With the seafood industry in decline, Crisfield, Md., may soon profit from a different
kind of catch.
by Jody Argo Schroath
photographs byVince Lupo
was a perfect spring day—presidential blue sky, congenial 10-knot
breeze straight out of the heart of Dixie, temperature comfortably in
the porch-rocker 70s. In fact, it had all of the ingredients you would
throw into your January daydreams to produce the ideal first cruise of
the year. Of course, it had taken its sweet time getting that way.
Dense fog had kept us—my cruising buddy Hal, ship's dog Skippy and
me—cooling our heels since early morning, first at the mouth of the
Yeocomico and then at the mouth of the Potomac, waiting for visibility
to improve before poking our nose out into the Bay. But our patience
had been rewarded at last, and here we were in the middle of the
Chesapeake—with Point Lookout aft and Smith Island fore—on our way to
Crisfield for the very first time.
Now, among Chesapeake Bay
boaters, having never been to Crisfield is like a French person never
having been to Paris. No, that's not right. Annapolis has got to be
Paris for a Chesapeake boater, so that would make Crisfield more like
Marseille. Crisfield, like Marseille, was built on maritime trade and
it is on the southern end—of Maryland, in this case, instead of France.
Okay, and it's not on the Mediterranean, either. Look, forget I brought
Crisfield, which is known everywhere on the Bay as "the
town that used to be known as the Seafood Capital of the World," was
built on the triumvirate of oysters, terrapins and crabs. Only crabs,
that Julius Caesar of seafood, have survived in any useful numbers. But
Crisfield, too, has survived, though it has long since been demoted
from seafood capital to quaint former seafood capital. But that in no
way has diminished its appeal to boaters on the Bay. In fact, quaint,
plus easy access to town, a truly great marina, down-home people with
some quirky yet charming habits, and plenty of places to satisfy the
inner boater have made Crisfield one of the Bay's favorite
So Skippy, Hal and I were fairly humming in
anticipation. (Actually, Skippy is fairly humming to be on his way
anywhere, so he doesn't count.) There was only one issue that threw a
shadow over our happy project. Were we too late? Had Crisfield already
gone from quaint to wall-to-wall condo? That was certainly the talk I'd
heard from Solomons to Salisbury: It's all over, they said, they're
building condominiums in Crisfield! Or, alternately: They're building
all these condominiums in Crisfield, but I wonder who's going to live
there? If you can't find blue cheese or a good dry cleaner anywhere in
town you may not be able to sell condominiums.
That last comment
came in a round-about way from Whitey Schmidt, a 10-year Crisfield
come-here and cookbook author with a title of his own, the Blue Crab
Guru. I had called him when I decided to make Crisfield my first
landing site of the season. "They have started building a few highrises
wherever there's waterfront and a view," he confirmed. "So, it's
beginning. New life is coming to Crisfield." Crisfield is a quiet town
now, he continued, but once there were a hundred or more
oyster-shucking houses at the dock; now there is one. Terrapin soup was
found in every restaurant in America; now we don't eat terrapin. The
trains are gone, and a lot of the fishing industry has left. So, all
things considered, Schmidt says, the condos may be a move in the right
direction. "Besides, someday you might even be able to buy blue cheese
But were recreational boaters and other tourists
going to be happy about the Crisfield come-heres, or at least with
their outward and visible sign: condominiums? I threw off that shadow
as Solomons Lump light passed to starboard and I started listening for
the bell at green "5". Pretty soon we would turn to head south in Hal's
17-foot cutty until we reached the entrance of the Little Annemesex
channel to Crisfield and Somers Cove Marina.
Somers Cove is
definitely one of the big attractions for boaters visiting Crisfield.
With more than 400 slips and famously easy to maneuver around, there is
nearly always plenty of room for everyone. The marina was built in the
late 1950s, while Crisfield's favorite son, J. Millard Tawes was
governor of Maryland. The state still owns and maintains it and, over
the years, has expanded its slips and facilities. The marina is now
also the site of the J. Millard Tawes Museum and Visitors Center. And
it was here that Hal and I made our first stop, after tying up at a
transient slip and arranging for the ship's dog to cool his heels with
a big bowl of water and a bully stick in the shade of the nearby picnic
museum is a great place to get a handle on Crisfield's history. If you
can do it, be sure to take Crisfield Heritage Foundation curator Tim
Howard's walking tour, which leaves the museum every morning at 10.
Thanks to the fog, we didn't manage to make it, but it's going to be a
prime motivation for my next visit to Crisfield. Howard, a Crisfield
native, has an enthusiasm for the town and for history with a capitalHrunning deep in this veins. Like so many men in Crisfield, his
beginnings are inseparable from the water and the seafood industry, but
like so many men in Crisfield he has been forced to look elsewhere for
a living. In Howard's case, he went back to school and discovered
history. He returned to Crisfield and began volunteering at the museum.
