This island at the top of the St. Marys River looks pristine, but the sounds of long ago partying still drift in the breeze.
It wasn’t easy keeping my eye on the target, so to speak, as Dixie and I motored gently into the wide mouth of the St. Marys River. This is a profoundly historic place, for starters, so I was inclined to wander off mentally-back to 1634, for instance, when the Ark and Dove arrived here, carrying the first English settlers to Maryland. (What a sight those ships must have been to the Yeocomico Indians along the shore!) Furthermore, Dixie and I have our own history on this river-many visits and many fond memories-and that made it all the more difficult to stay focused on our destination: Tippity Wichity Island, some eight miles upstream at the top of the river.
The island’s name alone was so intriguing to me that I was compelled to do a bit of research before we set off on our cruise. Formerly an Indian courting ground, according to legend, the island was owned by a Lynch family before it was purchased after the
Civil War by Captain H. W. Howgate. A notorious Confederate smuggler, Howgate had run floating bordellos in Washington, D.C. When his activities came to the attention of the city authorities, they booted him out of town. So he headed downstream on the Potomac River, ultimately coming to the St. Marys River and to what was then known as Lynch Island, which he bought for $300. There, according to noted Potomac River historian Frederick Tilp, Howgate established “a gambling, drinking, and girlie place known as Happie Land and then altered the place name to a short version of Tippling-house and Witchery-house”-Tippity-Witchity. Eventually, the island itself took on the name, accommodating a lively trade with crews from schooners and cargo vessels who would visit for a little entertainment.
Tippity Witchity is privately owned today, with a single residence; its owners, I was told, commute by boat each day to their cars on the mainland, and then drive to work. Their link to the mainland is a deep-water pier that projects from the island’s southeast side. On the navigation chart, a wreck is marked a couple of hundred feet off the end of the pier; that, we learned, is the sunken remains of the 120-foot schooner Willa C. Eaton.
Since the island is in private hands, we knew we couldn’t actually go ashore. But, like countless cruisers and gunkholers before us, we found it to be a superb backdrop for an anchorage, with high pine-covered banks and, at night, almost no lights other than the overhead ones provided by nature.
And getting there was a good part of the fun. Although the lower St. Marys River is bordered mostly by farmland and woods, there are pockets of development along the shore, some very interesting. The river (with good depths all the way up) winds north past Carthagena Creek, on the western shore; inside the creek are the long-established full-service Dennis Point Marina and Still Anchors Restaurant (both can be reached by calling 301-994-2288). Opposite Carthagena Creek on the river’s east side is Priests Point, home to Webster Field, a Naval installation that sprawls north into St. Inigoes Creek. Also on St. Inigoes is the only U.S. Coast Guard station on the Potomac. As we worked our way up, we were careful to give wide berth to the river’s two most impressive shoals, which extend from Priests Point and, just upstream on the western side, from Windmill Point. I’ve often wondered how early settlers in their heavy, clumsy square-riggers were able to avoid going aground on shoals like these. Maybe they didn’t.
Continuing on, we spotted the replica of the Dove, which is berthed at Church Point. Perched on the high bank is the reconstructed St. Mary’s City, the first capital of Maryland. Just beyond Church Point is Horseshoe Bend, which scribes a wide arc around Pagan Point on the western shore. This large, deep bay is hugged by the campus of St. Mary’s College of Maryland and is a very popular anchorage with individual and club cruisers. The grounds of the college come right down to the water, where the school’s fleet of small sailboats bobs at the docks.
Leaving Horseshoe Bend, where several boats were anchored, we doglegged past Horseshoe and Short points, which brought us into the upper St. Marys River, with its high wooded banks and farmlands. And there it was up ahead: Tippity Wichity Island, tree-covered and silent. When we reached it, we were careful to steer clear of the Eaton wreck, now submerged completely. We didn’t try to circle the island (the depth is about 7 feet as you approach, but it shallows abruptly on the island’s west side, and there’s an overhead power cable to the northeast); instead, we eased back downstream a bit, where a large cove just above Martin Point offered a perfect anchorage. This cove wasn’t the only choice, either. The water depths on the upper river range from 16 feet to 7 feet nearer the island, and since the deep water hugs the shore, boaters can pick an anchorage freely from any cove.
The next morning we left the waters off Tippity Wichity Island in fog and light rain. As we entered Horseshoe Bend, I could hear clearly the sound of a honky-tonk piano, raucous laughter of men and women, and the tinkle of glasses. “It must be coming from the college,” I said.
“What is?” Dixie asked.
“Listen! Can’t you hear it?” I answered. “The piano music and laughter?”
“No, I don’t hear a thing.”
“I thought I heard something. Sounded like a wild party.”
“Must be the students at the college,” she said.
Maybe . . . but the sounds were coming from behind us, farther upstream. I glanced back, expecting to see something through the mist. Nothing. We continued motoring downstream, and just as we passed Carthagena Creek, I heard it again-fainter now, but perfectly audible. Piano and laughter, like a party.
“Funny how far sound can carry over the water,” I mused.
Dixie replied, “What sound?”
“It’s nothing,” I answered. “Guess I’m just bewitched by TippityWichityIsland.”