Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: West River, MD


A little investigation goes a long way when it comes 
to getting to know the West River and its quiet, storied 
towns of Galesville and Shady Side. [June 2010]


By Ann Levelle
Photographs by Vince Lupo

Tim, you're a genius!" I declared after editor Tim Sayles suggested that we take an on-the-water staff field trip to deliver him to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the Rhode River for a story he was working on. I admit that this was also shortly after I read somewhere that it's a good idea to tell your boss every so often that he's a genius. But I wasn't being entirely sycophantic. It was a good idea, because, well, I like a good excuse to get out on the water on a workday. Even better, I had wanted an excuse to take a tour of West River ever since I spent time there a year ago for a story on the West River Catamaran Racing Association ["Fast Cat Fever," January 2009].

Virtually everyone I talked to while working on that story seemed to have a special place in his or her heart for West River, whether they spent childhood summers at the West River Sailing Club's sailing school, family weekends at Hartge's Yacht Yard or crewed in Wednesday night races. It seemed like it might be a great destination for the magazine, and a little river tour and lunch at Pirates Cove sounded like the perfect way to start. 

So the next morning, a gorgeous and mercifully temperate Friday in August, the three of us--Tim and I and senior editor Jody Schroath--left Back Creek in Annapolis on Venture, one of Chesapeake Boating Club's Albin 28s, and headed south. In no time we had rounded Thomas Point Light and were aiming for the flashing green "1A" and subsequent red "2" daymarker, which mark the outer edge of the river. The trip took all of half an hour, putting us way ahead of schedule. I'm more accustomed to sailboat speed and had roughed out the day's schedule accordingly--so suddenly we had lots of time for sightseeing and lunch before Tim needed to be at the SERC dock. This was shaping up to be an excellent day at "work."

After zipping up the river, passing between the Rhode River to the north and Shady Side to the south, we decided to slow down a bit and take in the sights.  

At green "3", the river narrows a good bit, allowing us to get a good view of the scenery. It was nearly noon, but the sun was still casting beautiful shadows on the patches of lush green trees interspersed with the low natural shorelines that are abundant on the river. It was a beautiful day--the humidity had taken a break that week and, with a few puffy white cartoon clouds in the sky to provide an occasional shady spot, we couldn't have asked for better field trip weather. As we puttered along, I admired the river's modest shorelines. There aren't a lot of multimillion dollar homes crowded against one another here. Sure, there are a few big homes (okay, really big), but you won't find one right after another, four feet apart, with large boats crowding the private docks--like you might find, say, on the Severn River. Here the homes are nicely spaced apart, and many have natural shorelines, rather than bulkheads and trimmed lawns, making the whole river feel homey.

Soon we were passing red "6", signaling our official arrival in Galesville. Coming around the covered slips at the condominium marina, West River Yacht Harbour, and passing the West River Fuel Dock at the end of one of its docks, we turned down the runway to Pirates Cove's bulkhead slips set aside for diners. Easy as pie, we pulled straight in, tied up and hopped off, bound for a dockside table underneath one of the restaurant's delightfully large umbrellas.

With a cold drink in hand and fish and chips on their way, I imagined what this part of the river must look like on a Wednesday summer evening when 50 boats might be jockeying for position at the starting line at the end of this pier. For 26 years now, Pirates Cove and its owner Bob Platt have been running the West River's Wednesday night series, including video replay of the night's action in the lounge. 

While Tim and Jody were engrossed in conversation, I stared out at the water at a nearly endless array of boats and started to have misgivings about the West River as a "destination." It's gorgeous, yes, but . . . what else is there? Other than a quiet river with a big racing scene, what would I have to write about? 

Of course, over the next few weeks and months (heck, even later that day), I would come to realize that the West River has plenty to offer--you just need to know where to look. And as it turns out, just about every business, dock and house in town has a backstory that could knock a historian's socks off. Take this very restaurant, the Inn at Pirates Cove. It might be one of the oldest dockside restaurants on the whole Bay, having opened in the very early 1900s when the Zang family started serving fresh oysters from their dock. The Zangs built it up and sold it in 1938, but it's been a restaurant and inn (yes, there are actually rooms here) ever since.

Before I could dive into West River's depths (metaphorically, of course) though, I had a boss to deliver. So we finished up our lunches and made our way back down the river. In no time we had zoomed up the Rhode River's main stem, through the cut between Big and Flat islands and were sidled up to SERC's dock at Contee's Wharf. Jody and I bade Tim good-bye and were cruising back down the Rhode when I decided that we could afford a quick detour to Shady Side before we needed to be back at work.

Jody, ever the explorer, was game--so we headed straight out of the Rhode, crossed the mouth of the West, and aimed for the green "1" that marks the entrance to Parish Creek. Having only been in this neck of the woods in a sailboat, I'd never dared go into the very shallow Parish Creek channel before, but we were ready for the challenge in the Albin.

