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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Chesapeake Bay

By Deane Winegar

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Chesapeake Bay > The Eastern Shore: Maryland > Somerset County

Somerset County

Somerset is Maryland’s southernmost county, touching the northwestern corner of Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The actual boundaries of Somerset also reach westward, past Smith Island, extending far across the waters of Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay to Smith Point on Virginia’s Northern Neck. These western borders of the county out in the Chesapeake Bay are composed of straight lines and sharp angles, defined by the whims of humans, and are important when it comes to which state controls fishing regulations and environmental policy. But the borders of the Somerset County mainland, where land actually meets water, are anything but straight. Instead, they are defined by the meanderings of tidal or freshwater rivers—rivers that take their names from local Indian tribes, including the tranquil Pocomoke River, a State Scenic River, on the southeastern side. Other rivers, from north to south, that define the mainland include the Wicomico, the Manokin, and the Big Annemessex.

There are no large towns to take away from the ambiance of the little fishing villages, the historic sites, or the huge expanses of salt marshes where the melodious voice of the willet (Catotrophorus semipalmatus) rings across the cordgrass. US 13 runs north/south through the county, carrying travelers up and down the Eastern Shore. Those who have the good fortune to get off the through highway, whether by chance or by design, will discover the historic county seat of Princess Anne, charming Crisfield in the southwestern corner, or perhaps the cruise boat across Tangier Sound to Smith Island. Six wildlife management areas offer thousands of acres for canoeing, kayaking, hiking, hunting, fishing, crabbing, and observing wildlife. And the remote sandy beaches of Janes Island State Park are right in keeping with the gentle side of Somerset County.

A daffodil show, skipjack race, hard crab derby, clam bake, oyster roast, and fish fry are more reasons people come by car, boat, and bicycle to share the Chesapeake Bay culture of Somerset County.

Princess Anne

[Fig. 21] Named for the 24-year-old daughter of King George II of England, Princess Anne is interesting for its many Federal-style buildings in addition to Victorian homes from the 1800s. Many of these structures are included on a self-guided walking tour of this historic county seat off US 13 in northern Somerset County.

The oldest building is the William Geddes House (circa 1755) at 11790 Church Street. At 11736 Mansion Street is the Teackle Mansion (410-651-2238), begun about 1802. This impressive example of Federal-style architecture is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town’s heritage is celebrated in October during Olde Princess Anne Days. A brochure and map of the walking tour and other county information is available at the Somerset Information Center (410-651-2968 or 800-521-9189) on US 13 west of town.

Deal Island

[Fig. 21] To follow MD 363 west from Princess Anne to its end on Deal Island is almost to drive from today into yesterday. Everyday pressures slip away. The driver lets up on the gas, rolls down the windows, and lets the Deal Island version of the Eastern Shore work its wonders. A bridge from the mainland leads across an inlet to harbors where island visitors can check out an oyster hatchery, walk out on the dock as fishermen bring in the day’s catch from Tangier Sound, or witness the amazing dexterity of crab pickers.The hatchery, crab pickers, and one of the island’s two public boat landings are at Deal Island Harbor on the northern tip of the island. A public beach and the skipjack, Ida May, are also located here. Soft crabs processed at the villages of Deal Island and Wenona are shipped all over the world.On Labor Day weekend, crowds gather to share in the fun of an island festival and to cheer on teams in the annual skipjack races. Skipjacks are workboats normally used to harvest oysters, but for the past 40 years, captains have taken time off for this weekend of fun. Outdoor lovers are also drawn to Deal Island Wildlife Management Area [Fig. 23(8)], where extensive wetlands support healthy populations of wildlife and wildfowl.

Crisfield

[Fig. 21] MD 413 in southern Somerset County is shaped like a 14-mile-long fairway that makes a dogleg right between US 13 south of Salisbury and the mouth of the Little Annemessex River at Tangier Sound. Just before the highway would empty its travelers into the Annemesex, the activity at the city dock in the picturesque town of Crisfield and the aroma of fresh seafood from numerous waterfront restaurants lure motorists to the side of the road.

Crisfield takes its name from John W. Crisfield who was instrumental in bringing the railroad in 1867 to a relatively unknown little fishing village that was then called Somers Cove. The railroad provided a means to transport the riches of Tangier Sound to people hungering for seafood in faraway places. The incredible oyster harvest turned the community into a boom town.

Recognizing the man, John Crisfield, who helped the town earn its nickname, seafood capital of the world, the townspeople renamed the town Crisfield. Although the blue crab has replaced the depleted oyster as the mainstay of the local economy, the bed of crushed oyster shells beneath downtown buildings is an ever-present reminder of the debt the town owes to the American Oyster (Crassostrea virginica).

