly unsuccessful 1741 battle fought for the Caribbean port of Cartagena during the War of Jenkin’s Ear by the British—with the aid of colonists such as Hebb and Lawrence Washington—against the Spanish. Nothing came of the war, and Jenkin’s ear was eventually pickled.)

Hal arrived on his powerboat early the following morning, which dawned clear and promising, but dead calm, prompting us to opt for a Saints Day cruise by power rather than sail. The three of us set off in Hal’s boat with the rising sun and a second cup of coffee. We began our cruise with a perfectly agreeable tour of St. Inigoes Creek—the first creek to the right as you come up the St. Marys. (Inigo is Spanish for Ignatius, so the creek was actually named for Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. A Jesuit priest arrived with the first settlers in 1634, and the Jesuit order in the years that followed held thousands of acres in this area—as well as the entirety of St. George Island, which was more impressive then than it is now since it used to be considerably larger.)

Serene? Very. Up one branch and then another we went, enjoying the quiet, long-settled, woodsy character of houses that lined St. Inigoes—like so many Maine lake cottages—while remarking on the dozen or so new docks, long steep stairs and walkways of the creek’s new construction. We also noted several fine potential anchorages—particularly a wooded spot at the top end of Lucas Cove that already had a temporary resident, a lone cruiser who resolutely refused to look up from his book as we motored slowly by, waving futilely. All this while, however, we kept an eager eye on a military helicopter that was doing dramatic touch-and-goes at Webster Field, part of the Naval Air Warfare facility at Priests Point. No welcome mat on their doorstep for cruisers, of course, but the inadvertent air show was free for the viewing. Next door to the Navy, on Molls Cove, the St. Inigoes Coast Guard station was as peaceful as its Maine cottage neighbors this weekend morning. The facility serves the Potomac and its tributaries from Point No Point and Smith Point near the river’s mouth all the way up to the U.S. Route 301 bridge.

Two homes along St. Inigoes Creek are worth particular note. Rose Croft graces the point of the same name at the northern entrance of the creek and was the seat of the Maryland colony’s first collector of revenue. (Ships coming up the Potomac were supposed to stop here to be taxed—cannons were pointed toward the river to encourage cooperation. But those ships bound for Virginia ports simply hugged the opposite shore and so kept well out of range of both cannon fire and tax collection.) Farther up St. Inigoes, on the opposite shore, sits Cross Manor, probably the oldest home in Maryland, its original parts dating to the late 17th century. It is now owned by newsman Ted Koppel and his wife.

Things were still as serene as Buddha as we left St. Inigoes Creek to work our way up to the navigable limits of the St. Marys River. Passing Chancellor Point, we remained theologically neutral and took Pagan and Church points right down the middle. (The two points, which jut out from either side of the river, offered the new settlement of St. Mary’s excellent protection from potential enemies, such as Spanish, Dutch and Virginia Protestants.) Just beyond these points, we emerged into Horseshoe Bend, where the river changes direction from north to northwest.

Once we had gotten about as far upriver as we could, about two nautical miles, we gingerly circled Tippity Wichity Island—a notoriously shallow area with the added menace of an overhanging power line crossing from the northeast shore. (This unassuming geographic feature was once an intriguing blot on the local landscape known as Happie Land, established after the Civil War by a Confederate smuggler named Howgate, who changed the name of the island from Lynch to Tippling-house and  Witchery-house Island—hence Tippity Wichity. Or at least that’s the story.)

Serenity onboard was wearing thin as we began our trek back downriver, past points Long and Short, and entered Horseshoe Bend once more. The light morning breeze had petered out at 10:15, as punctual as a Swiss train, and we had entered that brief breathless purgatory before the temperature soars and the day goes well and truly downhill.

Hal was steering us well clear of the shoal waters that trail off Horseshoe Point, when the sun topped out for the day. The humidity and the temperature kept up their neck-and-neck race for 100 as we idled across Horseshoe Bend. It was at this point that serenity flew out the window.

Sweating and sulky, I found myself questioning the very nature of cruising—you know, the whole “Why are we here?” and “What’s the point?” revisionist talk. As Rick and Hal looked on helplessly, I began reciting Edna St. Vincent Millay’sThe Unexplorer, which you’ll be happy to know is very short because I’m going to quote it:
    There was a road ran past our door
     Too lovely to explore.
     I asked my mother once—she said
     That if you followed where it led
     It brought you to the milkman’s door
(That’s why I haven’t traveled more.) Maybe the mother was right, I whined. Maybe all we’re doing is motoring by hundreds of Elsie and Elmer homes, I said, referring to the famous Borden spokescows. Sure, it’s all nice and pretty, but so is Dubuque. And so forth. . . .