As we neared the green can, we spotted the canary yellow Captain Salem Avery Museum, about a quarter-mile from the point, tucked in among the houses that line the river's southern shore. (Just look for the tall white flagstaff at the base of a long pier, where you're welcome to tie up if you draw less than three feet.) The museum is the former home of Captain Salem Avery, an oysterman who moved to the Chesapeake Bay from Long Island in the late 1800s in search of better fishing. Eventually he became a well known buyboat captain. In addition to honoring the Avery family legacy, the museum highlights what 19th-century life was like in Shady Side, and holds living history events, art exhibits, Bay-themed lectures--and a fantastic oyster festival every fall. 

We hugged the markers tightly through the channel, and we never saw less than five feet on our depthsounder. (The Army Corps of Engineers has since dredged the channel.) Once past green "3", we were in the clear--even though the creek is tiny, it is well marked and consistently holds good water. 

We kept going west until we got to the Clarks Landing boat dealership, which seems hugely out of scale and proportion to the tiny watermen's town of Shady Side, with its modest waterfront of workboats, stacks of crab pots and two homegrown marinas--Backyard Boats and Leatherbury Point Marina. Opposite the marinas on the creek's southern branch is the Discovery Village complex, a very 1950s-looking brick building that houses the Riverkeeper offices and Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) Oyster Restoration Center. The Discovery Village itself is an educational center for children, focusing on maritime heritage and research.

I can imagine that life here on Parish Creek (called Cuttles Creek by the Quakers who founded the area in the late 1600s) is not terribly different than it was, say, in the 1950s: small waterfront cottages, watermen, workboats, etc. Except that the watermen now have fewer oyster bars to work. Oh, and the marinas and boatyards probably were boat-building facilities, and Clarks Landing surely wasn't there selling Sea Rays and Silvertons. And there were probably no groups of field-tripping fourth graders visiting the museum and Discovery Village and planting oysters with CBF. . . . All right, maybe Shady Side's waterfront is nothing like it was 60 years ago. 

Still, a stroll through (cue Gary Owens) beautiful downtown Shady Side sure feels like you've somehow stepped into 1950. If you take a slip at Backyard Boats, for instance, and walk out to Snug Harbor Road, you'll find an enormous white house on the corner, advertising freshly shucked oysters, packed by the pint or quart. In the backyard of said house, you'll see workboats and stack upon stack of crab pots. Beyond that house, you'll find the tiny Driftwood Diner, whose sign boasts a good crabcake and breakfast served all day. And across the street is the small Shady Side Market, a town fixture since 1926. It's a small-town feel that you don't get often here on the Western Shore.

Our spin around Parish Creek was pretty quick--it's a tiny creek, after all. But on our way out, I took a last look around and spotted it: one of the West/Rhode Riverkeeper boats docked on the north side of the creek. Ah, the Riverkeeper, I thought. Now that's a good way to learn about a river! 


Fast forward to spring, when a week of warm weather early in April jump-started my urge for exploration. I e-mailed Riverkeeper Chris Trumbauer to ask him if he'd be up for a river tour. Sure, he replied, he could use an excuse to get out on the water. (Clearly great minds think alike.) We arranged to meet on a Friday morning and go for a little West River walkabout. When I went to meet him that morning at the Galesville community dock (free for anyone who'd like to tie up for a few hours) I was hoping he'd show up on Blue Mist, the 1917, 52-foot commuter boat that was donated to the Riverkeeper program last year by Hartge Yacht Yard owner Alex Shlegel. No such luck; Trumbauer came instead in Miss Edie, the organization's center-console patrol boat. But no matter; a boat ride is a boat ride. Miss Edie was also donated to the Riverkeeper program, as was the 33-foot Robbins deadrise, (which is now up for sale). Their fourth boat is the river's pump-out vessel, Honeydipper, which last year collected over 15,000 gallons of waste (be careful sticking your paw in that pot, Pooh!) from boats all over the river.

After slaloming through the minefield of moorings between Pirates Cove and Thursday's restaurants, we turned to starboard and headed upriver. As we puttered along, Trumbauer switched effortlessly between schooling me on the West/Rhode Riverkeeper program and giving me play-by-play about what we were passing on land. First he pointed out the green lawn at Hartge Yacht Harbor, where his group holds its big annual fundraising event, Rhythm on the River. Last year about 300 people came to the party, and they made close to $15,000 for the program. 

We were now slaloming through our second mooring field of the day--at Hartge Yacht Harbor. Trumbauer switched over to tour guide mode: "This has got to be one of the biggest sailboat mast collections on the Bay," he said, adding that it's a great place to watch the sunset with the amazing array of sticks that make up the Hartge skyline in the foreground. 

