Chesapeake Bay > Head of the Chesapeake Bay > Cecil County

Cecil County

With the Susquehanna River on its western border and the Sassafras River on its southern border, Cecil County is partially defined by waters that flow to the Chesapeake Bay. Also, the uppermost rivers that feed the bay—the North East, Elk, and Bohemia—and their tributaries penetrate the county like the fingers of a hand, dividing it into many large and small peninsulas.

Tidal wetlands and forested uplands on these water-wrapped lands are home to a great variety of birds and wildlife. Much of the waterfowl, wildfowl, and wildlife reside in the state-operated park, in the demonstration forest, in the managed hunting areas in the southeastern part of the county, or at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in the northeastern corner.

This watershed of the upper bay harbors wonderful things to do and places to go, from aristocratic manor homes to restored mill houses, from thoroughbred horse racing to Winston drag racing, and from sailing the Chesapeake at sunset to attending a Civil War re-enactment at Rising Sun. A day might begin with crab omelets at a country B&B, progress to a picnic lunch at Elk Neck State Park, and end with waterfront dining on the C&D Canal at Chesapeake City.

The county sits in Maryland’s northeast corner, bordered by Pennsylvania to the north and Delaware to the east. The I-95 corridor that connects Baltimore with Wilmington, Delaware bisects the county from west to east. Off the busy freeway are the quiet back roads that lead to eighteenth and nineteenth century towns, Revolutionary War and Civil War history, fields and forests, and the thoroughbred farms that characterize the countryside at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. Some of Cecil County’s highways have wide, paved shoulders that invite bicycle touring.

Several historic towns lure travelers interested in learning about the county’s past. On the banks of the Susquehanna River, several miles north of Perryville, is Port Deposit, where nineteenth century architecture combines with a stunning river setting. The Union Hotel (410-378-3503) on Main Street (MD 222) was built of hemlock logs around 1790, with V-notched construction chinked with mud and stone. Waiters dressed in colonial garb serve period food.

In the center of the county on the North East River is Charlestown. Established in 1742, Charlestown is the county’s oldest incorporated town. A walking tour (410-287-8793) features the eighteenth century taverns and houses that keep this town much as it was in colonial times.

Both Rising Sun, formerly called Summer Hill, in the northwestern corner of the county and Elkton on the eastern side were Revolutionary War crossroads between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Rising Sun also has a Civil War past, which is celebrated with a re-enactment each October. Continental and British troops sometimes camped at Elkton during the Revolutionary War. Such leaders as Howe, Lafayette, and Rochambeau passed through.

Perryville, located across the Susquehanna River from Havre de Grace, is known for the restored Perryville Train Station, built about 1904, and the Principio Furnace, constructed in 1722 and used to make iron cannon balls during the Revolutionary War.

George and Martha Washington used to ferry across the Susquehanna and visit Rodgers Tavern at Perryville on trips between Mount Vernon and points north. The restored tavern, located on MD 7 (Old Post Road/Philadelphia Road), features architecture representative of its time. Perryville is also the location of the B&O Holly Tree, a 127-year-old, 55-foot holly on Jackson Station Road. On the first Saturday of each December, a day of festivities culminating in a tree-lighting ceremony commemorates a tradition started by the B&O Railroad in 1948.

In addition to these attractions and the ones mentioned below, Cecil County has historic manor homes, eighteenth century churches, and beautiful back roads that await discovery by curious travelers.

Plumpton Park Zoo

[Fig. 16(14)] The Plumpton Park Zoo, called a "family-friendly zoo," is about 3 miles east of Rising Sun. This small but popular country zoo attracts some 50,000 people annually.Both children and adults can view North American animals that are difficult to see close up in the wild, such as a barred owl, red-tailed hawk, white-tailed deer, cougar, and bear. Exotic species among the 250 animals include zebra, giraffe, monkey, gibbon, alligator, camel, and the latest addition, a beautiful Siberian tiger. The zoo has a nature trail and picnic Facilities on Northeast Creek, where wild geese and ducks announce their presence with honks and quacks.

