In Whitehaven, MD on the Wicomico River,
making a good life is not a forgotten art. [August 2010]
By Jody Argo Schroath
Bob Culver stepped down from the flybridge of Seachaser, his Sea Ray 55. "All you need to say about Whitehaven," he told me as he stepped ashore to check the lines, "is that we are an eclectic group of people here. It doesn't matter whether you have a dime or a million dollars, it's all the same to us. Each one has something special to offer." I wasn't going to argue the point. I had just spent an enchanted afternoon with about half the population of Whitehaven aboard
Seachaser on a short cruise up the Wicomico River and had found that to be exactly the case. But, in truth, there is a lot more to be said . . . and that's just what I'm about to do.
Whitehaven as Movie Set
To begin with, Whitehaven, Md., is a tiny and disarmingly unexpected village of modest Victorian homes, anchored by a grand and brightly colored hotel in the Victorian-Second-Empire-Federal style on the edge of the Wicomico River--all artfully placed, as if by some cosmic set-designer, on a narrow spit of land in the midst of marsh and savanna. This Wicomico River is not the Great or the Little Wicomico rivers of Virginia's Northern Neck, nor the tame and lovely Wicomico of the Maryland Potomac. This is the largely uninhabited Wicomico River that insinuates itself into the interior of the Maryland Eastern Shore as far as Salisbury. The village of Whitehaven makes its appearance about six miles upriver, as picture perfect as a 19th-century set piece for a PBS Masterpiece Theater production. How did this happen? Is Whitehaven a kind of Chesapeake Bay version of Brigadoon?
Perhaps it is, if you believe in that sort of thing. Not unlike the mythical Scottish town that appears every 100 years, Whitehaven seems to have reemerged virtually intact from the mists of post-Civil War America. And that's rather an odd thing when you consider that the town was patented as a tobacco port in 1685 and has been occupied, as far as anyone knows, for all of the succeeding years. In the 19th century, however, Whitehaven reached its zenith as a prosperous center of shipping and shipbuilding. Its hotel prospered with visiting merchants, farmers and traveling salesmen. But when trade and industry moved upriver to Salisbury, Whitehaven turned to fishing, including menhaden, and finally, during Prohibition, to bootlegging. And its hotel . . . well, possibly to other pursuits. Then even those industries faded away and Whitehaven slept, largely forgotten, through the decades that followed. The town's one constant was its car ferry, which in 1692 began transporting carts of farm produce, travelers and horses across the Wicomico. The ferry is still going, though the carts of produce and horses are now more likely to be Ford minivans loaded with grocery bags from Food Lion.
Then not so very many years ago, things began to turn around for Whitehaven. Little by little, interesting people moved into the old Victorians. They began painting them, fixing them up, planting gardens and getting on with their individual occupations. Some of the new residents were retired folks who had come in search of a spot that looked and acted like the old days on the Bay. Others came down only on weekends or for the summer. When the old hotel was about to be torn down, they all came together to save it. When it was purchased by a Salisbury investor, they helped in its restoration. They organized monthly fish fries to establish a sense of community. They reveled in Whitehaven's remoteness, its old-fashioned ways, its neighborliness and the beauty of its surroundings.
And they kept it to themselves. Which is why it's very likely that you've never heard of it. Nor I. Until recently. Last year I happened to hear about Whitehaven from two different people. Both had been cruising up to Salisbury, when they happened on Whitehaven. "You've just got to see this place," said longtime Bay cruiser and frequent CBM contributor Diana Prentice. "It's a gem, and so is everyone we met there, especially Ben Tacheron who owns the marina, Bob Culver who's the mayor, and Cindy Curran, who runs the hotel!" A few months later, Bonnie Crockett, a Californian who has been cruising the Chesapeake the past two summers with her husband aboard their trawler, also wrote me about the unexpected charms of Whitehaven and its residents. "It's wonderful!" she said . . . and then mentionedthe same three people.
Clearly the attractions of Whitehaven were both architectural and personal. I pulled out the charts. Hmm, Hooper Strait to Tangier Sound to the Wicomico River and then Whitehaven. Certainly not an outing for an idle afternoon. I buckled down to plan the cruise. Sailboat or powerboat? No question about it, it would make a first-rate sail down from Annapolis. But how long? Aye, there was the rub . . . as usual. I wouldn't be able to fit this into my already planned sail down to the Virginia Eastern Shore and Norfolk later in the summer, so this was going to have to be powerboat or nothing. Once I'd made the decision, however, the idea of taking the Albin 28--solid, comfortable and complete with microwave and refrigerator--grew on me by leaps and bounds. Besides, the current on the Wicomico can be strong, I told myself. Diana the sailing cruiser had warned me about that, as had Bonnie on her big trawler. So it would be a bonus to have the Albin and its handy-dandy bow thrusters when docking at the marina.
