Issue: March 2001
The River Less Traveled

It’s a long, long way up the Choptank River to the inviting little town of Denton, Maryland. And that’s a good thing.

 

A golden late-summer sun glittered off the Choptank River as the last of the stragglers meandered upstream, pointed their Down East bows at the docks of Black Dog Boat Works and waited for owner Bob Stine to come running. With a dozen of his alumni already tied up against the tide’s pull, Stine was using a shoehorn to get the last of his visitors snugged in for the weekend. Ashore in Black Dog’s parking lot, the grills were blazing, the oysters were cool and wet as an early snow and the hot dishes covered the length of an entire boat shed-the 12th annual rendezvous was in full swing, once again transforming the waterfront of Denton, Md., into a happenin’ boating place. Well, sort of, anyway.

     Let’s face it-say “Denton” to most Bay cruisers and they tilt their heads like a dog that hears a funny sound. “Denton,” they might ask, “is that on the water?” It is the intrepid cruiser with some time on his hands who ventures this far up the mighty Choptank, but this is one journey off the beaten chart that’s well worth the trip. In some places, this part of the river feels as far removed from the Bay as the Sea of Tranquility. And it feels like a living thing, with tides of four feet and currents that scour the bottom to 50 feet deep in some places. It was once a major schooner and steamboat highway, but now you can go for miles without seeing a soul, much less a schooner or a steamer. Nothing for company but ospreys, eagles, blue heron and maybe a fisherman or two. And then, just as you begin to think you really have fallen off the edge of the chart, around the bend comes the town of Denton. It’s small, unpretentious and happily lacking in ye olde quainte shoppes. What you’ll find instead is the simple, down-home friendliness of places like the Market Street Cafe-where they serve hot roast beef sandwiches or a chicken caesar wrap with the same how’s-it-going grin. And with a growing fleet of boatbuilders in town, a new steamboat-era museum opening this year, a deep, quiet harbor and a new public launch and bulkhead for boats and dinghies, Denton keeps adding reasons for boaters to come and visit. But one of the best reasons of all is the river that carries you there.

 

     “Two rivers diverged in a field,” my husband crooned in a beautifully botched Robert Frost send-up, “and I, I took the river less traveled. And I’ve been running aground ever since.”

     “Hey,” I said, as we slowed down abruptly, watching the bottom come up on the Humminbird like the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. “You’d be bored if it were too easy.”

     We were just west of Watts Creek and pretty much on top of Pealiquor Shoal, which we would have known about had we been paying attention to the chart. But we hadn’t been. Partly this is because we were in our runabout and figured bouncing off the bottom was pretty unlikely in a river as deep as this if we stuck to the obvious meanderings of the shoreline and minded the major nav aids. And partly this was because maintaining a proper lookout while boating with a 3-year-old and 8-month-old only truly happens when one of the youngsters falls asleep-which of course is highly unlikely when they’re boating because they’re having too much fun. But mostly it was because we were happily agog. We were too busy looking at miles and miles of almost prehistoric scenery, amazed at how relatively untouched it was and trying to imagine what it looked like when this river was an Eastern Shore workhorse, busy with steamboats, schooners, pungies and all manner of working craft.

     Bay boaters should never limit their vision, yet this is what happens when they’re faced with a river as impressive and, yes, as just plain long as the Choptank-70 miles, all told. They get to Cambridge, their eyes glaze over and-thud-that’s as far as they go. Not so in the olden days. From the early 1600s, the serpentine Choptank’s deep and eventually fresh waters served as a perfect highway into the hinterlands of the Delmarva, providing a water route to transport crops, people and materials and offering ports where ships could, by simply tying up in fresh water, rid themselves of wood-boring teredo worms (a sort of colonial equivalent of a good frisky powerspray at the local boatyard). One of the earliest known settlements was Kingston Landing, or Kingstown, on the river’s western shore just north of the Dover Bridge. With water as deep as 30 feet, the landing was one of 31 selected in 1683 as a port of entry, where goods entering the province would be unloaded and checked. Walk the beach there today on a low tide and you can find ballast stones that speak of those days.

     Before traveling up-river, you should visit the Old Harford Town Maritime Center’s website at www. riverheritage.org, print out a copy of the Choptank maritime resources map and lay it down right next to your NOAA chart. For the whole nine yards, download a wealth of information about the river’s history, bring that along too and dazzle your friends with your very own historical cruise.

     The astonishing number of landings established from colonial times through the early 1900s-20 between the existing Dover Bridge and Denton, a stretch of about 14 miles-speaks to the growing industriousness of this largely agricultural land of Caroline and Talbot counties. In some cases, you can still see the bones of old wharves poking above the water on the falling tide, and there it is, unreconstructed Bay history right in front of you. In others, the scene is left entirely to your imagination-a steamboat tied up at the end of a dock, cows and horses, women in bonnets and long skirts waiting to board in the sweltering summer air. At nearly every landing, the river remains deep enough that you can bring your boat up close to take a look or drop the hook and dinghy in.