North East

[Fig. 16] This little town, with the flavor of Main Street USA, sits at the head of the North East River, about 9 miles east of Havre de Grace. Visitors stroll along the streets licking double-dip ice cream cones and investigating shops filled with antiques and collectibles. Favored attractions include Cramer’s 5 & 10 and the Day Basket Factory. At the 5 & 10, shelves are filled with penny candy and other items from the 1950s. At the Day Basket Factory on the corner of Main Street and Irishtown Road, artisans make split-oak baskets that have been traditional for more than a century. Also popular are the antiques and collectibles of the Shoppes of Londonshire.

From March through November, Winston series drag racing draws fans to the Cecil County Dragway at 1573 Theodore Road (410-287-9105). The popular North East Water Festival is held in July. In October, anglers come to North East Town Park, headquarters for the Upper Bay Rockfish Tournament, and carvers come to North East Middle School to exhibit their amazing decoys in the Upper Shore Decoy Show.

Gilpin Falls Covered Bridge

[Fig. 16(15)] About 5 miles north of North East, where North East Creek intersects MD 272, is Gilpin Falls Covered Bridge. Built about 1860, the 119-foot restored wooden structure has withstood the elements longer than any other covered bridge in the state. The much-photographed bridge is visible and easily accessible from MD 272.

Upper Bay Museum

[Fig. 16(16)] Boating, hunting, and fishing artifacts used by upper Chesapeake Bay residents are on display at this museum located on Walnut Street in the town of North East.

Elk Neck State Park

[Fig. 16(17)] Campers, hikers, swimmers, bird-watchers, boaters, and anglers all have reason to seek out Elk Neck State Park. The park is in southwestern Cecil County on a peninsula formed by the Chesapeake Bay and Elk River. The 2,188 acres of the park are composed of coastal terrain with small valleys and high wooded bluffs overlooking the bay and North East River on the park’s western edge.Motorboats, rowboats, and Jet Skis may be rented and launched in the Elk River at a concession on the east side of the peninsula. A waterfront area on the North East River offers unguarded swimming.Canoeists enjoy paddling along the riverbanks, habitat for the unique flora and fauna that inhabit the fresh tidal marshes of the upper Chesapeake Bay. White-tailed deer, gray squirrel, beaver, and raccoon are just a few of the wild animals that may make an appearance along water’s edge. Anglers and crabbers in rowboats and motorboats or on the riverbanks have a number of options, including blue crabs, largemouth bass, striped bass, shad, channel catfish, pickerel, crappie, yellow perch, and sunfish.In spring, a tiny red flag flashing in the reeds at water’s edge could turn out to be a male red-winged blackbird opening and closing his wings to announce his presence. Blue crabs begin arriving from the deeper, more saline waters of the lower bay to begin mating, and the anadromous striped bass returns from the sea to spawn.In summer, the waters of the bay around the park are full of life, as the young of many species grow to adulthood. Under the slate-gray surface, the waters teem with life, mostly unseen. Bottom fishermen may pull up strange creatures such as the hogchoker.Lanterns glowing along the banks in summer and fall mark the places that catfish anglers sit and wait for a bite. On a January day, two hikers hear only the crunch of snow beneath their boots and their own rhythmic breathing as they enjoy having the park to themselves—except, of course, for thousands of wintering wildfowl.Whatever the season, Elk Neck State Park is an excellent place to learn the ecology of the upper Chesapeake Bay while enjoying the outdoors. Many amenities exist thanks to the energy and expertise of the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s who constructed the trails, picnic areas, rustic cabins, and roads that remain in use today.Camping is available year-round at Elk Neck. Cabins require advance reservations. Pets are allowed in most areas.