Well, as it turned out, the fault lay not in bovine TV stars, but in my stomach. I didn’t suddenly hate cruising, I was just very hungry. And fortunately there are few things that a good $6.50 all-you-can-eat college buffet can’t cure.

On reaching Horseshoe Bend, Hal headed directly for St. Mary’s College docks, carefully dodging an outgoing fleet of Special Olympians on the way in, and we went ashore. Providentially, a sophomore political science major from the D.C. area promptly materialized and, taking us figuratively in hand, led us by the shortest possible route to the college commissary. Half an hour and four slices of fresh vegetarian pizza later, life was great and Elsie and Elmer had re-established themselves as fascinating reasons to explore the world.

Call it a minor miracle if you like, but then St. Mary’s College of Maryland has always come down on the side of the angels as far as cruisers were concerned. Not only does the college invite cruisers to tie up at the college docks during the day (no overnights, though), it also welcomes them to use the athletic facilities at $5 a day and make use of its showers, as well as the cafeteria, coffee shop and bookstore. If the college docks are full, no problem, there is enough room in Horseshoe Bend for the entire Pacific Fleet to drop anchor (okay, a few of the aircraft carriers might have to wait outside) and dinghy ashore. There is plenty of room at the sandy beach nearby for dinghies.

 “The school has always looked to the water,” college President Jane Margaret O’Brien told me when we talked the following week. “All the old buildings face the river because that’s the way students saw the school—from the water—until 1934, when the steamship stopped running.” It’s a question of hospitality in a very rural area, O’Brien continued. The college continues to maintain a close relationship with the water; its sailing team, with 13 national championships, is ranked number one in the country.


For a place that’s pretty much the last stop before the end of the road, St. Mary’s was humming on this summer day. The Special Olympians we had encountered on the way in were part of a weekend of racing on a variety of watercraft for the state Special Olympics championships. Next door to the college, Historic St. Mary’s City was hosting its annual Archaeology Weekend, which lets visitors sift for themselves among the potsherds and get a once-a-year look at the site’s artifact filing system—housed in the climate-controlled basement of a former house.

All of this brings up another benefit of the college’s enlightened attitude toward cruisers. Because docking is available, cruisers can easily visit Maryland’s fascinating first capital—a feat rarely possible at the nation’s other historic sites, which have turned their back on their maritime origins. All of which made our visit to Archaeology Weekend a walk in the park . . . then a short stroll through Trinity Church cemetery, a trek past the Woodland Indian Hamlet, and a hike up the hill to the Visitor Center. At the end of it all—including a short drive by van just a spit down the road—stood curator Silas Hurry, quiet-spoken, earnest and full of the milk of good public relations kindness. He had an eager audience. A few took notes. Here are Cliff’s: All of the samples from each dig are clearly marked, sifted, categorized, stabilized, identified, computerized and stored. Now pay attention, because this will be on your final:

Archaeologists are now leaving as much of the land as possible undisturbed for future archaeologists because they will presumably know more and have better equipment than today’s batch, just as we have it all over the former fellows, who did regrettable things like toss out all the soil that had been turned over regularly in cultivation—soil that, it turns out, actually contains the bulk of what is now considered the good stuff. And like oyster shells, which, it turns out, are important indicators of the health of the Bay because you can measure their rings (kind of like trees, apparently) and thickness and so forth. Because oyster shell fragments were about as common as cucumbers in a pickle factory, nobody ever thought it worth the trouble to collect them—except Historic St. Mary’s City archaeologists, who did hang on to them and who can be excused for feeling just a little smug about the whole thing. So, never throw out anything, no matter how dumb it seems—but only if you’re an archaeologist. End of lesson.

Following our entertaining encounter with dirt and historic debris we retraced our steps, more slowly this time, to visit Historic St. Mary’s City. The town, founded in 1634, was a briefly thriving community that was relegated to the trash heap of history a mere 90 years later when the Protestants gained sufficient power and influence to insist that the center of power for the colony be moved north to the more malleable city of Annapolis. The  jilted capital soon faded into memory and its plowed fields, homes, businesses and government buildings forgotten. (The college, in fact, was established as a kind of consolation prize for the lost capital, starting life in 1840 as a girls seminary and ending up as the state’s public honors college. So over the years, the school and the lost city have maintained a uniquely special relationship, with their property, interests and activities widely overlapping.)