Trumbauer pointed out the covered slips where Blue Mist is kept--without much room to spare, he added. "It's a 52-foot boat with a single screw . . . and the turning radius is about the width of the river. So it's not easy to maneuver." Hartge Yacht Harbor donates the slip to the Riverkeeper, he told me, and is a big supporter of the program--as is Hartge Yacht Yard, which donated the boat. "The Hartge legacy in town is amazing," he said. Which is one reason he wasn't bothered by the Hartge schism last year, when Alex Schlegel moved Hartge Yacht Yard, along with many of the yard employees and customers, from its original location on Lerch Creek across town to Tenthouse Creek. "The move was a big deal," he says "but both businesses are doing well and everyone seems to be coexisting." 

After we'd swung through Lerch Creek, we puttered up and around Smith and Johns creeks at the head of the river taking note of the many osprey nests, passing by Shady Oaks Marina and some lovely waterfront homes. Heading back toward town, we skirted the eastern shore to get a closer look at a living shoreline project at the United Methodist Church youth camp, West River Center. 

There is a lot of "living shoreline" activity here, which carries over to a lot of the waterfront homes as well. When I mentioned it to Trumbauer, along with my observation that there aren't a lot of giant homes on the shore, he said there are in fact a few more than there used to be. "Bit by bit we're seeing more pop up . . . some smaller cottages being replaced by bigger stuff." But most of the homeowners seem to be environmentally friendly, he says. "They know what they do has an impact and want to make sure the river doesn't go down the tubes."

As we continued back down the river, Trumbauer pointed out Thursday's restaurant on the opposite shore, where the river's steamboat landing used to be. West River was indeed quite the hub in the early 1900s, with the steamboat Emma Giles coming to town three days a week from Baltimore, carrying everything from fabric and hardware supplies to the local residents, as well as vacationers, then taking back farm produce, tobacco and seafood to Baltimore. 

After a quick peek at Chesapeake Yacht Club on South Creek (which was founded in the 1920s and is another environmentally conscious organization, Trumbauer says), we turned to port and headed into Tenthouse Creek. Here, on the left as you enter the creek, is the West River Sailing Club--founded in 1930 by Dick Hartge and Billy Heintz as "Our Own Damn Yacht Club." Dick Hartge was also the designer of the famed Chesapeake 20, which is still an active fleet at the club, along with ten other fleets, including two catamaran fleets, Lasers, Albacores, Flying Scots . . . you name it. Be careful if you visit; you're liable to end up on at least one crew list (I think I'm on three). But that's not a bad thing, WRSC members are just a friendly bunch and love to get new people out on the water. The club is also home to a world-class junior sailing program that has been active since 1953. 

Past the sailing club, Tenthouse Creek goes commercial. First up is Smith Brothers, a family business that dates to 1918. In 1933 the business switched from oyster packing to marine construction, and now, just about any time you see any on-the-water construction, you can be pretty sure a Smith Brothers barge, crane or tug is involved. After scooting by the barges docked at Smith Brothers, we arrived at the new home of Hartge Yacht Yard (a bit more on this later), based at the former Woodfields Seafood site--another long-lived family business that dated to the early 1900s. Hartge Yacht Yard has a few handfuls of slips now, but owner Alex Schlegel is in the process of putting more in. At the full-service boatyard, there are two large tents and the red-roofed workshop, along with lifts and cranes. And the yard is still turning out new Chesapeake 20s--a nod to Schlegel's uncle and designer, Dick Hartge.

Knowing that the rest of the river, from Tenthouse out to the Bay, holds only a few tiny creeks and nothing but beautiful shoreline, I assumed this would be the end of our tour. But I underestimated the power of a naturalist's mind. Trumbauer swung the boat around and out of the creek, then throttled up and we sped downriver. After just a few minutes of running fast, he slipped back to creek-crawl speed and pointed out a flock of bufflehead ducks at the mouth of Cheston Creek. "This is exactly what a native marsh should look like," Trumbauer said as we crept into the creek. It's very shallow, he added, and the land surrounding the creek is owned by SERC, so it's virtually untouched, leaving a stunning landscape. The only thing moving was a kayaker quietly paddling at the head of the creek. We shut the engine off for a minute so that we could drift along and enjoy the silence. It was as tranquil a creek as I could imagine. Trumbauer posited that this is what the whole of West River might have looked like had Captain John Smith made his way up the river. 

