Chesapeake Bay > Southern Maryland > St. Mary's County

St. Mary’s County

An Amish farm boy clutches his hat as he pedals a bicycle down a dusty lane. A woman in a car waves as she passes the plain-clad youngster on her way to work at the technologically sophisticated Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Like much of Maryland’s western Chesapeake Bay, St. Mary’s County has its own dichotomy of cultures, its own seamless melding of past, present, and future.The county occupies Maryland’s southernmost land on the western side of the bay, bordered by the Patuxent River to the northeast and the lower Potomac River to the southwest. The peninsula formed by these two rivers extended southward like a beckoning finger to the early explorers as they headed north past Virginia and took a left turn into the Potomac River.Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)

St. Clement’s Island and Potomac River Museum

[Fig. 11(1)] Called the birthplace of Maryland, St. Clement’s Island was the place Leonard Calvert and his English adventurers first touched Maryland soil. After coming ashore on March 25, 1634, they held the first Roman Catholic Mass of the original colonies. A 40-foot cross was erected three centuries later in 1934 as a reminder of the religious freedom the state’s first colonists were seeking.With its strategic location at the mouth of the Potomac River, 0.5 mile off the coast of St. Mary’s County at Coltons Point, St. Clement’s Island naturally became involved in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Today the island is a state park with hiking trails, picnic tables, information boards, and a boat dock and fishing pier. The park is accessible only by boat.One of the best ways to learn about Maryland’s colonization and the Native Americans who hunted and fished the area prior to the arrival of the English is to visit the Potomac River Museum. Located at Coltons Point, the museum has models of the Ark of London and the Dove, the ships that carried 140 colonists on their four-month voyage across the Atlantic.A country store from 1890 and the Little Red Schoolhouse from 1820 are also on the museum grounds. During the Blessing of the Fleet event on the first full weekend of October, the museum staff provides boat tours of the island.

Historic St. Mary’s City

[Fig. 11(2)] Just two days after they landed at St. Clement’s Island, the English explorers sailed the Ark of London and the Dove up what is now called St. Mary’s River. They were so taken by the lush river valley, they bought an entire village from the Indians along with 30 square miles of land around it and established Maryland’s first permanent settlement, St. Mary’s City. The city served as Maryland’s capital for the next 60 years.Today, visitors can reconstruct in their minds the seventeenth-century town that existed here. They can walk among excavations still in progress and reconstructed buildings at Historic St. Mary’s City, just south of the little college town of St. Mary’s City. The original city was all but forgotten after the capital was moved to Annapolis in 1695.The tour includes Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation, a working farm where museum workers representing the Spray family and their indentured servants explain tidewater farming. Other volunteers, also dressed in period costume, work in the city gardens, sew, interpret Indian culture at the Woodland Indian Hamlet, and help to maintain and sail the Maryland Dove. This working re-creation of the 1630s
square-rigged ship of the colonists is docked on the river below the reconstructed State House of 1676. Farthing’s Ordinary and Garden, constructed to resemble a typical 17th century inn, and Farthing’s Kitchen are favorite stops on the tour.Founded by Roman Catholics in search of religious freedom, St. Mary’s County became the Mother County of Maryland. Not only did the colony practice religious tolerance, but also the colonists proved they could coexist peacefully with Indians. St. Mary’s City witnessed the nation’s first black to attain a governmental position and received the first request for women’s right to vote.

Point Lookout State Park

[Fig. 11(27)] Point Lookout State Park occupies 1,046 acres on a narrow peninsula at the southern tip of St. Mary’s County. The peninsula is formed by the Chesapeake Bay on the east side and the mouth of the Potomac River on the west.A drive down to the point reveals the saltwater focus of this park. To the right is a launch area on salty Lake Conoy, giving canoeists flat water to explore and giving boaters access to the tidal Potomac River and to the Chesapeake Bay via the Potomac. On the left, a popular pier juts 710 feet into the productive fishing waters of the bay. Continuing down the narrowing strip of land, a causeway lined with huge boulders, or riprap, to protect the shore from erosion provides anglers another access point to good fishing waters. From the riprap, fishermen cast spoons and plugs for rockfish and bluefish, while others in small boats cast toward shore for fish that are attracted to the rocks.On the right of the causeway is a picnic area and public beach. At the peninsula’s tip, where the waters of the Potomac finally spill into the bay, is the Point Lookout Lighthouse, built in 1830. Unlike the traditional tower-shaped lighthouses, this one is a small house with a lantern on a rooftop. Except for an occasional open house, the lighthouse is closed to the public. Near the public restrooms and kiosks is one accessible part of the old lighthouse—a tiny, brick outbuilding used by the former keeper of the lighthouse.But life has not always been so placid at Point Lookout. Today a family opens a picnic basket, pitches a tent or watches a cattle egret take flight where Civil War soldiers were once held prisoner and where smallpox victims and Union soldiers were hospitalized. Some 52,000 Confederate soldiers passed through the Point Lookout prison camp during the war. The point offered a natural barrier to escape.Scant evidence remains to remind a visitor of the agony of war. Two obelisks stand on MD 5 near the park entrance in memory of the 3,384 who died while imprisoned under deplorable conditions. Despite the risk of being housed with highly contagious patients, some prisoners faked smallpox so they could be sent to the nearby hospital where they might try to escape. Today, the gentle slap of waves on the swimming beach and the feel of sand beneath bare feet are more akin to the peace this retreat afforded in the early 1800s, before the war and before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 which spurred the construction of the prison. During the summer, the park operates a visitor center with a small Civil War museum and a nature center. Evening campfire programs expand on the human and natural history of the point.Fishing and crabbing are allowed at two smaller piers and at designated areas on both the river and bay side of the park. Anglers on the Potomac side of the shoreline do not need a fishing license. Swimming is permitted only at the beach/picnic area. Special events such as Civil War re-enactments, "ghost walks," and other interpretive programs entertain park visitors throughout the year. Leashed pets are allowed only at specified campsites, on the causeway, and on the beach north of the causeway.During the summer, cruises are available from the park to Smith Island. The cruise boat docks next to the camp store, where anglers can find bait and gear for crabbing or fishing.