St. Mary’s City was never a city in the sense of a downtown, suburbs and business district. Even at its peak it was only a few dozen homes, a couple of taverns and a state house. The state house was rebuilt in 1934, but most of the other original buildings have been reconstructed only in an outline form called “ghost frames,” which gives the impression of a bankrupt 17th century housing development.

An important feature of St. Mary’s rebuilt past is theDove—the maritime cargo van that accompanied the first settler’s Greyhound bus, the Ark. When not showing off elsewhere, the Doveis generally parked at a pier not far from the original landing place and at the bottom of a steep descent from the bluff where the “city” stood. On the weekend following our visit, the Dovewould be out on the river, serving as the finish line for the 34th annual Governor’s Cup, a perennially popular overnight sailing race from Annapolis to St. Mary’s (from one capital to another)—a distance of about seventy miles, if you don’t count all the extra miles required on those many occasions when a beat to windward is the only way down the Bay. The race is sponsored by St. Mary’s College and culminates in what has been called one of sailing’s top 10 parties.

It was time for us to move on—we still had one more saint waiting in the wings —so we took a final scenic look down at the river from the Margaret Brent Gazebo. (Brent was named executor of the will of colonial governor Leonard Calvert, Lord Baltimore’s son. In 1648 she went before the General Assembly to ask for two votes, one as executor and one as landowner in her own right, and received nothing in return but huffy male disdain.) Back at the college waterfront, we danced inelegantly across the coal-hot sand and returned to Hal’s boat. Special Olympics sailors by this time were off the water and had gathered with friends and families in the shade for the awards announcements. The sound of cheers and applause wobbled through the humidity to follow us down the dock.

Once out in Horseshoe Bend, Hal opened the throttle a little more than careful tourism might recommend, but we reveled in the resulting breeze and turned south for St. George Creek. We made two concessions to speed along the way. The first was to admire Porto Bello, the historic estate built in the 1740s by William Hebb II and extensively restored over the past several years by formerWashington Posteditor Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn. The estate sits on a bluff above the river’s western shore. (Porto Bello, like Carthagena, was named by Hebb for yet another battle in the War of Jenkin’s Ear—this one a British victory.) Our second tangent was to trace Carthagena Creek past Josh Point, where the creek seems to end before it begins, around the dogleg to the right that materializes at the flashing red “4” to Dennis Point, past private docks and comfortable cottages, and finally turning back as the creek shallowed out beyond Walnut Point.

Now it was simply a matter of keeping the three green markers (two locals and flashing green “1”) to our right and then resisting the urge to make our turn into St. George Creek before we had reached red “A”. You can get away with the shortcut if you know what you’re doing, but we did not. So we played it by the numbers and split the difference between “A” and flashing green “1”.

St. George Creek feels nice and roomy for much of its four and a half nautical miles, as it separates first St. George Island and then Piney Point from the Maryland mainland. It’s a busy working waterway, too. As we slowed down just before reaching green “1” to try to catch a glimpse of Camp Merryelande at the southern tip of St. George Island, workboats and fishing boats bustled around us and kept us bobbing and binocular bruised. Merryelande, now a private facility with brightly colored rental cabins with varying degrees of civilization and tents, a sandy beach and a fishing dock, was for many years a girls’ summer camp operated by Roman Catholic nuns. (The Jesuits were St. George Island’s first European inhabitants. They kept herds of Elsies and Elmers on the island because of its abundance of tasty grasses.)

The dominant feature on St. George Creek is the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship. This training complex can be seen from either side of St. George Island and, on a clear day, from well out on the Potomac. The school, which trains merchant seamen for employment on U.S. flagged commercial vessels, is generally closed to visitors, but a slow pass by the docks is a good alternative.

As St. George Creek narrowed and we slowed to keep down our wake, the temperature onboard began to rise as quickly as the cumulonimbus clouds to the west. Pretty soon now, it would behoove us to get off the river. Late afternoon in midsummer is no time to be lollygagging along sightseeing. So we made one quick side trip into Tarkill Cove on the mainland side of the creek then headed for home—St. Mary’s Yachting Center, in this case. We had just enough time to put up the awning over the cockpit of the sailboat and pull three greenies out of the cooler before the first storm barreled through. As we put our feet up and watched the rain fall, we agreed with generations of boaters before us that discussing a day spent on the Bay over a cold beer in the sudden coolness of a late afternoon shower is pretty close to heaven. Yep, everything was serene here in the land of the saints.