The decline of the oyster can be attributed to several factors, including overharvesting and deterioration of the underwater grassbeds that help maintain the water quality and protect fish and crustaceans in Tangier Sound. The primary grasses here are eelgrass and wigeon grass, which have begun to make a comeback in many other parts of the Chesapeake Bay, but they are still in rapid decline here. Although the oyster is now scarce, the grasses are still needed to serve as a nursery for the blue crab and sea trout.

Cruises to nearby Smith Island, Maryland, and Tangier Island in Virginia leave the City Dock daily.

Somers Cove Marina

[Fig. 21(5)] Somers Cove Marina, one of the largest marinas on the East Coast, is in a large protected harbor in the center of downtown Crisfield. Before the marina was built, the decline of the local economy in conjunction with the deteriorating oyster industry was all too evident in the harbor. The rusting, rotting hulls of abandoned boats sank gradually into the mud flats, and silt collected around them. Crab-shedding shanties sagged and were reclaimed by the tides. But the citizens found their footing, developed alternatives to the oyster industry, and regrouped. Now the modern, full-service marina stands as testament to the indomitable spirit of the town.

Open year-round, this fishing center has 450 slips for sailboats, motorboats, yachts, and boats for fishing parties. Anglers can charter boats with knowledgeable guides to take them into the surrounding creeks and marshes or into the waters of Tangier Sound, Pocomoke Sound, and the Chesapeake Bay to fish for striped bass, flounder, sea trout, and perch. Headboats, which charge by the person (by the head), are another option.

Many popular festivals and celebrations draw crowds from across the bay to the Lower Shore, as the southernmost counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are called. Some of the best known events are held at or near Somers Cove Marina. These include the Soft Shell Spring Fair (last Sunday in May), the Tawes Crab and Clam Bake (third Wednesday in July), the National Hard Crab Derby (Labor Day weekend), and the Oyster and Bull Roast (third Saturday in October).

The center has two launch ramps, fish-cleaning Facilities, a shuttle service, a pool, picnic tables, six restrooms and shower Facilities spread through the area, dump stations, and even golf packages for nearby Great Hope Golf Course. The marina is operated by the Forest and Park Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Crisfield Historical Museum and Visitor’s Center

[Fig. 21(13)] On the waterfront at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield is the Crisfield Historical Museum and Visitor’s Center, where exhibits trace the history of the Chesapeake Bay, with special emphasis on the Lower Shore and the Crisfield area. The museum’s name is taken from a former governor of Maryland.One exhibit depicts the importance of Native Americans to the survival of early colonists. Friendly Indians showed the new arrivals how to build log canoes and eel pots, and how to make oyster tongs. Other subject matter includes seafood harvesting and processing, decoy carving and painting, and Chesapeake Bay boats.

The Port of Crisfield Escorted Walking Tour begins at the museum and includes a fascinating visit to a crab- and oyster-processing plant where skilled hands pick crabs and shuck oysters almost faster than the eye can see. Workers sometimes sing hymns to help pass the time during the monotonous work.

Janes Island State Park

[Fig. 21(7)] It would be possible to enjoy the way the breeze plays with the tall stalks of the phragmites and cordgrass near the nature trail, or to sit outside a tent under the loblolly pines in the campground, listening to soft birdsong in the evening, and never realize there’s a huge chunk of the park that’s hidden from view.

But a canoe, john boat, or motorboat will open up the other half of the park. Just beyond the Daugherty Creek Canal west of the parking lot and campground is 5-mile-long Janes Island, accessible only to fish, birds, wildlife—and those people with a boat. To the north and south lie the Big and Little Annemessex rivers, named for the Indians who once relied on these waters and marshes for food. To the west of the island are Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Flat Cap Beach on the Tangier Sound side of the island offers 8 miles of sandy beach and gentle waves, where people may swim, picnic, jog, or comb the beach for shells.

Fortunately, for those who don’t bring their own boat, the park rents canoes, kayaks, john boats, and motorboats. Boaters can go crabbing or they can fish for rockfish, bluefish, spot, flounder, croaker, white perch, and sea trout. Or they can simply paddle around the inlets and creeks of the tidal marshes of Janes Island. A camp store can supply the necessary lures, crabbing supplies, sandwiches, sodas, and bug repellent. A nature center and the 16-bed Daugherty Creek Conference Center are also on the park grounds.

Winter is an excellent time to come to Janes Island. Biting insects are not a problem and there’s an abundance of wildfowl such as the black duck (Anas rubripes) that depend on the grains, grasses, and submerged aquatic vegetation of the marsh for food. Wintering black ducks were once estimated at 200,000 in the bay. Loss of habitat and other stresses have brought that number down to just a fourth of its former size. The duck seems to be rebounding, partly due to areas such as Janes Island that have been set aside for wildlife.

