Issue: July 2003
Ready, Set, Cambridge!

With new businesses blossoming on its main street and a crew of eager volunteers promoting its maritime and social history, Cambridge is raring to go.

 

Cruise into the Choptank River and follow your nose, past Benoni Point and the “turn-off” to Oxford, past the allure of LaTrappe Creek on the north shore and the wide expanse of LeCompte Bay on the south, past the crook of Hambrooks Bar, and you’ll come to the low, flat town of Cambridge, Md., draped along the shoreline as if some Titan goddess had dropped her handkerchief. The homes along the river are its lacy edges; the narrow streets weave the cloth. ¶ Perhaps that’s a bit fanciful, but to say that Cambridge is an ordinary Eastern Shore town simply doesn’t do the place justice. Yes, it’s low and flat - no high-rises here, unless you count the four-story hospital, towering over the riverfront to the left of the harbor and, next to it, the winged wonder of the Dorchester County Visitors Center. In the town itself, steeples and water towers rear up barely higher than the trees. When you approach from the water, it all looks small and compact. There’s not much to suggest that the town actually stretches from river to river - from the “Big” to the Little Choptank, with a welter of strip malls, schools, softball fields and houses in between. Plenty of people still live here, some descended from the families that first dug a toehold in here nearly 350 years ago. And now there’s a new wave of settlers, restoring the town’s Victorian mansions or filling the new condominiums that line Cambridge Creek. Just a wink upriver past the town, beyond the Route 50 bridge, a spanking new Hyatt hotel looms like a castle and reels in visitors hungry for entertainment and the charms of the Chesapeake waterfront. Cambridge is on the move again - finally, after a lull of about 50 years.

    It was just about 40 years ago when I made my first visit. I was in my early teens. My father was having a boat built on Cambridge Creek, and we had driven over from Annapolis to see how she was coming along. I remember a tiresome dusty drive and finally arriving at a town that was, to put it nicely, a tad down at the heels - not much different from Annapolis in those days, frankly, except it was bigger. It looked to me like the place had just hunkered down to die in the marsh like an old skipjack. Its once prosperous shipbuilding industry was gasping for air, and its packing houses, remnants of what had been one of the largest packing companies in the world, stood empty along the wharves. And it seemed as if the townspeople had pulled the covers back over their heads rather than wake up to the realities of a changing world.

    Or maybe they were just plumb tuckered out from the frenzy of the boom years. You see, Cambridge had been quite a lively town in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Cut off from the northern Eastern Shore by the wide Choptank (the bridge at Cambridge wasn’t built until the 1930s), it had become the trading center for the sprawling farms that spread south from the river. Peach orchards and fields of vine-ripened tomatoes fed the covey of canneries that sprang up along the sheltered town creek. (It was these very canneries that supplied much of the food for Admiral Richard Byrd’s expeditions to the South Pole, and fed American G.I.s during both world wars.) A fertilizer factory and two flour mills operated nearby. Steamboats came and went from the deep-water harbor, hauling goods, livestock and passengers to Baltimore. (Older residents will tell you that they saw the sights in Baltimore long before they’d even heard of Easton, the next sizeable town across the river to the north.)

    And shipyards? Some of the fastest boats in the world were built in Cambridge - from the sleek sailing vessels that came to be called Baltimore clippers to the zippy little hydroplanes that set the first world powerboat speed record. Plenty of bugeyes and skipjacks came off the ways here, too, along with smaller craft designed for hand tonging or netting. And during World War II, freshly launched aircraft rescue boats called P86s made such a big splash that old-timers like 70-year-old Paul Hughes, who delivered groceries to the skipjacks crowding the creek back then, remember getting wet standing on Long Wharf, clear across the harbor from the Cambridge Shipyard.

    Since that first visit in the 1960s, I’ve been back to Cambridge many times, and I’ve grown to admire the quirky little town that tucks back along Cambridge Creek. The steamboats are long gone, the oysters are nearly played out and the vast truck gardens have turned into endless acres of wheat and corn, but hydroplanes still whip down the river at hair-raising speeds, there’s a new skipjack at the public wharf, and awakening interest in the town’s heritage is spawning two new museums. Wide-eyed and stretching, Cambridge is waking up, even if for some it’s a rude awakening.

 

    An intrepid group of classic boat enthusiasts (including me) has gathered on the expansive grounds of the Richardson Maritime Museum’s property on Cambridge Creek, turning out for the second annual Classic Boat Show. They’re also on hand to dedicate the dusty brick building that stands on one corner of the lot as the Ruark Boatworks, in honor of local boatbuilder and modeler Harold L. Ruark.