Bird-watching at Elk Neck State Park

Several peninsulas along the Atlantic Flyway such as the one at Elk Neck State Park act as natural funnels for migrating birds, which prefer to stay over land whenever possible. At Turkey Point on the southernmost tip of the peninsula, where the highest concentration of migrating birds occurs at Elk Neck, the Ornithological Society of Cecil County has established a regular fall hawk watch. Daily tallies are kept on such hawks as sharp-shinned (Accipiter striatus), Cooper’s (Accipiter cooperii), red-shouldered (Buteo lineatus), broad-winged (Buteo platypterus), and rough-legged (Buteo lagopus).Also recorded are the northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), merlin (Falco columbarius), black vulture (Coragyps atratus), and turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are occasionally spotted. In each of the first two seasons of record keeping, the club counted more than 3,000 birds of prey in just 100 hours of bird-watchingWith many bird clubs keeping similar watches along the flyway, flight patterns, preferred flying conditions, Dates of migration, and numbers of birds can be compared from year to year. Scientists can then use the data in studying the status of migrating birds, even sharing it with other countries on the southern or northern ends of the migration routes.Hawks, though perhaps the best known and most easily observed of spring and fall migrants, are not the only winged creatures that come across Turkey Point. Warblers cross the water here in astounding numbers. Butterflies are also known to use this portion of the flyway.Campers and hikers spot wild turkeys year-round, in addition to several varieties of terns, herons, and gulls.

Hiking at Elk Neck State Park

Short hiking trails named for the color of their blazes lead through Coastal Plain marshes and hardwood forests, affording good opportunities to spot birds and wildlife.

The 1.5-mile Red Trail loops through a deciduous hardwood forest with a canopy of oak, hickory, beech, maple, locust, and tulip poplar. Mountain laurel and flowering dogwood bring the understory to life with their pink and white blooms in spring. Patches of ferns, mosses, and wildflowers add to the beauty. The trail is of moderate difficulty and connects the North East Beach entrance road off MD 272 with the chapel at the Mauldin Mountain area.

The 1-mile Green Trail is an easy hike between the visitor center and the Bohemia camping loop that goes through a hardwood forest and by a freshwater pond. Spring peepers (Hyla crucifer) shrilly announce their presence on spring evenings, while a bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) adds its low thrum to a summer night. Look for the tracks of a raccoon at water’s edge. The front feet look much like tiny human hands.

A quiet approach in winter may give hikers a glimpse of a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), a bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), or a hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus).

The Black Trail is a 2-mile hilly loop of moderate difficulty featuring a hardwood forest, a marsh, and beaches of the Elk River. Tracks of the web-footed, playful river otter may be located along water’s edge. The trail is accessible across from site 12 in the Susquehanna campground or in the Wye camping area between sites Wye-2 and Wye-3.

The 2-mile, easy Blue Trail leads to a loop at Turkey Point Lighthouse, with views of the bay and Elk River. Overgrown fields give hikers the best opportunity to find wildflowers. The trailhead is at the southern end of MD 272, where a chain blocks the road. The parking area is on the left.

Turkey Point Lighthouse

[Fig. 16(18)] Perched on a 100-foot bluff, the 35-foot tower of the Turkey Point Lighthouse stands as high above the bay waters as any other light. Built in 1833, this is one of the oldest lighthouses in continual operation. The last keeper before automation was Fannie Salter, who lived at the lighthouse from 1925 until her retirement in 1947. The U. S. Coast Guard tore down the keeper’s house. Only the oil house and white tower with its flashing light remain. The lighthouse appears in the Clint Eastwood movie Absolute Power. The lighthouse is not open to the public.

Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area

[Fig. 16(19)] In northeastern Cecil County, Memorial Day brings thoroughbred race horses, steeplechase events, horse racing, and pari-mutuel wagering. The turf track and the Fair Hill Training Center for race horses at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area attract those who enjoy the thunder of hooves and the sight of magnificent thoroughbreds. During the fall, Fair Hill hosts the impressive Fair Hill International, a three-day equestrian event.

The state’s natural resource management areas are managed for multiple uses—uses that include both environmental protection and public recreation—and this one is no exception. In addition to equestrian events, Fair Hill annually hosts Scottish Games, the Cecil County Fair, and a popular mountain bike race in July. Hikers, bikers, and horseback riders share 40 miles of trails and 35 miles of dirt roads through hardwood forests, along streams, and through fields where bluebirds sit on fence posts, singing a soft, plaintive song. Trail users sometimes spot red foxes and red-tailed hawks, which both prey on the prolific voles in the fields.