When the opportunity for a paying job turned up, he jumped at it. Now
he leads tours, works on the foundation's new Cedar Marsh Wildlife
Preserve—which will soon have a new kayak trail—and changes lightbulbs,
as needed. He also works with legions of school groups that come
through, the dozen Elderhostel programs the foundation hosts each year
and now cruise ships.
"Cruise ships?" I exclaimed.
years ago there were none," Howard explained, "last year there were a
couple, and this summer there will be eight to ten cruise boats
stopping at Crisfield." He left to take a call from the Mariners Museum
in Newport News, Va., as foundation director Chris Tyler came in. "They
are calling to confirm arrangements for an Elderhostel cruise that will
leave from there and will stop here," she said, before also leaving to
field a call.
"Many of these cruises ships are Americana Cruise
Line ships and were built right next door in Salisbury," Tim Howard
said when he returned. The foundation, he explained, arranges programs
for the cruise passengers, including trips to nearby Smith and Tangier
islands. Some cruises are birding excursions and some geared toward
After perusing the museum and its exhibits, which
range from arrowheads to all manner of maritime artifacts (including
some decoys by Crisfield's world famous artists in wood, the Ward
brothers), Hal and I retrieved the ship's dog and strolled into town.
Meandering through the residential areas, we saw relic after elegant
relic of oyster prosperity: many dozens of Victorian homes in varying
states of both decay and restoration. "They represent the oyster money
of the 1920s and thirties," Howard had told us. The brick ranchers on
the fringes of town, he said, were built by crab money in the 1950s and
Howard's voice continued to echo in our ears as we made
our first stop downtown, slipping into Goodsell Alley near the city
dock for ice cream and a hands-on approach to history. "If you actually
put your hand on the old oyster house, you can feel the rough [cinder]
blocks it was built with," Howard had said as he told us about the tour
we were not going to get. "Then you can put your hands on the next
building, where the ice-cream shop is, and feel the smooth blocks. You
can feel the difference in time." So Hal and I did that, while Skipper
did something else I don't want to get too specific about. Then we
docked the ship's dog at a post outside and went in to get some ice
cream. The purveyor of ice cream came back out with us, carrying a bowl
of water for the dog. With all hands happy, we decided to get a better
look at the old oyster house. MeTompkins is one of only a few seafood
houses still operating in Crisfield. We walked between its two
buildings, the larger of which lies in the shadow of a block of
condominiums. To the left, out on the old dock, sat a wrecked car, with
an oyster boat tied up next to it. I would have asked, but saw no one
to tell me the story.
Goodsell Alley itself could tell a few
tales. Late in the 19th century, during the heyday of the oyster trade
and when Crisfield was the second largest city in Maryland, Goodsell
Alley was the home to bars and bawdy houses, not demure ice-cream
parlors. To deal with the ramifications of this new rip-roaring
lifestyle, Crisfield established its first police force in 1872. I
mention this particularly so that I can share that the town's second
police chief was named John S. "Pigtail" Sterling. Its third: Isaac T.
"Scapper" Powell. Things must have calmed down after that, because the
nicknames seem to end there. (You can find the names of all the police
chiefs as well as many other bits of information inCrisfield, Maryland, 1676–1976,
an endlessly fascinating and thoroughly opinionated 1977 book by
Woodrow T. Wilson—no relation. Wilson, a Crisfield native and retired
career Army officer, wrote three books on his beloved hometown, this
last to celebrate its bicentennial.)
Hal, Skippy and I
retraced our steps and turned right to the city dock, still very much
the center of activity for Crisfield residents and visitors alike. This
is where you go to find the boats headed for Tangier and Smith islands.
This is also where you go to find people waiting for boats, watching
boats, catching up on news. And what was the center of attraction on
this day? A cruise ship! Yes, tied up alongside of the dock was a
three-deck passenger ship of about 200 feet. And it was creating a
certain quiet stir among Crisfielders, who in any case keep a close eye
on all things maritime. It was hard to tell which was greater—the
cruise ship passengers' curiosity for Crisfield, or Crisfield's
curiosity for them. I was pretty interested in both, myself. I stopped
to chat with a woman sitting in a car parked just where the dock turns
into the two-tiered city pier—or the sunset viewing stand, as Whitey
Schmidt calls it. She told me she had sent her husband up the dock to
find out what the ship was. In the time it took to confirm that she was
a born Crisfielder and that she and her husband come down regularly to
watch the boats, he returned with a brochure. American Canadian
Caribbean Line. Two- and three-week tours up and down the Bay and the
East Coast. He was ready to sign up, his wife was not. Getting on a
boat to visit her sister on Tangier Island was more than enough
seafaring for her, she said. What did she think of the condominiums, I
asked her. "Crisfield is changing," she replied. "We natives don't see
it yet, but it will be good in the end."
