Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney

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Sailing to St. Michaels By Lynn Whitney


Sailing to St. Michaels

By Lynn Whitney

A visit to the Chesapeake Bay would not be complete without a stop at the quaint town of St. Michaels.  It is a picturesque town located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, with a history dating back to the 1600’s.  Sail into St. Michaels Harbour Inn, Marina and Spa, where you will be met by courteous and efficient dockhands.  Relax, take in the scenery and plan your stay.  Should you choose to stay on land, there are numerous charming B&B’s and Inns, including the Inn at Perry Cabin, made famous in the movie, “Wedding Crashers.”  Stroll the shaded, tree-lined streets and observe the beautiful  homes and gardens, dating back to the 18th and 19th century.  Many have been converted into unique boutiques, restaurants and inns. 

So, what to do? Getting hungry?  Well, here are some of our favorites – Ava’s Pizzeria and Wine Bar for gourmet pizza and fabulous meatballs, Crab Claw to pick some steamed crabs, and Justine’s Ice cream parlor to finish it all off.  Rent a kayak or a paddle board, go crabbing or take a cruise aboard an historic Chesapeake Bay Skipjack.  The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is a must see.  It has the nation’s most comprehensive collection of Chesapeake Bay artifacts and indigenous watercraft.  The museum is also a working boat yard.  Interact with the boatyard staff as they explain their work and learn about the rich tradition of Chesapeake boat building.  Tour the Hooper Straight Lighthouse in its new location as a St. Michaels landmark.  

The Hooper Straight Light is one of only four surviving screw-pile lighthouses is Maryland.  It was originally constructed in 1867 in Hooper Straight between Hooper and Bloodsworth Islands.  In January of 1877, ice tore the house loose and it floated away down the bay.  John S. Cornwell, the keeper, and his assistant, managed to escape in one of the light’s boats and spent 24 hours on the ice before being rescued.  The sunken lighthouse was located five miles south of the straight.  The lens, lamp and fog bell were salvaged.  In 1879, a new lighthouse was erected in the same location, and remarkably, John Cornwell became the first keeper.   In 1954, the light was automated and the house boarded up.  The U.S. Government condemned it in 1965 and slated it for demolition.   The Museum purchased it from the demolition contractor for $1,000.00 and barged it 60 miles north to its new location.  A tour through the lighthouse will give you a sense of the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper.

The town itself has as interesting history.  It’s earliest industry was shipbuilding with at least six shipbuilders active at the time of the War of 1812.  One of its prized vessels was a fast schooner, later known as a Baltimore Clipper.  The ships were known for their ability to evade blockades and outrun pirates and foreign naval vessels.  It became a tempting target for the British.  In 1813, Admiral George Cockburn commanded a fleet up the Chesapeake, foraging for supplies, seizing tobacco and other valuable commodities and destroying stores of arms and gunpowder.  In the early morning of August 10, 1813, the British targeted St. Michaels because of a militia battery constructed to defend the town’s shipyards.  After a brief skirmish, the battery was neutralized and the British returned to their ships.  The bombarding continued, but no damage was inflicted on the shipyards or the town.  How could this happen?  Well, the story is that the townspeople dimmed their lights and hung lanterns in the trees beyond the town, drawing British fire away from its target. St. Michaels is now known as, “ The Town that Fooled the British.”

At the conclusion of the War of 1812, shipbuilding in St. Michaels declined, and a new industry took hold, oysters and crabs.  Most of the population was involved in either fishing or canning and packing the product.  One of these companies, Coulbourne and Jewett,  a  notable black owned enterprise in the early 1900’s, devised a means of grading crabmeat – regular, claw, special, backfin and lump.  This method is still used today.   

Whether you are looking for water sports, shopping, eating or have an interest in maritime history, a visit to St. Michaels will be worth your trip.