     Among the many landings is Gilpin Point on a now innocuous stretch of the river’s eastern shore, opposite the mouth of the Tuckahoe River. Just before red “62” (yes, that’s 62-I told you it’s a long river), 30 feet of water brushes up against a point jutting from the shore, and that’s where colonial residents established a ferry, run by one Vincent Price, to cross the river to Price’s Landing on Tuckahoe Neck. Colonel William Richardson, who earned the status of hero in the Revolution for leading the Eastern Shore Battalion of the Maryland Flying Camp and then the state’s Fifth Regiment, built a home here. He was part owner of the sloop Omega, which local history says carried corn to the West Indies, returning with coral stone as ballast. Richardson reputedly used some of the coral in his home, which is little more than a crumbling wall now. Richardson’s lonely tomb is here, as well. The wharf at Gilpin Point stayed busy through the 1800s. Caleb C. Wheeler, who founded the Wheeler Transportation Line, ran a general store from 1862 to about 1870, and schooners traveling up and down the Bay were regular visitors.

     Early Bay history is a little more visible at Potter’s Landing near the mouth of Watts Creek, now home to Martinak State Park, where you can see the remains of a Chesapeake Bay pungy schooner, built sometime between 1840 and 1880 and found in the 1960s in Watts Creek as the state was building a boat ramp. Potters Hall, still standing on a hill overlooking the river, dates back to about 1730, when Zabdiel Potter built a wharf and a brick house, which is now part of the existing home. Before he died at sea, Potter developed his landing into a tobacco port. Over the next 150 years, Potter’s Landing (also known as Williston Landing) became a leading shipping port, serving ships sailing from England and France. The long-gone Williston Hotel was built here around 1860 to serve the maritime trade, and, well into the late 1800s, two steamboats used the landing daily.

 

     Truth be told, you could spend days and days poking about in all these old spots, but that requires a certain amount of time and, more important, patience, which is something in short supply when you’re three years old like my son. He wanted action, and so we set a comfortable cruising speed of about 20 knots and zoomed up the glassy river beyond the Dover bridge, looking for eagles and otters and anything else we could see. We passed plenty of fishermen in their sparkly bass boats, and three older fellows in a 26-foot-or-so powerboat that shall remain nameless, since the cigar smoke wafting from its cockpit made me think that these gentlemen probably didn’t need their spouses to know that they were casually drifting, huffing Macanudos and telling stories-anything but tackling that honey-do list taped to the fridge. It was that kind of day, and this is that kind of river.

     Very little of the river up here is bulkheaded or riprapped, and the water approaches the land slowly, like a shy bride, first as nothing more than lily pads and marsh grasses, then squat red maples colloquially called “cripples,” (they can be 25 years old but the wet roots stunt their growth), then the tougher hardwoods of oaks and poplars. It’s a soft and multilayered riverscape that seems utterly unconnected from its own self further downstream, where the river may have the same name but its nature is completely different.

     “When you’re in Cambridge, it’s sea nettles you can walk on and bluefish and trout and hardheads and laughing gulls and sedgegrass marshes,” says Bob Stine. But jump into a small boat and zoom up-river, he says, and in two hours you’re in a completely different, freshwater environment. “I think that’s marvelous, and I don’t know of many other rivers on the Bay that can do that.”

     Navigationally speaking, the river is quite manageable, although the shallows of Pealiquor Shoal may take you by surprise if you wander too far out of the channel, as we did. And make no mistake, this is a powerboater’s river. Schooners of old nothwithstanding, sailing all this twisting, tidal way would take real dedication-or perhaps hardheadedness, depending on your point of view. The other thing to remember is that once you’re heading up-river, you’re rather committed until you reach Denton. Aside from a lunch spot or two, there are few places along this part of the river that lend themselves to overnight anchoring, since the depth changes are abrupt and the current is strong.

     As we approached Denton, the undisturbed shoreline gave way to waterfront homes, and at red “80”, with the deep meter showing 14 feet, the bridge carrying business Route 404 into Denton came into view, carving the sky over the river. We cruised by the skipjack Maggie Lee, moored at the Old Harford Town Maritime Center, site of the soon-to-be Joppa Steamboat Wharf museum. Then we passed under the bridge and left Black Dog Boat Works and the Choptank River Yacht Club to our left and the town’s new boat ramp and waterfront park to our right. From here, the river opens into a broad lagoon, and then it narrows again at an old trestle railroad bridge-fixed in the open position. The river continues its meanderings another eight miles or so up to Greensboro.

     This little lagoon is as good a place as any to drop the hook and dinghy over to the ramp. You can also tie up along the bulkhead (remember, though, that the tide will change as much as four feet) or take a slip at Black Dog, where you can borrow the yard truck to ride across the bridge into town. “Transients are always welcome here,” says Stine. “A guy comes fifty-five miles, you should bend over backwards to make him happy.” The yacht club also offers overnight tie-ups for-hold onto your wallets-five bucks a night. “We’re very cordial to all visitors who want to come in,” says Commodore Marge Jarvis. “We encourage boaters to use the facilities and we like to have guests.”