    It’s not exactly pouring down rain - not at the moment, at least - but it’s a far cry from the balmy spring day we had all been hoping for. The Nathan of Dorchester lies off the bulkhead, ready to take passengers for a spin down the misty river. Next to her the catboat Selina II waits to do the same. A handful of show-goers troops stoically around the grounds to ogle the antique boats on display, and a few exhibitors huddle under a large canvas tent to stay dry. Inside the boatworks building, eager volunteers sell raffle tickets and T-shirts to whomever comes along. Behind them, a battered 38-foot dovetail built by Reese Todd in 1952, stands ready for resurrection by the group of die-hard volunteers that meets here regularly to paint and scrape and sand and putty old wooden boats. Their most recent accomplishment, a restored Hampton One-Design daysailer, waits in the drizzle to be auctioned off.

    The arrival of silver-haired octogenarian Harold Ruark for the dedication ceremony causes a bit of a stir. He grins as well-wishers greet him and he recognizes familiar faces. Ruark has had a hand in local boatbuilding since before World War II, when he worked at the Cambridge Shipyard. Fifty years later, when volunteers in Cambridge organized to build a new skipjack to bolster the fading workboat fleet and document traditional boatbuilding techniques, they turned to Ruark to design her. He based the new boat on the skipjack Oregon, built by his great-grandfather Bob Thomas. And of course Ruark added his own ideas to the mix. The Nathan of Dorchester hit the water in 1994 after some 10,000 volunteer-hours of blood, sweat and elbow grease. But Ruark will tell you that he’s more at home among the mahogany runabouts lining the grassy field today. Powerboat racing has long been one of his passions, and crafting fast hydroplanes is what he has enjoyed most. There was always a challenge to it, he says.

    “This was an old basket factory,” he tells me, waving his hand at the building that now bears his name. “They made the baskets for the peaches and tomatoes that grew around here.” He motions me inside a small parlor just off the building’s main work floor, and begins telling me about powerboat racing in Cambridge, a sport that he was in up to his eyeballs.

    It all began, Ruark said, with folks from New Jersey coming to Cambridge in the early 1900s and racing their runabouts on the river for fun. It was a gentleman’s sport back then - ”for mult-eye-millionaires,” as Ruark puts it, like Francis duPont, who lived just downriver at his Horn Point estate. Then after World War II, the Jersey speed skiffs formed a class, and the sport opened up to anyone who could afford to build a boat and power it.

    “The skiffs were real crowd pleasers,” Ruark says. “They’d jump around and splash and chuck the drivers out.” But they were steady boats, built to move through the surf off the Jersey beaches, and honed for speed during Prohibition, when rumrunners would anchor offshore and the skiffs would race to pick up a load of hooch and carry it to land. The faster they were, the more trips they could make, and the more they’d be paid for their efforts. “I never saw one capsize,” Ruark says.

    When he came home after the war, Ruark took to building hydroplanes, mimicking the sleek design of Japanese torpedo boats, he says. And he built fast ones, going head-to-head with the likes of Henry Lauterbach from Virginia [see “Rocket Man,” April 2000]. But he always built them for other people - never raced them himself. (“I’m not that crazy!” he says.) His friend George Cusick powered and sometimes drove them, earning himself a spot in the sport’s Hall of Fame in 1961 (in fact, you’ll find the names of seven other Cambridge racers on the American Power Boat Association’s Hall of Fame list). And with each hull, the boats got better and faster.

    When Ruark’s son Jimmy took an interest, Ruark and Cusick put together a boat for him that absolutely hit the mark. “I had everything perfect. We never had to change a thing, and she would run almost a hundred miles an hour right out of the box.” That boat went to Canada in 1986 (maybe 1987, Ruark says in afterthought) and, with Jimmy driving, won three championships in one regatta: the world championship in his class, the Canadian championship and the American Power Boat Association Championship. “The secret,” Ruark says, “is to get them up off the water so they’re flying.”

 

    The boatworks dedication ceremony goes off without a hitch. Ruark stands graciously on the gussied up flatbed stage, while museum president Frank Newton rattles off his many virtues. Then the music starts: Them Eastport Oyster Boys and their Bay-flavored boating tunes. Folks munch seafood sandwiches and hotdogs, and smile at the lyrics drifting through the sound system. There’s a lot to look forward to on this piece of museum ground.

    The Richardson Maritime Museum is named for the late “Mr. Jim” Richardson, a Dorchester County shipwright perhaps best known throughout the state as the builder of the Maryland Dove. In town, the old National Bank building on High Street houses the museum’s collection of models, tools and equipment representative of the area’s maritime heritage. Its new property - the land surrounding the boatworks building - sits on Maryland Avenue on the east side of the drawbridge and butts up against Cambridge Creek. There are plans on the drawing board to create a “working waterfront” on the creekside site, where a fleet of traditional workboats, either built new or restored by museum volunteers, will stand ready to offer visitors the opportunity to learn how these craft operated.

