Issue: February 2008
CRUISE OF THE MONTH: The History Behind the Mystery

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's trails merge hiking with history, revealing the Rhode River's past--and an explanation of one haunting ruin.

By Diana Prentice

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the upper Rhode River drew me not once, but twice this past summer. The first was an excursion to amuse my two grandchildren. The second was to explore the center's trails and to discover the story behind the two huge brick chimneys that rise imperiously from a nearby promontory.

It was lush early summer when my husband Randy and I arrived for the first visit aboard our sloop Strider. We had left the inevitable congestion around Thomas Point Light and the West River for the relative quiet of the Rhode, following its gentle S-turns north toward the cluster of three small islands that lie near the SERC. This wasn't the first time we had ventured up the Rhode, but now we
found that one of the three islands--High Island--was down to one lifeless Charlie Brown tree, which sprouted improbably from the water. (When we returned in September for our second visit, even the tree was gone, and the island-turned-shoal was discernible only by the half-dozen gulls that waded knee-deep at low tide.) But Flat Island just to the north seemed unchanged and Big Island, a bit farther to the west, remained true to its name. Near this triangle we dropped anchor in about ten feet with good holding. A century ago we would have been in the midst of commercial ship traffic that once plied the Bay and its tributaries, moving goods from wharf to city and back. Today, though, we saw only canoes, kayaks and the occasional Smithsonian research vessel.

I had discovered SERC last spring while looking for nature activities in the Galesville, Md. area, something eye-opening for my preschool grandchildren. On the charts, SERC appeared as a big green splotch, but a visit to its website soon indicated that, in addition to its mission as a center for environmental research, this was a remarkable resource of Bay-based activities for all ages--and a respite for sea-leg-stretching boaters too.

In June my young companions, Cedric and Leah, and I were among a dozen or so munchkins and adults who joined biologist, guide and education outreach coordinator Karen McDonald on a mission to stalk the wild dragonfly. We listened to McDonald read a story about these gauzy-winged insects before following her out to the nearby wetland viewing platform for a real-life look. With all the distractions that accompany a gaggle of animated 3- to 5-year-olds, I forgot to ask McDonald about the two towering, ancient brick chimneys I had spotted on the way in. This was going to require a return visit.

It was in September that Randy and I, having anchored Strider again off the Rhode's tiny archipelago, deployed the dink to head for SERC's public landing dock. As we swung around the northeastern side of Big Island toward Muddy Creek, those monument-like chimneys again grabbed my attention--mystifying and majestic. The first dock on the right, a dense cluster of white-framed buildings at water's edge, is private--the site of the original Contees Wharf. SERC's dock is to the left, longer and ending in a knot of research vessels with a ramp and visitors' dock alongside. The center maintains this spot for landings as well as launchings since its water trails draw visitors bringing small craft by car. Kayaks and canoes paddling in from anchored boats are welcome, as are motorized dinghies, but the latter are asked to call ahead (301-238-2737) to make sure the busy landing can accommodate them. No motorized boats may be launched from the SERC ramp. Regardless of travel mode, visitors must register at the robin's-egg-blue Reed Education Center not far from the water. This vaulted-ceiling building holds restrooms, offices, casual displays of the Bay's multifarious treasures and a classroom with bubbling tanks.

We signed in and picked up a map of the Java History Trail and the Discovery Trail. The Java Trail parallels Dock Road then loops back toward the water by way of the marsh viewing area. All along its mile-and-a-half length narrative signs detail the land's history. We were here during midweek after Labor Day, so we had the trail to ourselves--except for the squirrels rummaging in the soft, freshly fallen leaves under Tarzan-like vines. Up a gentle hill, we read about the first people known to use this land, the Piscataway, who hunted and fished here for more than 2,000 years, but left little mark on the environment other than oystershell middens.

Farther along the trail we came to a dirt-floored barn with tobacco drying in the rafters. Unlike the Piscataway, the first Europeans to arrive here wrought many changes to the land--including cleaning forest land for tobacco fields. By 1673, nine plantations had been established along the Rhode River, including Thomas Sparrow's 700 acres for growing tobacco. The great chimneys I had found so haunting are all that remain of the home Sparrow built early in the 18th century. A century later, in 1828, John Contee bought Sparrows's property and named it Java Plantation. (A U.S. Navy officer, Contee paid for the land with the bounty he had received from the capture of the HMS Java during the War of 1812.) In steamboat days, Contee's Wharf became a commercial stop, and the great manor house atop the hill must have presented an impressive sight.

A deer bounded off to our left as we continued along the trail. Eventually, we learned Java Plantation was split into Java Farm to the south and Contee Farm--with the grand mansion--to the north. The two-and-a-half-story house, with its great pilasters and wings, burned in 1890. After attempts to rebuild it failed, it was abandoned once and for all. In 1915, Robert L. Forrest purchased Java Farm and established Java Dairy Farm. A meticulous and innovative--if eccentric--bachelor farmer, Forrest's "certified" milk was sent to Annapolis in the early days by mule. Intuitively, perhaps, he kept a buffer of trees at water's edge, effectively filtering runoff. The dairy operation ceased in 1947, and the land began its long slow return to woodland. On his death in 1962, Forrest bequeathed 365 acres to the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian established an environmental research center on the site and over time acquired an additional 2,500 acres, including 16 miles of shoreline. Through SERC's stewardship, the land is slowly renourishing itself.

The next day I returned to explore the Discovery Trail, which winds farther away from the Education Center and offers glimpses of Muddy Creek and jungle-like thickets along its marsh boardwalk. I ended the hike with a close-up look at the ghostly chimneys, which sit on land still privately held. Later, puttering back to Strider, I gazed a last time at the remains of the Rhode's plantation days, the two chimneys on the hillock above Contees Wharf. Curiosity satisfied. Sea legs exercised. Mystery solved.

Kent Island Land Cruising
The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is mostly about ecological science, of course, not history. Mostly, its on-campus labs focus on unlocking the Chesapeake's ecological mysteries. Studies by its researchers regularly result in globally significant contributions to our understanding of nutrient runoff, mercury, submerged aquatic vegetation, red tides, and blue crab populations--to name just a few. Additionally, SERC is directing the world's longest-running field experiments on atmospheric CO2. And it is the nation's clearinghouse for information on marine invasive species resulting from ballast water.

The SERC allows the public a glimpse of its research side only during its annual open house (May 10, this year), but welcomes visitors to its land and water trails and special programs year round. The center is open Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are children's activities, lectures for adults, brown-bag lunches with scientists and even guided canoe tours in Spanish as well as English. The center, which has just partnered with the Earthwatch program ( has also become a popular boat club rendezvous. Visit or call 301-238-2737 for more information about visiting. 

If you decide to stay in a marina rather than anchor out during your visit to SERC, here are three that offer slips to transient boaters. All offer electric, showers, pump-outs, haul-outs, boat repairs, marine supplies and accept credit cards. Cadle Creek Marina offers fuel and Rhode River Marina has gas only. Cadle Creek Marina, Rhode River/Cadle Creek; 410-798-1915. Casa Rio Marina, Rhode River/Cadle Creek; 410-798-9499 or 301-261-7111. Rhode River Marina, Rhode River/Bear Neck Creek; 410-798-1658;