 

     It may be true that Denton, perched on a hill, seems to be looking over its shoulder at the river-and yes, that red brick building with skinny windows occupying prime waterfront real estate is the county pen. But don’t be fooled by unfortunate planning on the part of the town forebears. Hospitality and friendliness has more cachet than any swank waterfront development du jour, and Denton has the former qualities in abundance.

     It’s a quick walk up the hill from the boat ramp to the courthouse square, the focal point of town. And from here, you can wander at your leisure along tree-lined streets and get your arms around this quiet, friendly place. You won’t find anything like a Starbucks or Banana Republic, but you will find the true necessities: places like B&B Restaurant with its long soda fountain, Denton Hardware, Denton Donuts, the well provisioned Abundant Harvest organic food store (stop here for your home-made bread for the cruise home), a video store, the public library (with a beautiful, sunny room just for kids and their books) and Another Man’s Treasure, where I fell in love with a children’s bicycle surrey, complete with a fringe on top.  

     “The bad news is we’re fifty miles from the Bay, and the good news is we’re fifty miles from the Bay,” says J.O.K. Walsh, president of the County Historical Society, chairman of the Denton Development Corporation, an economic development consultant for Denton and Federalsburg and, in a nutshell, Denton’s most dedicated and persistent horn-blower. “I mean, this is like our own private river here. It’s deep, it’s fresh, there are no nettles.” We were lunching at the Market Street Cafe and, over a chicken salad platter and a Hawaiian smoothie, Walsh was giving me a history lesson on Denton and Caroline County.

     Originally called Pig Point and then Edenton, a village was established at Denton by 1781, and the Maryland Assembly named it the county seat in 1774. The original courthouse, said to be a replica of Independence Hall, was razed in 1895. The red brick building there today was built in 1895 and renovated and added on to in 1966. Some of Denton’s earliest architecture is no more, thanks to some overzealous Fourth of July revellers in 1865, who took candlewicks and poured kerosene over them, then threw them into the air to simulate fireworks. And fireworks they got-half the town went up in flames. But the turn-of-the-20th-century buildings radiating from the courthouse square are a varied and lovely mix of Victorian and Georgian Revival, especially on Fifth Street, where Denton is being “discovered” by home buyers from as far as Washington, D.C., and Annapolis. The charming 1884 era schoolhouse on Second Street (now home of the Women’s Club of Denton) is graced with a cupola on top, a hint of gingerbread, gothic windows and a tiny public garden. The latter is lined with brick paths and shaded with willow oaks, maples and an enormous cedar of Lebanon tree. Two blocks away at the corner of Fourth and Franklin, the simple, elegant headstones of St. Luke’s Cemetery tell stories of the families who held on so tenuously to their lives hard by the river.

     One of the most interesting buildings in town is at the corner of Second and Gay streets. From the outside, the Museum of Rural Life looks like little more than an immaculate, old frame house. And that’s exactly what the first part of the museum is-a restored home that was built in 1819. But this little house is only the anteroom to the rest of the museum, which stretches back almost an entire town block. From the back of the entrance house, visitors walk into a modern foyer where one wall is covered with a huge 1807 map of Denton. It shows a two-masted schooner in the river and 53 buildings in the town, including granaries, tanneries, churches and the courthouse. Another room includes a model of the Minnie Wheeler, a Tuckahoe River steamer built in 1888, and the well preserved Lady Eglantine, the first chicken in the world to lay 300 eggs in one year (this is Perdue country, after all). “Bet we’re the only museum that has this,” Walsh says.

     The most intriguing part of the museum is a cavernous room that employs architecture to reveal how people of rural Caroline County lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The wealthy plantation owner is represented by a windowed brick wall from Skillington’s Right, a 1,500-acre tobacco plantation built in 1795. An entire one-room house, built in 1828, reveals the typical home of the average rural county resident. The museum has left it wonderfully untouched. The original mantle still sits over the fire on wooden pegs. You can run your fingers along the adz marks in the white oak logs. Original clapboard remains on some of the exterior, and tools, including a frog gig and a muskrat hide stretcher, lean against a wall. The third exhibit, representing a middle-class home, is a portion of Chance’s Desire, a 500-acre tobacco plantation built in 1790. The original door, ceiling beams and 13-panel chimney breast remain.

 

     Stepping into the bright October light outside the museum, I was only a short walk from the river that runs through all of this history. The Choptank glistened in the late season’s afternoon sun, the slap of a big fish smacked the water as the current moved along the marshy shore. It’s so quiet here, sometimes, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself a hundred years ago in this place-even if it was far noisier then. Today, this is the river less traveled (though maybe not for long) and it is the fortunate boater who spends some time along its meandering path.