That Crisfield is
changing seems to be accepted wisdom all around. Sterling & Son
Hardware offers a good example. That business, which began in the 19th
century as a tin shop, has already made plans to change with the times.
It was Skippy's idea that we stop in. We had just spent a few minutes
admiring the wide blue beauty of Tangier Sound from the sunset pier and
had started walking uptown when the store's open door, the cool shade
and the happy odor of hardware and marine supplies drew Skippy in.
"He's welcome to come in," Susan Sterling and Karin Schneider called
out, encouraging his trespass. I followed suit, while Hal wandered up
the street. The store, actually two stores—one predominantly hardware
and the other marine supplies—is planning some changes to meet what is
expected to be a wider market in recreational boaters, Sterling told
us. "We will be carrying more recreational boating supplies," she said.
"Perhaps the store will be divided into a part for watermen and part
for recreational boaters." (The urge to protect the watermen is a
determined counterpoint to Crisfield's acknowledgement of the need for
change—or at least its inevitability.) At the hardware store, Sterling
said, there are plans to add polo shirts and other leisure items, "kind
of the softer side of hardware."
Skippy was ready to spend a
lot more time with his new friends, but we still had something of a
hike before we got up to Crifield's main business section. When most of
the town as it exists today was built, the oyster houses and other
seafood plants crowded around the docks, many built on pilings over the
marsh that separated the land from the water so that the boats could
offload directly to the plants. In time, the plants' tons of discarded
oyster shells filled in the marsh to make dry land. That left the main
part of town strung out at a diagonal to the highway—and, far more
importantly at the time, the railroad, which ran right down to the
It was the railway that gave Crisfield its name—the one
it has now—and assured its position as seafood capital of the world,
because it was able to hustle fresh oysters, crabs and, for a brief
time, terrapins to major markets from Baltimore to the nation beyond.
John W. Crisfield, an officer with the Eastern Shore Railroad, had seen
the importance of the project and had pushed for the extension of the
line. The railhead was named Crisfield in his honor and, soon, so was
the town. Its earliest European name had been Annemesex Neck, for the
local Indian tribe, and was founded as an English town in 1666 by
Benjamin Summers. Its port was called Somers Cove (spelling was an
inexact science back then), and eventually, since nearly all its
comings and goings were maritime, that became the town's name—until
Crisfield came along. Somers Cove lives on, of course, as the marina,
and the Indian word survives in the Big and Little Anne-mesex rivers.
The tribe, alas, does not.
Downtown—or would it be
uptown?—Crisfield is an energetic mix of historic architecture, empty
storefronts, long-established businesses, discount stores and
intriguing upstarts. It is also the home of one of the locals' new
favorite restaurants, Mi Pueblito Grill ("It's not just Mexican. They
really cook there," Susan Sterling told me. "I've even been served
Mexican-style quail would have to wait; I had an
appointment with the mayor. So Hal and Skippy went off on their own,
and I headed for the village offices, which are near the top of Main
Street. Two years ago, Mayor Percy Purnell rode into office on a wave
of public indignation that brought a record number of voters to the
poles, ousting the incumbent mayor and most of the council. Not
surprisingly, it had to do with change. Purnell and his allies objected
to a public/private revitilization project that would have been
privately funded, but would also, Purnell said, have given the private
interest too much control. And, yes, condominiums were an underlying
element. It was four years ago that the first condominiums were built,
Purnell continued, and before the election more than 400 new units had
been approved. Not that the new mayor opposes condominiums. "Condos are
not a bad thing," he said, "they improve the tax base and allow the
city to do things it wouldn't otherwise be able to. Would I have done
it? Perhaps a little differently."
Purnell is one of Crisfield's
many been-here-befores. Twenty years ago, he was mayor. Then he moved
away to work. Recently he returned and ran for council. "All of my best
memories center on Crisfield. I feel it needs to be protected. Times
are going to change, but it needs to be done so people here won't,"
Purnell said. With an average annual income of less than $18,000,
Crisfield's residents would soon be left behind, he said. The city is
just completing a comprehensive plan and is seeking bids for the
development of its own revitalization plan, aimed at finding that
elusive balance between encouraging growth while preserving a way of
life (fishing) that is becoming increasingly untenable. There are also
plans for trying to help watermen with legislation. One of them is to
make sure that the Small Boat Harbor stays in their hands. If passed,
the ordinance would allow those recreational boaters who now own docks
in the harbor to keep them, but when they do sell, it must be to
someone in the marine industry.
Skippy and Hal were just
coming back down Main Street when I stepped out of the mayor's office.