Solomons Lump Lighthouse

[Fig. 21(8)] This lighthouse on a caisson foundation stands in 7 feet of water in Kedges Strait about 1 mile north of Smith Island and Martin National Wildlife Refuge. The original screwpile lighthouse built here in 1875, like many Chesapeake Bay lighthouses, was destroyed by heavy ice in 1893. The keepers escaped to Smith Island when the tower toppled over and washed away.

Work on the present lighthouse with an octagonal brick tower started the following year and was completed in 1895. Keepers became unnecessary when the light was automated in 1950. A white light now flashes every 6 seconds. The structure is accessible by boat only and is not open to the public.

Smith Island

[Fig. 21] Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island that is accessible only by boat, is actually made up of several small islands separated by creeks, shallows, tidal guts, and thoroughfares. It is located between the Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound, 12 miles west of Crisfield. Three close-knit communities—Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton—are of considerable interest to the outside world. The communities on Smith Island have no mayors and the residents pay no local taxes. Citizens come together to make decisions, and they share in the cost of maintaining community property. The Methodist Church is the only organized religion on the island. Church leaders are well respected. Ewell is the best known community because cruise boats and ferries dock here. Rhodes Point is a derivation of the original Rogues Point, so named for the pirates that once prowled the area. Tylerton is separated by water from Ewell and Rhodes Point.

A few miles to the south in Virginia waters is Tangier Island which, like Smith Island, is inhabited by less than 1,000 people. Because of the isolation, nearly all the inhabitants on Smith and Tangier islands are descended from the first settlers, who arrived in the early 1700s. Customs, traditions, even the Elizabethan/Cornwall dialect are unique.

Seafaring has long been a way of life on Smith Island, but as Chesapeake Bay waters have become less productive over the years, islanders have made some accommodations for the tourist trade. However, the island is remarkably free of the usual trappings of tourism such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Visitors who stroll the narrow streets or prowl the inlets and coves by boat are treated to views of life in a seafaring community with no pretensions. Watermen care for their boats and repair their nets while women tend to their homes and families just as Smith Island folk have done for centuries. Cruise boats to the island are available seasonally from Crisfield on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, from Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary’s County on Maryland’s western shore, and from Reedville on Virginia’s Northern Neck. A mail boat and a freight boat that also carry passengers depart from and return to Crisfield twice daily. Cars and pets must be left on the mainland, so a little planning ahead for a place to board the family pet is a good idea. Paddlewheel Motel at Crisfield offers an overnight package for two including the cruise and a tour of Smith Island, lunch at Smith Island’s famous Bayside Inn (410-425-2771), and a stay at the motel. Somerset County Tourism offers a brochure detailing a walking tour of the island.

Boats dock near the new handicap-accessible Smith Island Center at Ewell where visitors may tour the center’s museum, rest on the wide, breezy porches, or take the 200-foot boardwalk above marshlands that are habitat for Virginia rails (Rallus limicola), great egrets (Casmerodius albus), osprey (Pandeon haliaetus), and great blue herons (Ardea herodias). Mink, muskrats, otters, red foxes, and abundant domestic cats have also adapted to life in the wetlands. The habitat along the boardwalk is representative of the 4,400 acres of undeveloped marshlands of the Martin National Wildlife Refuge on Smith Island. Because of the fragile ecosystem, the refuge is best viewed from cruise boats on the way to and from the island.

The tranquil pace of life on the island has a calming effect that makes visitors want to stay. The clock ticks at a slower pace, perhaps with the rhythm of a rocking chair on a creaky porch. The friendly residents make travelers feel immediately at home, answering questions about their flat-bottomed skiffs and wooden workboats, and about the fishing shanties that rise on stilts above the water. Visitors who bring bicycles to the island can pedal the easy 5 miles from Ewell to Rhodes Point and back, with the melodic song of the yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) for company. The afternoon sun on the weathered hulls of abandoned fishing boats, gradually decaying and being claimed by the tides, makes them subject matter for photographer and artist.Tidal islands—islands that flood easily, change shape over time, and sometimes disappear completely beneath the waves—are often poor choices for permanent settlements. The residents of Smith Island must constantly battle the loss of shoreline to erosion. In recent years, proposals to spend millions of government dollars to shore up the disappearing coastline have put Smith Island in the news. The expensive fill would give the island 10 to 20 years at most, say some engineers. With no assistance, the end to a centuries-old way of life may come much sooner.

Wildlife Management Areas of Somerset County

Somerset County has six of the state’s 37 wildlife management areas—more than any other county. Five of these—South Marsh Island, Deal Island, Fairmount, Cedar Island, and Pocomoke Sound—are primarily tidal marshlands on the various peninsulas and islands on the western side of the county. Black ducks, mallards, scaup, widgeons, pintails, gadwalls, green and blue-winged teal, shovelers, and other ducks attract hunters to the marshes. Saltwater fishing and crabbing are also popular.