Birders come during spring breeding season to spot birds that inhabit both fields and woods. The uncommon cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulea) has been seen in the bottomland woods. The male’s head and back are the color of blue sky.

Grassland bird species found here include the Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarus), and bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). The bobolink, a bird suffering from habitat loss, benefits from Fair Hill’s practice of delaying the harvest of hayfields. Nighttime predators that inhabit the woodlands beside Big Elk Creek include the barred owl (Strix varia) and screech owl (Ostus asio), whose haunting calls can bring a sleepy youth-group camper sitting bolt upright.

Anglers armed with a Maryland fishing license cast their lures into 5 miles of Big Elk Creek, which runs the length of the 5,613-acre area from the Pennsylvania border on the north to Elk Mills near the southern border. Bluegill, redbreast sunfish, smallmouth bass, white sucker, and stocked rainbow and brown trout reward some 2,500 fishermen annually. The state’s largest managed deer hunt (with shotgun) is held in January.

The nonprofit Fair Hill Environmental Foundation, Inc. operates the Fair Hill Nature and Environmental Center on the property, a hub for nature tours for visitors and day camps for children. Groups of youth campers are asked to carry out an environmental project in appreciation for using the campground. Some 200 volunteers help maintain Fair Hill, organize events, and raise money.

Near the center is the Big Elk Creek Covered Bridge, one of just five covered bridges in the state. The bridge was built in 1860 at a cost of just $1,165, then heavily damaged in 1938 and again in 1950 when trucks broke through the flooring. The cost of a 1992 reconstruction was $152,000—130 times the original construction price 132 years earlier. The bridge received the state’s Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Award in 1994.

A Fair Hill brochure, a trail map, and a calendar of events are available at the visitor center.

Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and Museum

[Fig. 16(20)] In the 1700s, the water route between the Delaware River and the port of Baltimore was a long trip south around the Delmarva peninsula. A glance at a map will make obvious why map maker Augustine Herman proposed as early as the mid-1600s building a canal across the narrow 14-mile stretch of land at the northern neck of the peninsula, thereby cutting 300 miles off the voyage.

Construction finally began in 1804. But the proposal was easier imagined than done. Lack of funds and the difficulties of digging through swampy marshlands for meager pay were among the obstacles of completing the project. The dream did not become a reality until the canal was opened for business in 1829 at a construction cost of $2.5 million.

Today, the much-improved C&D Canal is the busiest in the United States and third busiest in the world. Guests at inns and restaurants along the canal watch tankers, barges with tugboats, and small boats navigate up and down the 450-foot-wide waterway. The canal, which is owned by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Civil Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

The C&D Canal Museum at Chesapeake City displays artifacts from the canal’s beginnings. The main attraction is the two-story steam engine—the oldest of its type still in existence—on its original mount. Interactive videos and a television monitor provide current locations of ships in the canal. Within a short walking distance of the museum is a full-size replica of the 30-foot Bethel Bridge Lighthouse. Before 1927, when improvements made the entire canal sea level, the Bethel Bridge Lighthouse was one of many wooden lighthouses along the canal that warned of locks and bridges.

Chesapeake City

[Fig. 16] Picturesque Chesapeake City on the C&D Canal has been featured in Southern Living magazine. The rooftops of the colorful homes are visible from the MD 213 bridge that crosses the canal, dividing the town in two. A side trip into town reveals dozens of restored homes with beautiful gardens, antique and gift shops, art galleries, four bed and breakfast inns, and five restaurants.

Many buildings and houses are steeped in history. Most are located on George Street and Bohemia Avenue, which are on the southern side of the canal and the eastern side of MD 213. The Bayard House Restaurant (circa 1780) at 11 Bohemia Avenue is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Today, visitors can sample both traditional and innovative Eastern Shore fare year-round at a moderate price as they watch boats navigate the canal.