"Go scout out the perfect place for dinner, while I make one last
stop," I called out, ducking into Heart of the Home Fine Foods. Whitey
Schmidt had suggested that I talk with its proprietor, Susan Linyear.
"She's part of the good change that's coming," Schmidt had said. The
shop certainly looked like a change for Crisfield. Coffees, teas,
specialty foods. Cheese. Hmmm, I thought, I think I see what's coming.
is definitely a Crisfield come-here. Before she saw an ad for retail
space on the internet, she'd never even heard of the place. "I had been
a personal chef and caterer for several years, and I was looking for
some space in D.C. to open my own shop," Linyear said. "I saw the
Crisfield ad and came down to take a look. I loved the ambience of the
town, and I absolutely loved the price." She opened Heart of the Home
this March. As the weather has warmed up, so has her business. "People
are asking for specific things, like apple or vanilla tea, or a
particular barbecue seasoning, and this gets my juices going, thinking
of things." And cruise ships. Earlier in the day, she and the owner of
Debbi's Chocolate and Gift Shop next door, and the owner of the
Captain's Galley had put on a demonstration for the passengers of the
cruise ship I had seen earlier. Passengers learned to shuck oysters.
The local businesses made some sales. Everyone was happy.
is small business that is going to grow Crisfield," Linyear said. "A
new plant isn't going to open up." So she and other local business
owners have formed a marketing group to make Crisfield and their
businesses better known to recreational boaters and other potential
And cheese? (I had to ask.) "I will be carrying a
variety of new cheeses beginning next month, like feta, goat cheese,
blue cheese." Say no more, I said, and ran out to find Hal and Skippy.
I felt a sudden urge to check out a few condominium prices before we
settled down for dinner.
It only takes one building to alter a
skyline, and in Crisfield that deed is already done. More than a dozen
additional buildings are on the drawing board, but whether they will
ever be completed depends on whether superb views, great fishing, a
charming population . . . and blue cheese . . . will be enough to draw
come-heres down there. So far the few dozen people who have come have
made little impact on the town itself. Then how would I answer my
question: Have condos spoiled Crisfield? You'll just have to come on
down and judge for yourself.
Cruiser's Digest: Crisfield, Md.
our visit to Crisfield, we simply strolled through town, visiting the
shops and talking with everyone we came across—Crisfield's friendliness
is very much part of its charm. This was more than enough to keep us
entertained during our stay, but if you have the time and the
inclination, there is much more to do and see. Visitwww.crisfieldchamber.comfor information about everything Crisfield.
has three museums, all under the auspices of the Crisfield Heritage
Foundation. Check in at the Visitors Center/J. Millard Tawes Museum,
located adjacent to Somers Cove Marina, to arrange for a visit to the
Ward Brothers Workshop, where they created hundreds of world famous
waterfowl carvings, and the J. Millard Tawes Library, housed in his
family home. Also, be sure to arrange for the escorted walking tour,
leaving from the Visitors Center daily at 10 a.m.
is the jumping off place for visits to nearby Tangier and Smith
islands. Boats leave from city dock. Take the mail boat, if you have
the chance, for a better chance to visit the
is still a major draw for visitors to Crisfield. Arrange for a few
hours or a daylong excursion with any of the city's charter captains.
June 22-–24 21st annual Scorchy Tawes Pro-Am Fishing Tournament. Registration and party at Side Street Market, Fri. June 22, 7 p.m.
31st annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. All-you-can-eat
steamed crabs, clams, and fish as well as plenty of politicians. Somers
Cove Marina, 1–4:30 p.m.
August 31–September 2 60th annual Hard Crab Derby and Fair. Includes crab races, crab
contest, parade, boat docking contest, swim meet, and plenty of fresh
seafood, of course. Somers Cove Marina, Fri. 6 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.–10
p.m.; Sun. noon–10 p.m.
October 19 Crisfield Waterman's Festival. Oysters, crabs, clams and landlubber food. Somers Cove Marina, Noon–5 p.m.
(More information about all events, can be found atwww.crisfieldchamber.comor by
only one, but it's a great one, with 100 transient slips, room for
boats up to 150 feet, electric, fuel, free pump-outs, swimming pool and
laundry. Slips range from $1.50 to $2 per foot. Somers Cove Marina
are plenty of restaurants within walking distance of the marina. Here
are just a few: Captains Galley, 1021 W. Main (866-576-6412;www.captainsgalleyonline.com); Cove Restaurant, 718 Broadway St. (410-968-9532;www.coverestaurant.net); Mi Pueblito Grill, 333 Main St. (410-968-9984;www.mipueblitogrill.com); Side Street Seafood, 204 S. 10th St. (410-968-2442;www.crisfield.com/sidestreet); Watermen's Inn, 901 W. Main St. (410-968-2119;www.crisfield.com/watermens).