Whitehaven as Actual Place
Two weeks later, early in June, under a powder-blue sky thick with heat and humidity, my husband Rick and I motored out of Back Creek in Annapolis and headed for "1AH" off Tolly Point. From there we headed across the Bay and down the long, low Eastern Shore. We decided to stay just outside the shipping channel for the most part to avoid commercial vessels, but of course paid the price by having to dodge crab pots, detour around fishing boats and avoid a half-dozen pound nets that seemed to leap at us suddenly out of the haze and to extend to within inches of the channel. But we kept a good lookout and plowed through the light chop, ticking off landmarks as we counted off the miles. Grim-looking Bloody Point Light at the entrance to Eastern Bay, was succeeded by Poplar Island to its south. Next came drunken Sharps Island light at the Choptank River, followed by James Island at the south end of the Little Choptank River and finally the long stretch of Taylors Island and, indistinguishable from it, the trio of Hooper islands that trail off below it, ending finally in marsh and submerged land at the vestigial remnants of Lower Hooper Island.
Here at last, in the early afternoon, we turned east to enter Hooper Strait, the northernmost passage between the Bay and Tangier Sound. Hooper Strait picks out a channel of deep water across the mouth of the Honga River and then between the mainland ending at Bishops Head and Bloodsworth Island. After passing flashing green "7" and flashing red "8" we found flashing red "10" at the beginning of the Sharkfin Shoal Channel. With the Albin's draft of less than four feet, we really didn't need to stick to the 150-foot-wide channel, since the chart showed 8 to 14 feet on each side, but since northern Tangier Sound is a kind of Grand Central Station of waterways--with Fishing, Ellis and Monie bays, and the Honga, Nanticoke and Wicomico rivers--we decided that boating by the numbers would be more likely to get us where we were going. And with featureless marsh in every direction, there were no landmarks to home in on. So we followed the channel to the letter, so to speak, and a couple of miles after entering Sharkfin Shoal Channel, spotted flashing green "1" at the entrance to the Nanticoke River. Here we turned north and headed upriver to spend the night at Cedar Hill Marina. (Since we were going to be in the neighborhood anyway, I had decided we should take a short trip up the Nanticoke to visit Cedar Hill Marina, just south of Tyaskin. Cedar Hill is a lovely and comfortable county-owned marina, which you can read about in an upcoming Marina Hopping article.) All afternoon we had watched thunderclouds build to the west. At 7:30 that evening the wind came in a rush out of the west, too, and blew hard for about 10 minutes before the clouds broke and the rain fell. By that time, we were safe in our slip, mere spectators to the show.
The following morning, bright blue but with the promise of heat to come, we headed back out the Nanticoke and back to square "1". This time we turned east to find the Wicomico River. We gave the Great Shoals bell at the mouth of the Wicomico a wide berth and then, a little more than two miles later, picked up the Wicomico River channel. This time we followed it from necessity rather than expediency. The passage into the river divides Ellis and Monie bays, two good-size but very shallow bodies of water. In fact, for the first four miles after the Great Shoals bell, the channel is just wide enough for a boat and a tug and barge to shoulder past each other. Then at Shiles Creek the river narrows, but the channel broadens and deepens to reach almost shore to shore. It makes for easy navigation, but, even so, you wouldn't want to meet the Queen Mary coming the other way. We were just settling into our new surroundings, when we rounded a bend in the river and we were there.
Directly ahead, a low-slung car ferry was working its way along the submerged cable and slowly across the river. To the left, half a dozen well tended Victorian houses with picket fences and bright summer flowers--rich blue hydrangeas and golden daylilies--glowed in the ochre cast of the morning sun. Beyond the ferry were the pale green shuttersand striped mansard roof of the Whitehaven Hotel. We had cut back the throttle to take it all in, when Rick spotted two figures on a dock near the ferry landing. They began to wave enthusiastically in our direction, as if we were exactly what they'd been waiting for. And we were. Of course. This was Whitehaven, and we were about to fall under its spell.
We quickly put out the fenders and eased up against the dock--a fairly easy feat since happily the tide was running against us. The two figures took our lines and made them fast around the piers. We cut the engine and stepped ashore. Figure number one introduced himself. "Hi, welcome. I'm Bob Culver," he said. "I recognize the name," I said, shaking his hand. "You're the mayor." He looked just surprised enough to be satisfying. "Well, yes, I guess I am," he replied. "I have the only truck in town that can take a snow plow, so they let me be mayor." Culver introduced figure number two as Bill Buckley, an Ohio orthodontist whose Whitehaven summer home is just across the street from the marina and who's handy for helping with lines. It transpired that Ben Tacheron, who is a Salisbury anesthesiologist in addition to being the marina owner, couldn't be there to meet us, so his wife Erin had called Bob. (I decided pretty quickly that everyone calls Bob.)