Mount Harmon Plantation

[Fig. 16(21)] This eighteenth-century tobacco plantation is on a peninsula in Back Creek on Cecil County’s southern border. Back Creek is a tributary of the Sassafras River, which enters the Chesapeake Bay some 5.5 miles west of Mount Harmon.

The brick manor house, open to the public for guided tours, was built about 1730 and restored to its early appearance in the 1960s. Driving down the winding, 2-mile entrance lane under a canopy of Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera), the Georgian-style structure finally comes into view—impressive, isolated on a hill, and nearly surrounded by water. "World’s End," it was called on early maps. And it’s no wonder.

More than 200 acres of the plantation are still farmed. Formal boxwood and wisteria gardens have been restored, complete with serpentine brick walls and a fountain. Among many important botanical plantings are 200-year-old English yews (Taxus baccata)—possibly the oldest in the country—located between the boxwood gardens and the plantation house.

The plantation is also a nature preserve. Natural Lands Trust, Inc., a nonprofit land conservation organization, manages the property for the owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Several well-marked nature trails provide access to fields, ponds, and creeks where observant hikers might spot bald eagles that nest in the area. Among the wildflowers on Mount Harmon property is the American lotus or water chinaquin (Nelumbo lutea), cousin to the water lily. The lotus, rare in Maryland, is the largest wildflower in the United States. Its pale yellow, fragrant blossoms extend above the water, sometimes measuring as much as 10 inches across, while its bowl-shaped leaves are 1 to 2 feet wide.

Wildlife and Wildfowl Areas

Several forests and wetlands on the peninsulas of southeastern Cecil County are managed to provide habitat for wildlife and wildfowl. Hikers, bikers, horseback riders, bird watchers, and hunters (seasonally) are permitted to use the unmarked trails in these areas.

In the vicinity of Chesapeake City are four managed hunting areas—Elk Forest (242 acres, 2 miles west of town), Welch Point (77 acres, 6 miles west), Courthouse Point (315 acres, 4 miles southwest), and Bethel (400 acres, just east). Elk Forest and Welch Point are on the north side of the canal, while the other two are on the south side. Hiking and seasonal hunting for waterfowl, squirrel, and deer are offered on all three areas.

The Elk Forest Area, which borders the C&D Canal, has two ponds that attract a variety of songbirds, waterfowl, and wildlife. Courthouse Point is a favorite among bird watchers in February and March when ducks, geese, and swans stop to rest and feed on the expansive mud flats during their spring migration.In addition to the wildlife management areas, Elk Neck Demonstration Forest has 3,500 acres open for recreation.

Earlville WMA

[Fig. 16(22)] This former fish hatchery in southern Cecil County consists of 190 acres managed especially as habitat for game animals such as white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, wild turkey, and bobwhite quail.

Besides the obvious appeal Earlville WMA has for hunters (permit required), it also attracts bird watchers, hikers, and naturalists who enjoy Maryland’s less-developed and less-visited outdoor places. The unmarked trails are open to both hikers and mountain bikers. The Maryland Ornithological Society also conducts a Christmas Bird Count here.

The property is bisected by Cabin John Creek, which flows into the Elk River near its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. Beavers have built several dams along a branch of the creek, backing up water into ponds that are popular with wood ducks. Bobwhite quail—ground-dwelling birds that increasingly are losing their habitat in the East—call their own name on spring and summer mornings from the overgrown fields. When a hiker stops to check a topo map, a rabbit bursts from cover, white tail flagging its getaway route.

Parts of the management practices involve planting new fields beside old abandoned ones and varying strips of short and long grasses. Wildlife thrives in such areas, which offer a mix of food and cover.

Directions: From Cecilton in southern Cecil County at the junction of MD 213 and 282, about 3 miles north of the Kent County line, go west on MD 282 (Grove Neck Road) about 3.5 miles. Turn right on Glebe Road and go about 2 miles. Go left on Fingerboard Schoolhouse Road and travel about 1.5 miles to the area.

