Strolling about historic Annapolis, guided by Walter Cronkite, provides some remarkable insights into the town’s storied past.
“Today you will walk the same streets as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and William Paca,” said Walter Cronkite. “Welcome to Maryland’s historic capital, Annapolis, a city where history is alive.” Over headphones attached to a portable cassette player-which I rented for five bucks from the Museum Store at the foot of Main Street-Cronkite’s swooping baritone continued. It eventually led me to places where slaves were sold, tobacco was packed and the likes of General George delivered some of the most important speeches in the history of these United States.
Who knew that Kunta Kinte was unloaded at the head of Ego Alley, where today people watch megayachts come and go as they lick their Ben & Jerry’s cones? Or that Thomas Jefferson used to quaff the occasional cabernet at Middleton Tavern, where today folks rap on cell phones as they munch Southwestern-style pizza? I didn’t, until I took the Historic Annapolis Walk, an hour-and-a-half tour of 18 historic sites within a couple blocks of the City Dock.
For someone who normally drives through downtown as quickly as possible-cranking “Sympathy for the Devil” out the window of my 1992 Geo Prizm-this relaxing bipedal tour was a great departure and a real awakening (exactly what it might be for boat show visitors looking for diversion from the Main Event). Had I ever bothered to pull over and look left near the foot of Pinkney Street, I would have noticed the Tobacco Prise House. This is a small, whitewashed 18th-century building near Middleton Tavern where sot weed was weighed and inspected for purity, as required by law after 1747. (Apparently, rogue tobacco factors were juicing their products long before Russell Crowe ever portrayed “The Insider.”) Had I actually gotten out of the car and looked over the fence just to the right of the tobacco house, I would have also noticed a tobacco press in the side yard. This device, which looks like it belongs in the Tower of London, was used to mash tobacco into barrels back before Joe Camel ever hoofed it onto the America’s Most Wanted list.
But the tour taught me more about Annapolis than its role in America’s once important devil weed industry. For one thing, I never realized how truly neurotic Georgian architecture was. Walking up Main Street, I came to the State House, the oldest American building in continuous legislative use, and Cronkite led me inside to the Old Senate Chamber. (I wasn’t sure if commoners were allowed to just walk in, but if Walter said it was okay, then it was okay.) Inside is the Senate fireplace, where Jefferson was known to roast s’mores in mocking protest of Hamilton’s frequent filibustering (just kidding). To the right of the fireplace is a door leading into an adjacent room; to the left was another door. Well, actually it’s a faux door intended to balance the look of the wall. The kings George were apparently a little nutso when it came to symmetry-among other things.
Perhaps even more interesting: During 1783 and 1784, Annapolis was the capital not just of Maryland, but of the coagulating United States. These were two very busy years for the baby republic, and two of our nation’s historical milestones occurred right here in this very chamber. The first came in 1783, when Washington delivered the melancholy line: “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action.” In other words, this is where he resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Understandably, there was not a dry eye in the house (the Senate, rather). That same year, Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris in the same little room, officially ending the Revolutionary War.
Before leaving the State House altogether, I was introduced to one of the prettiest silver services I’ve ever seen. It’s across the hallway from the Old Senate Chamber and contains dozens of sterling items with 167 Maryland scenes carved into them. The pieces have names like “Allegany County Filet Platter” and “Saint Mary’s County Water Pitcher,” and were made in 1906 by Samuel Kirk and Sons of Baltimore. I was hoping to find an “Eastport Melon Baller,” or something representative of my own home quarter, but no such luck.
A few blocks away on Prince George Street, I arrived at the William Paca (“PAY-kuh”) House. With its incredible garden and lush interior, this is one of the capital city’s more famous buildings. Paca was three times elected governor of Maryland and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was also rich, tasteful and one hell of a conspicuous consumer. The walking tour brings you to the front steps only, so if you want to go inside Paca’s mansion, you have to pay an additional fee. However, you can pay $11 at the Museum Store for both the walking tour and admission to the Paca house.
But I don’t want to give away all the good stuff that you’ll encounter on this remarkable tour of Boat Show City, U.S.A. You’ll just have to pony up the five dollars and strap on Walter for yourself. Today, we view Annapolis as a great cruising destination, but it’s also valuable for what it was: one of the key centers of this country’s governance before the Constitution.