We chatted for a few minutes on the dock of the marina, then Culver suggested we escape the heat with a tour of the hotel. There we were introduced to Cindy Curran, Whitehaven's resident artist and innkeeper and quite possibly the town's most popular resident. (Though both Culver and Whitehaven's official fisherman, "Fuzzy" Bankert, could undoubtedly pull plenty of votes as well.) Curran promptly dropped what she was doing--making up all of the hotel's seven bedrooms for a full house of guests arriving for the weekend--to show Rick and me around.
After the hotel had been saved from the wrecking ball in the mid-1990s, it was purchased in 1996 by Kenneth Trippe, and the work on its restoration began. With help from art historian and English instructor Jefferson Boyer and architect Ed Otter, the history of the old hotel began to emerge. The oldest part was built in 1810 as a private home, but was later converted to a tavern or roadhouse. In 1877, as the town prospered, it was expanded into a hotel, with an existing two-story store rolled down the street then attached as a west wing and a mansard roof fashioned to connect the old and new portions.
Now, the restored hotel, resplendent in bright period colors outside and charming period decor and furnishings inside, hosts a steady stream of visitors, all of whom seem to fall at once under Whitehaven's spell of quiet and easy-going warmth. And once they've found it, they keep coming back.
I have that on particularly good authority. Six members of the Catonsville, Md., High School Class of 1963 were relaxing on the porch when Rick and I emerged from the hotel. All of them looked very much at home. The group--usually eight-strong, they explained--has been meeting annually at the Whitehaven Hotel for the past eight years.
"Most of us have known each other for sixty years," one of them said.
"We've been through children, marriages, divorces and careers together."
"And we love Whitehaven!" another exclaimed, while the rest nodded their heads in agreement. "This is like coming home," a third said. "It's like being back in Catonsville in the old days."
"Cindy takes care of us when we come," the fourth chimed in. "We know Cindy's mom and her dog . . . and the food is glorious!" said a fifth.
The friends discovered the hotel after one of their members, Susan Peacock, a former Whitehaven resident herself, suggested it. Peacock, coincidentally, works in Ben Tacheron's medical office in Salisbury. Small world?
Rick and I said good-bye to the Catonsville friends and set off for a stroll through town. It look longer than you might think it would for such a small place, because we stopped to admire one charming house and one lovely garden after another. We were lingering in front of a particularly inviting white Victorian when its owner, just pulling out of his drive and seeing us taking pictures of his house, spun his pickup around and pulled off the road . . . for a chat. For some reason that I don't remember, the conversation began with tobacco farming but eventually turned to his house, which, he said, was acquired in the 1940s by his grandparents on his mother's side, the Captain Bill Wilsons. Later, his parents inherited it, and it now belonged to him, Captain Bill Phillips, and his wife. Phillips said he'd farmed most of his life, but also spent a lot of time driving other people's boats, from pleasure craft to tugs, from the Bay to the Bahamas.
We left Phillips to run his errand and resumed our walk, trying to match homes with residents Culver had told us about. One was easy: The home of retired pilot Gene Dashiell and his wife Susan, an artist, had a small detached cottage with the sign "Art Studio" in front of it. But we could only guess at which home belonged to Jim Hughes, who has catered for notables such as Ronald Reagan and now owns Restaurant 231 in Salisbury, or to an Army general currently stationed in Oregon ("She's almost never here," Culver had said), or photographer Ted Deacon or any number of others. At the end of the street we turned away from the river and hit the end of town two short blocks later. On the way back, we passed a house that Culver had rehabbed himself. It had started life as a boat shed and still had the remnants of a marine railway leading up to its front door. As we headed back to the boat, we passedSeachaser, Culver's big Sea Ray 55, parked in front of his house.
"We offer sunset tours, mostly for guests at the hotel," Culver said when we bumped into him a minute later. "And winery tours to Bordeleau Vineyards up on Wicomico Creek."
"Did you just say winery tours?" I said. "When do you leave?"
Whitehaven as Return Engagement
The following Saturday morning, I was back on the dock of Whitehaven Marina, ready for mySeachaser winery tour. This time, Ben Tacheron and his daughter Kristen were there to meet me. "You can see that the marina is not exactly a profit-making enterprise," Tacheron explained, as he showed me around the docks. "I do have a regular job."
Tacheron explained that he had grown up on the Bay and had decided to buy the marina a few years ago because Whitehaven reminded him of the way life used to be when he and his family had cruised the Eastern Shore. Since then, he has repaired or replaced many of the docks and is considering further improvements. "We have twenty-amp service, but no restrooms or showers, because getting the permits for that is a complicated business." Besides, he added, most marina guests stay in the hotel anyway.