Having seen the perfect creek, we headed back upriver to Pirates Cove for some lunch. As we talked about our morning's tour, he told me that he likes to think of West River as a mini Chesapeake Bay. True enough, I thought; it does seem to have a little bit of everything Chesapeake--including, as he pointed out, its far-from-perfect health. That point was underscored just a week later, when he announced the West/Rhode Riverkeeper organization's annual report card. Trumbauer decided to grade several aspects of the river's health, rather than give it an overall grade, but the GPA is poor: Water Clarity: F; Dissolved Oxygen: B (!); Nutrients: D-; Chlorophyll/Algae: F; Underwater Grasses: F; Stream Health: C. (To see more details on the grading system and what the grades mean, visit www.westrhoderiverkeeper.org.)


After lunch, I let Trumbauer get back to work and went off to play tourist in Galesville on my own. Blue Mist still on my mind, I ventured first to Hartge Yacht Harbor, a slightly new name for a marina that has occupied this spot since 1865. It still looks much the same as it did before last year's Hartge-family schism, in which most of the repair and boatbuilding staff and the name Hartge Yacht Yard left with Alex Schlegel, who set up shop at a new location on nearby Tenthouse Creek. Hartge Yacht Harbor (the old marina's new name) meanwhile has filled the void with marine services of all kinds--carpentry, rigging, engine repair, a yacht brokerage and insurance business (the latter two of which are also Hartge family businesses). The original marina also has a huge, state-of-the-art, climate-controlled paint building, a 50-ton boat lift and two railway slips. So even though the legacy of the Yard's work is on the other side of town, you can still keep your boat here and have any work you need done on the premises. 

After a quick stroll through the grounds, I headed toward the manicured lawn along the bulkhead by the slips, where a few Adirondack chairs were set out for lounging. "It's a very special place," said Hartge Yacht Harbor manager Nancy Bray when she met me there and we walked together toward the Hartge Nautical Museum. A lot of the marina's slipholders come from D.C. and Northern Virginia and, said Bray, "these people use their boats." This explains a lot, I tell her, since it appears there are far more boats in Galesville than people.

We opened up the museum, which is located on the lower floor of the original Hartge home on the property. It's just a one-room show, but if you're a history buff, or even just a boater, you'll enjoy it. Laurence Hartge, who passed away this winter at age 93, was the man behind the museum, having amassed a large collection of family and boating memorabilia, which includes a Hartge piano (the first of the American Hartges, Henry, who immigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s, was a piano-maker), Chesapeake 20 models and design plans, skipjack models, and family photos. There's even an audio-guided tour, which you can take by pressing "play" on the small boom box next to the doorway, which will narrate as you circle the room.

All finished in "suburban" Galesville, I headed back toward "downtown." A compact Main Street district, I could see it all from my parking spot in front of an antiques store (called simply "Antiques") and the River Gallery, which occupy a one-story clapboard building that is said to have once been the town's grist mill. Off to the left was the Hartge Yacht Yard office and parts department, which occupies the old West River Market. The Market, a Galesville landmark, closed a few years ago after serving, among other things, nearly legendary pies for more than a century. 

I bypassed a visit to the antiques store and headed straight into the bright, airy River Gallery to peruse the artwork on display from the gallery's annual juried show--which was mostly Chesapeake themed, done by local and regional artists. Laura Dixon, one of three owners of the 24-year-old gallery, was behind the counter that day. She told me that people still come in the gallery asking about the West River Market . . . and the pies.

Back out on Main Street, right next door, in fact, there was just one last stop to make--Homeport Wine & Spirits. The store opened a few years ago after owners Sally Rich and Adam Hewison transformed it from a "sticky-floor joint" (as manager David Morris likes to call it) into a hub for wine lovers (boaters take note, they have a nice selection of box wines too). The store also doubles as a coffee bar, with free Wi-Fi and some nice, comfy chairs to relax in, a few sundries, and even a gourmet selection of cheeses and other treats. And because the owners have a kitchen at their Portside Restaurant and Deli next door, on the weekends they bake and sell fresh baguettes and . . . yep, you guessed it, pies. They may not be the uber pies sold at the West River Market, but pie is still pie, and you can't argue with that.

Morris, who is integral in picking out the wines that the store carries, and who orchestrates the Friday wine tastings, was also happy to point out what he playfully called "Spies Wine"--a pinot grigio that was a favorite of Kendall Myers and his wife Gwen. The Myerses, you may recall, were the slipholders at Hartge Yacht Harbor who were arrested about a year ago (they've since been convicted) for spying for Cuba. Well, if you ask nicely, Morris will be happy to show you their favorite vintage. 

 
After buying a bottle of wine for that evening's dinner, I walked from the store over to the Galesville community park to take one last look around. My earlier misgivings about this river had been completely debunked. Now that I'd spent some quality time on the river and with the people who live and work here, I knew more West River goodies than I could have imagined. And I think that's just how the folks here want it--they want you to think that there's nothing here so they can keep their secret treasure all to themselves. I just can't believe I almost fell for it.