Cruiser's Digest: St. Mary's River, MD

St. Marys River is a beautiful part of the Bay, with lots of deep-water creeks to explore and history around every bend. It’s also as quiet as a church mouse. St. Mary’s College and City are the river’s local hot spots—even that’s stretching a point—and St. George Creek is its industrial heartland. Food is pretty much restricted to the college cafeteria (excellent and economical), light meals from the historic city’s commissary, and St. Mary’s Yachting Center’s restaurant, which offers generous Bay-standard fare and a tiki bar. Other than that, if want to eat it or drink it, you’d better bring it with you, including milk—remember, Elsie and Elmer don’t deliver anymore.

GETTING THERE
The entrance to St. Marys River is broad and deep. The red/green flashing “SM” marks the official way in, and there’s plenty of water to either side. Just be wary of the shoal off St. George Island on your left. The first flashing green “1” you see marks the entrance to St. George Creek. Flashing red “2” marks the channel’s starboard limit. The first St. Marys River marker, flashing green “1”, lies 4 nautical miles upriver from the entrance marker and near the entrance bay to Carthagena Creek. To find the creek—which has the river’s only marina for transients—keep the two local green markers, “1” and “3” to port and look for flashing red “2” off Josh Point. You’ll find the marina and Dennis Point just beyond. Back out on the river, flashing red “2” marks the entrance to St. Inigoes Creek, which goes off to the right. To find St. Mary’s College, Historic St. Mary’s City and Horseshoe Bend, continue upriver past flashing green “3” until you pass Pagan and Church points. The college docks will be to your right. The water in Horseshoe Bend is deep enough for most boats nearly to the shoreline and the anchorage is well protected except from the northwest.

MARINAS
St. Marys River
St. Mary’s Yachting Center (formerly Dennis Point Marina), (301-994-2288,www.stmyc.com) on Carthagena Creek, is the river’s only marina that services transients. It offers deep-water slips, 30 and 50 amp service, fuel, pump-out, showers, ice, haul-outs, repairs, pool, restaurant and lounge.

Smith Creek
Just around the corner—downriver—from St. Marys River is Smith Creek, where two marinas offer overnight slips. Both offer showers, electric service, ice and repairs and both accept credit cards. Phil’s Marina (301-872-5838) Jutland Creek; launch ramp. Point Lookout Marina (301-872-5000;www.pointlookoutmarina.com) also offers fuel, propane, Laundromat, restaurant, pool, pump-out, marine supplies and haul-outs.

Herring Creek
Just around the corner—upriver —from St. Marys River is Herring Creek, which also has two marinas that serve cruisers. Both offer gas, electric, showers, ice, marine supplies, boat repairs, haul-outs, launch ramp and both accept credit cards. Cedar Cove Marina (301-994-1155;www.cedarcovemarina.com) also offers internet access, Laundromat, and pump-out. Tall Timbers (301-994-1508; www.talltimbersmarinasomd.com) also offers restaurant, private beach, diesel, propane and a pool.

PLACES AND EVENTS OF INTEREST
Historic St. Mary’s City (www.stmaryscity.org) is a short walk from St. Mary’s College docks; open Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m. –5 p.m.; admission $10; special events include Maritime Heritage Day in June and Archaeology Weekend in August.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland (www.smcm.edu) offers free daytime docking; showers and athletic facilities ($5). The Great Room cafeteria in the Campus  Center offers a variety of good food at good prices (check website for summer hours). The college hosts a variety of activities during the year.

Next summer will mark the 10th anniversary of the college's very popular River Concert Series, which has grown from an audience of a few hundred to several thousand. Boaters are welcome to anchor out and dinghy to the college docks for the short walk to the outdoor concerts. Special guests and innovative programs such as pirate movie music combine with a critically acclaimed orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Silberschlag to make these special Friday night treats. The series runs from June through the end of July.

Summer 2008 will also mark a special milestone for the college-sponsored Governor's Cup, which will celebrate its 35th year as hundreds of boats leave Annapolis on the first Friday evening in August for the overnight race to St. Mary's.