    “There’s no equivalent to seeing a boat in the water and actually getting out on it,” says Newton, a trim retiree with a close-cropped beard and piercing eyes. He envisions a sail-training program that will introduce novices and old-timers alike to the nuances of sailing traditional vessels. At the same time, the Ruark Boatworks will teach the boatbuilding arts to apprentices who will maintain and eventually add to the museum fleet. Shipwright John Swain, who most recently launched the Sultana in Chestertown, is in line to head the program.

    Newton hopes the museum’s first major project will be the re-creation of the 54-ton schooner Pearl, the ship that left Washington, D.C., in 1848 with 77 runaway slaves bound for New Jersey and freedom. The vessel was overtaken and the slaves, along with the ship’s crew, were hauled back to Washington [see “Lessons at the Tiller,” April 2002], but the voyage remains a high point of Bay history and a stirring reminder of the travails that preceded the Civil War. Funding for the project is available through the National Park Service and several private sources, says Newton, and the museum is “in line to be the builder of choice.” Bringing the venture to Cambridge would spotlight the area’s boatbuilding history, strengthen cross-Bay partnerships and give a welcome boost to the fledgling museum.

 

    On a sunnier day, my husband Clint and I wangle Escort into a slip inside the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin, which juts into the Choptank west of the entrance to Cambridge Creek. This is the primary spot for transients, although the working boatyards up the creek will certainly let you tie up if the basin is full and they have room. Two waterfront eateries on the creek, Snappers and Portside Seafood Restaurant, offer limited dockage for diners, and boats are welcome to tie up for free in front of the municipal courthouse.

    There was a time when a boater would be hard pressed to squeeze his boat into Cambridge Creek, let alone tie up there. As many as 200 boats a day came in and out of Cambridge at the turn of the last century, hauling produce, coal, lumber and general merchandise. No one lived on the creek in those days. The water was ringed with commercial enterprises of one sort or another, and old-timers say that you could just about cross the creek by going from boat to boat, so many would be rafted together at the bulkheads. Paul Hughes (the one who delivered groceries to the skipjacks on Saturday mornings), says he’d have to clamber across six or seven boats to get to the one he was looking for. That was in the days when the skipjacks would stay out from Monday to Friday and sell their oysters to the buyboats that came directly to the oyster rocks. By Saturday, they’d want to stock up for the week ahead.

    If current plans come to pass, Cambridge Creek will be a very different kind of place at the turn of the next century. Townhouses, a marina, hotel and restaurant are expected to fill the empty space at the head of the creek, across from the Generation III boatyard (so named because its partners, the scions of Mr. Jim, are the third generation of boatbuilders in their families). Another set of townhouses is proposed for the land now occupied by the defunct fuel dock, and even more have been proposed for the empty land behind Clayton’s packing company. There’s even some chatter about the county moving its waterfront courthouse to make way for private enterprise. If Cambridge Mayor Cleveland L. (“Puh-leeze call me ‘Rip’ “) Rippons has his way, a “riverwalk” will run in front of any new development, guaranteeing public access to the water. Still, the face of the creek will be utterly transformed.

    Long Wharf, next to the Yacht Basin, is the old steamboat landing. The original terminal building was torn down ages ago, and the paved waterfront is dotted with park benches where people sit and look out over the river. A grassy stretch with trees and picnic tables runs along Water Street, parallel to the yacht basin. This open public access to the water is just one of Cambridge’s many charms. Another is High Street, the broad avenue that leads into town from the wharf. Lined with stately old homes, the street reflects the town’s prosperous past. On the last Sunday in September, High Street residents graciously donate their front porches to artists for the annual Dorchester Arts Showcase. The event has the feel of a colossal neighborhood block party. Authors, artists and school bands show their stuff, and the street teems with people.

    High Street isn’t the only “gentry row.” The whole West End, as it’s called, is fairly littered with huge old houses. A generation ago, many of these were chopped into apartments and allowed to dilapidate. Now they’re being bought and restored to single-family splendor by newcomers enticed by relatively affordable price tags. One can buy a substantial home in Cambridge, within walking distance of the water, for about half of what it might cost on the Western Shore.

    Tucked into this neighborhood you’ll find Hyser’s Old-Time Soda Fountain on the corner of Locust and Willis streets, about a half mile from the municipal marina. The walls are plastered with Elvis memorabilia. Sit at one of the booths and listen to the King croon tunes from the jukebox in the back. I was lucky enough to get a hug from proprietor (and former Elvis impersonator) Maurice Tyler when I walked in the door - a bear hug from a big bear of a guy - born and raised on Hooper Island. I got a good fish sandwich too, the daily special. “Do you hug all your customers?” I asked. “Just about,” Tyler said. This is a hamburger-and-sub kind of place, with a hearty breakfast menu thrown in for good measure. It closes at 2 p.m., and like most of Cambridge it’s locked up on Sundays tighter than a fresh caught hard crab.