Elk Neck Demonstration Forest

[Fig. 16(23)] Elk Neck Demonstration Forest between North East and Elkton is made up of 3,500 acres of forest on poor, sandy soil. Once known as Elk Neck State Forest, Elk Neck was reclassified in 1983 to demonstrate wise forest management to owners of private woodlots. The depleted soil, once subject to frequent fires, is being reclaimed by the state-managed forest. Fortunately for outdoor lovers, the uplands and bottomlands of Elk Neck are also open for recreational use, which includes hiking, archery, shooting, hunting, and primitive camping.

Directions: For the primitive camping area, from MD 213 south of Elkton, go west on US 40 approximately 1.8 miles. Turn left on Old Elk Neck Road and go 3.9 miles. Turn right on Irishtown Road and go 2.3 miles. Turn right into the entrance and go 0.9 mile on graveled Forest Trail 2. Turn right on Forest Trail 1 and go 1.6 miles to the camping area 1C, on the right.

Restaurants of Cecil County

The county’s location at the head of the Chesapeake Bay is reflected in the many fine seafood restaurants here. A few are listed here.

Howard House Restaurant. 101 West Main Street, Elkton. Fine dining in a historic building, circa 1846. Moderate. Phone (410) 398-4646.

Bayard House Restaurant. 11 Bohemia Avenue, Chesapeake City. Sample traditional Eastern Shore cooking with a hint of the Southwest. The restaurant overlooks the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Maryland crab cakes and Eastern Shore crab imperial are favorites. Serving lunch and dinner daily. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (410) 885-5040.

Chesapeake Inn Restaurant & Marina. 605 Second Street, Chesapeake City. Enjoy lunch or dinner overlooking the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Continental cuisine with Italian flare. Accessible by boat. Moderate. Phone (410) 885-2040.

Woody’s Crab House. 29 South Main Street, North East. One of Maryland’s top 10 restaurants for steamed crabs and crab cakes. Voted Best of the Bay in 1997 by Chesapeake Bay Magazine. Features local art, casual atmosphere. Open Mar. through Dec. Moderate. Phone (410) 287-3541.

Fair Hill Inn. Fair Hill, Elkton. Lunch and dinner are served at this old inn (circa 1714), which is on the National Register of Historic Homes. Located at MD 273 and MD 213. Moderate. Phone (410) 398-4187.

Lodging in Cecil County

Cecil County is well equipped with lodging Facilities, including several historic inns. Here are a few suggestions of places to stay:

Comfort Inn. 61 Heather Lane, Perryville. Complimentary continental breakfast, weight room. Moderate. Phone (410) 642-2866 or (800) 228-5150.

Crystal Inn. 1 Center Drive, North East. Close to I-95, Exit 100. Indoor pool and hot tub, microwave and refrigerator in suite, restaurant. Moderate to expensive. Phone (800) 631-3803.

The Mill House. 102 Mill Lane, North East. Built about 1710 for a mill owner and for quarters for his servants, this inn is on the Maryland Register of Historic Sites and is fully furnished with antiques. Moderate. Phone (410) 287-3532.

North Bay Yacht B&B. 9 Sunset Drive, North East. Waterside, marina Facilities. Sailing charters. Moderate. Phone (410) 287-5948.

The Blue Max Inn. 300 Bohemia Avenue, Chesapeake City. This Georgian Federal-style B&B is in the heart of the historical district of a city that was the hub of construction of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Built in 1854, the inn is named for one-time owner Jack Hunter who wrote the bestseller, The Blue Max. Enjoy the spacious porches, fireside dining, and a solarium overlooking a fish pond. Moderate to expensive. Phone (410) 885-2781.

Inn at the Canal B&B. 104 Bohemia Avenue, Chesapeake City. Watch ships and boats from the waterside porch and from three of the rooms. A family that operated tugboats on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal once owned the charming Victorian house. Moderate to expensive. Phone (410) 885-5995.

Ship Watch Inn. C&D Canal, Chesapeake City. Located on the C&D Canal, this inn has contemporary decor and rooms with Jacuzzis. Expensive. Phone (410) 885-5300.

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