I had a few minutes before the tour was ready to leave, so I decided to head over to the hotel again, this time to get a better look around the small shop Curran had opened to feature the work of local artists. With its paintings, beaded windows, jewelry, pottery and small sculpture, Room With a View contained a remarkable variety of objects for sale. But I still didn't have enough time to get a satisfactory look around. The word came that
Seachaser was ready to leave the dock. Leaving the hotel, I fell into step with Sally and Dick Work of Tyaskin, who were at the hotel to make arrangements for a family get-together there in the fall. Sally was also among the artists whose work--hand-worked jewelry--I had seen in Room With a View. She grew up in Whitehaven and remembers earning the princely sum of 50 cents a room for cleaning the hotel bedrooms with her sister. Her mother was the town's postmaster--as was her grandmother, she said with understandable pride. Heck, I was thinking, nobody comes to Whitehaven just once--and that now included me.
There is one notable exception to that: Marine systems guru Nigel Calder, author of innumerable books on everything boating from marine electronics to cruising guides. He used to have a house in Whitehaven but sold it several years ago and is not known to have returned . . . at least not yet. On the other hand, Wendy Thompson, a friend of the Calders who has worked in public radio, writes and produces documentaries, has lived in Whitehaven since the early 1990s. "The town attracts independent people, people who want to do things," she explained as we climbed up to Seachaser's flybridge. "Everyone has their own projects, whether it's art, boatbuilding or something else." It does get a little tough in the winter, though, she concedes. "The sky seems to descend. Then too most of the houses aren't insulated."
Most of them didn't have bathrooms either when Katie Murphy's parents bought a house in Whitehaven 37 years ago. Murphy had already settled into a seat in front of the steering station when Thompson and I arrived. "There were several houses for sale, including one on the water, but we chose the one that had a bathroom." With seven children in the family, it would be hard to argue that they didn't make the right choice. Now Murphy lives most of the year in Mt. Rainier, outside D.C., and teaches high school in Northeast Washington. But each summer she returns to Whitehaven. "It's like my Walden Pond," she said. "Sometimes I don't even leave the house for the first three days."
In no time at all, we had reached Wicomico Creek. "Here, you steer," Culver offered. Who could refuse? I slipped into the captain's seat and tried to look as if I did this kind of thing every day. Happily, we were cruising at a very sedate six knots, so if I did anything wrong, I'd do it slowly.
"Head for the green marker," Culver said, "but take it on the right because the channel has wandered." As we made the turn, I watched the depth drop rapidly from 20 to 10 then to 6 feet. "Hmm," I said, to say something. "It'll be fine," Culver said. "Just stay close to the marker." Beyond the marker the depth dropped quickly to 15 and stayed there most of the rest of the trip.
A few minutes later, as we passed the Wicomico Yacht Club, I reluctantly turned the helm back over to Culver and went down to the main cabin, where a beautiful tray of sushi had mysteriously appeared. Curran and her mother, Peggy White, were chatting amiably with Barbara Buckley (the wife of Bill the Ohio orthodontist, of course), Culver's daughter Courtney, who also has a house in Whitehaven, and Kristen Tacheron. I was just settling down to a plate of sushi, when we pulled up to the dock at Bordeleau Vineyards and Winery. We quickly decanted from the boat onto the long pier and began the trek down the dock and toward a brick house so imposing that it easily deserved to be called a chateau. This belonged to vineyard owner Tom Shelton, a former Perdue executive who took up grape-growing and wine-making as a second career. Three of his friends owned wineries, he told me later, so he thought he'd start one too. He planted an acre of vines a year in 2001, 2002 and 2003, then stopped until 2007, when the winery went commercial. Since then he's been planting steadily, with 121/2 acres now under cultivation. And the winery now produces eleven varieties of wine--six reds and five whites.
Bea Lowe, who moonlights as a fourth-grade teacher and whose husband built Shelton's "chateau," led our happy group through the wine-tasting. As we progressed, each wine tasted better than the last--or at least it did to me. But, in truth, wine-tastings are better enjoyed than described, and so too are tours that follow, with their gleaming storage tanks, aromatic aging vats, complicated bottling machinery and other things I rarely absorb because I'm trying to decide which wine I liked the best. Suffice it to say, then, that it was an excellent tasting and a fascinating tour, and the trip back to Whitehaven was much too short.
As we turned out of Wicomico Creek and back on the Wicomico, I fell silent, thinking hard. As we reached Whitehaven, and Bill Phillips of the particularly charming white Victorian caught our bow line, I was still deep in thought. In a little while, I'd be leaving town, and I still hadn't thought of a good excuse for coming back!