    All the new people in town have given places like Hyser’s a welcome shot of vitality. But often these “foreigners” bring their own set of expectations with them when they settle in. Many of them want to re-create Cambridge in their own image, oblivious to what the town may have been in the past. They are opening trendy shops along Race Street, the town’s commercial center, and have managed to create an Arts and Entertainment District, which grants certain tax advantages to building owners who create space for working artists. And the town has qualified for the state’s Main Street designation, which provides technical assistance for planning future upgrades and improvements aimed at making the downtown more attractive (and accessible) to residents and visitors. Fine dining, good coffee, studio arts and antiques can be had where empty storefronts once gaped blindly on the street. No one is complaining, mind you, but the fact remains that Cambridge is becoming a brand-new town. And that idea creates a whole new set of problems for the powers that be.

 

    Mayor Rippons hunkers down behind his desk and runs a meaty hand through his crop of red hair. When I ask him what it’s like to be mayor, his answer is surprisingly direct. “It’s like A Tale of Two Cities,” he says. “It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. It’s refreshing to see so much interest in Cambridge these days. But it’s a major balancing act when there’s so much history here and people who don’t want to see things change. On the one hand, you love what the Hyatt and all the new business interests bring to the community. But by the same token, how do you balance the interests of the people who have lived here forever?”

    Rippons left his Hooper Island home at 18, made his way through the business world, ultimately becoming a financial consultant and retiring before he turned 40. Now he is putting his economic know-how to work for the city, trying to meet the needs of the entire community and frustrated by what he considers to be the short-sightedness of some of his constituents. He’s been working hard, for example, to get a fuel dock back on Cambridge Creek. He’s responsible for the upgrade on the municipal marina - ”I showed the city council the figures and proved that the improvements would pay for themselves.” And yet, for every proposal that lands on his desk, somebody somewhere sets up a howl and tempers flare.

    Cambridge does not change gracefully. It took a decade for the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort to become a reality on what had been state-owned land upriver of Cambridge Creek. The 400-room hotel includes a full-service European saltwater spa, a 150-slip marina and an 18-hole golf course. Its newly opened waterfront restaurant, the Blue Point Provision Company, offers the only river view to be had outside of the private Cambridge Yacht Club (next to the municipal basin). Billing itself as the first “true premier resort” in the Mid-Atlantic, the Hyatt Regency opened to considerable fanfare last August; the marina opened in April.

    About the same time that the Hyatt proposal came on the scene, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., whose casinos lure thousands to Atlantic City, N.J., proposed a casino complex where Yacht Maintenance and the maritime museum are, spawning intense speculation over legalized gambling gaining a foothold on the Choptank River. The proposal failed. Yet another group of developers proposed a marina and hotel complex at the commercial wharf owned by the Maryland Port Authority and more commonly known these days as Sailwinds Park, the home of headliner concerts, numerous festivals (like the popular all-you-can-eat Seafood Feast-I-val), flea markets and private receptions. Their plans remain in limbo. As do the sundry proposals for reestablishing a fuel dock in Cambridge Creek - much to Mayor Rippons’s chagrin. There are some who shake their head and say that Cambridge has simply forgotten what money smells like.

Probably the only place where time has not stood still is the old duPont homestead at Horn Point, bequeathed to the city of Cambridge in 1962 and turned over to the University of Maryland in 1971. It is now a burgeoning center for environmental studies. Biologists here annually produce 90 million disease-free oyster spat for seeding and restoring oyster rocks throughout the Bay. Their boats come and go near the spot where Francis duPont had his amateur barbershop. Older Cambridge natives will laugh and tell you how, as kids, they would go crabbing around the shoreline of the duPont estate and a formidable Mr. DuPont would call them into his dock. “He’d size us up,” Harold Ruark recalled, “ask us our name and our parents’ names and where we lived. Then he’d say that it looked to him like we needed a haircut, and he’d tow us into his little barbershop there by the water - oh, he had a barber chair and a real barber pole, everything - and he’d give us a haircut and send us on our way.”

    You can’t get a free hair cut in Cambridge anymore. For that matter, you can’t even crab around the shore much, with all the riprap. But the good news is that some things in Cambridge will never change. This summer hydroplanes and Jersey skiffs will kick up spray on Hambrooks Bay during the running of the Cambridge Classic (July 18–20), and a hundred or more boats will arrive from all over North America to “whip butt” as Ruark put it, on the Choptank race course. Crowds will gather along the beach to watch, and spectator boats will line the river. The town will roll out the red carpet for the participants, feeding them crabs and treating them to local entertainment. And all hell will bust loose on the river. I can almost hear the loudspeaker crackle, “Welcome to Cambridge!” The sleepy old town is waking up to a fresh new century, and, growing pains aside, it has a lot to offer and more on the way.