The sixth—Wellington Wildlife Management Area—is comprised of 400 acres of forestland in the eastern part of the county on Dublin Road at Wellington. [Fig. 23(6)] Habitat at this one is managed for game including the white-tailed deer, turkey, gray squirrel, woodcock, bobwhite, and cottontail rabbit. By managing the habitat for game, many other animals benefit including songbirds, butterflies, mink, turtles, hairy and downy woodpeckers, and warblers. Frog species around the ponds include spring peepers, green treefrogs, and wood frogs.

South Marsh Island Wildlife Management Area [Fig. 21(12)] is a 3,000-acre marshy island in the Chesapeake Bay north of Smith Island. Peregrine falcons, American Oystercatchers, black skimmers, black rails, and nesting barn owls hang out where pirates used to hide after plundering American ships during the Revolutionary War.

Deal Island Wildlife Management Area [Fig. 21(11)] is huge. Its 13,000 acres are mostly tidal marsh broken by expanses of open water, in addition to some forested wetlands and a 2,800-acre man-made impoundment. Hikers use a trail around the pond. Overnighters can use a primitive camping area.

Fairmount Wildlife Management Area [Fig. 21(10)] is comprised of 4,000 acres of marshland between the Manokin and Annemessex rivers at the western end of MD 361. Two man-made impoundments are managed to feed a wide variety of ducks. Trails lead around the impoundments, providing close access to the area’s wildlife and wildfowl enabling hikers, hunters, and photographers.

Cedar Island Wildlife Management Area [Fig. 23(11)] is a 3,000-acre island in Tangier Sound, about 3 miles southeast of Crisfield. Pocomoke Sound Wildlife Management Area [Fig. 21(9)] has 900 acres on a marshy peninsula about 3 miles east of Cedar Island. Both these areas attract hoards of ducks, wading birds, and other marsh wildlife similar to that of the other areas. Anglers enjoy crabbing and fishing for sea trout, flounder, croaker, rockfish, spot, and white perch. Neither area is good for hiking because of the soggy soil.

Restaurants of Somerset County

Arby’s and Deb’s Sea-Rations. 9968 Deal Island Road, Deal Island. The menu of this island eatery features fresh seafood. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday through Saturday, and for breakfast and lunch on Sunday. Inexpensive. Phone (410) 784-2313 or (410) 784-2749.

Peaky’s Restaurant. 30361 Mt. Vernon Road, Princess Anne. A large variety of seafood sandwiches and entrées plus nonseafood are on the menu. Specialties include steak Chesapeake (filet mignon topped with crabmeat) and shrimp-and-crab thermidor. Casual. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (410) 651-1950.

Captain’s Galley. 1021 West Main Street, Crisfield. Located at the western end of MD 413, this seafood restaurant is known for its crab cakes. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (410) 968-3313.

Bayside Inn Restaurant. Smith Island Road, Ewell. Fresh seafood is a natural at this restaurant located on Ewell’s City Dock. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (410) 425-2771.

Lodging in Somerset County

Most lodging Facilities are located in the county’s two largest towns—Princess Anne on US 13 and Crisfield in the southwestern corner. In addition, there are campsites at Janes Island State Park, and two private campgrounds are located in the Princess Anne area—Lake Somerset Family Campground (410-957-1866 or 410-957-9897) and Princess Anne Campground (410-651-1520).

The Hayman House. 30491 Prince William Street, Princess Anne. Located in the heart of historic Princess Anne, this Georgian-style bed and breakfast was built in 1898. Victorian parlor, richly decorated guest rooms. Moderate. Phone (410) 651-2753. E-mail [email protected].

Waterloo Country Inn. 28822 Mount Vernon Road, Princess Anne. Pre-Revolutionary waterfront estate from the 1750s, restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Restaurant, nature trails, outdoor pool, canoes, and bicycles for use by guests. Expensive. Phone (410) 651-0883. E-mail [email protected].

Somers Cove Motel. Somers Cove, Crisfield. Located on the water at Somers Cove Marina, this motel has an outdoor pool, picnic tables, and a nearby boat ramp. Moderate. Phone (800) 827-6637 or (410) 968-1900.

Smith Island Motel. 4025 Smith Island Road, Ewell. This 7-room motel is open seasonally. Reservations are recommended. Moderate. Phone (410) 425-3321.

Inn of Silent Music. 2955 Tylerton Road, Tylerton. Excellent food (full hot breakfast included, seafood dinner available) and views of the Chesapeake Bay are offered at this waterfront bed and breakfast inn. Ask about birding, canoeing, and charters. Moderate. Phone (410) 425-3541. E-mail [email protected].

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