Trails of Point Lookout State Park

Hiking trails are limited at Point Lookout to the short Periwinkle Point Trail (named for the periwinkle snail found here) and the Railroad Trail. Both are out and back hikes on flat land, heading in opposite directions from the same trailhead at the visitor center. At the trailhead, go left 0.25 mile to Periwinkle Point on Lake Conoy and back. Or, go right 0.5 mile and back for the Railroad Trail.If a hiker on the Railroad Trail imagines hearing the whistle of a steam engine in the birdsong along this old railroad bed, it’s just the product of an overactive imagination. Trains and tracks never made it to Point Lookout, although there were major plans to extend train travel from the nation’s capital at Washington, D C, all the way to the point to avoid the more lengthy water route. Following the Civil War, plans were finalized and the bed was cleared. Farther north, workers laid tracks and trains began to operate, including a regular run by the U. S. Navy during World War II. But the railroad continually changed hands, delaying construction. Finally the national decline of railroads spelled the end of this one, too. Hikers and bird watchers finally became the first people to use the railroad bed on the southern end cleared so long ago.Small ditches on either side of the raised bed usually hold marshy water and breed mosquitoes and other biting insects. A good bug repellent is a must during warm weather. If these two short trails leave you wanting more, the flat, easy roads of the campground loops lead through maritime forests and marshes with more opportunities to spot wildlife, wildflowers, birds, and reptiles.The finger of Point Lookout points the way south for fall migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway. September and October are the best months for bird watchers to add new varieties to their sightings lists.The woods harbor red foxes, white-tailed deer, opossums, and cottontail rabbits. Quiet visitors may surprise a raccoon raiding a duck’s nest for eggs. Often, when animals are not seen, droppings, tracks, and burrows in the sand or wet marsh may tell of their presence. Look for the mud holes of fiddler crabs and tiny tracks in the sand from the broad-headed skink or ground skink. Listen for the guitar string "k’tunk" of the green frog or the sudden croak of a great blue heron as it rises from the marsh. Biologists believe there may even be a state endangered nocturnal species here called the Eastern narrow-mouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis), which hides under rocks and logs. Several varieties of turtles reside at or visit Point Lookout including the Eastern box turtle, common snapping turtle, Eastern painted turtle, Eastern mud turtle, northern diamond-backed terrapin, the federally threatened loggerhead sea turtle, and the federally endangered Kemp’s (Atlantic) ridley sea turtle. Both the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and the ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtles gained federal protection in the 1970s, following overharvesting of the reptiles and their eggs, disruption of habitat, and fishnet drownings.Throughout much of the campground and around the visitor center, a prolific reed grass called phragmites (Phragmites australis) astounds visitors with its beauty, while annoying park personnel with its persistence and dominating nature. The reeds form dense stands in marshes, choking out the competition, offering little food for wildlife, and spreading by means of roots or rhizomes up to 30 feet long. In late summer, flower heads composed of feathery plumes of silky hairs undulate in the wind.

Trails: Periwinkle: 0.5-mile easy round trip from visitor center to Lake Conoy and back. Railroad: 1-mile easy round trip from visitor center along old railroad bed and back.

Smith Island Cruises

A cruise ship is available each Wednesday through Sunday during the summer months to take tourists to Smith Island, a serene land accessible only by boat. A boat departs from the state park at 10 a.m. and returns at 4 p.m. See Somerset County in Eastern Shore for a description of Smith Island.

Piney Point Lighthouse Museum and Park

[Fig. 11(3)] The Piney Point Lighthouse is one of just four lighthouses still in existence on the Potomac River. Its fixed Fresnel beacon, which could be seen for 11 miles, was housed in a classic tower structure. The brick lighthouse was constructed in 1836 approximately 14 miles upriver from the Chesapeake Bay and retired by the U. S. Coast Guard in 1964.Sometimes called the Lighthouse of Presidents, Piney Point has been visited by James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and many other presidents and dignitaries. The lighthouse is on the grounds of a 6-acre park with a museum, boardwalk, gift shop, and picnic facilities. The museum depicts the history of Piney Point and other Chesapeake Bay lights.History exhibits include information about the Black Panther Historic Shipwreck Preserve 1 mile offshore. The Black Panther was a German submarine that now serves as Maryland’s first underwater park on the bottom of the Potomac. The submarine was taken into United States possession during World War II, sunk off Point No Point in the Chesapeake Bay by a demolition team in 1948, then raised and moved to its present location off Piney Point in 1949.

Patuxent River Naval Air Museum

[Fig. 11(5)] Located at Lexington Park, the Patuxent Naval Air Museum presents the history of the United States Navy’s aviation research and development, testing, and evaluation since 1911. Just east of Lexington Park is the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, employer of some 16,000 people. The cupola from the Cedar Point Lighthouse, built in 1896, that stood abandoned on an eroding jut of land in the Chesapeake Bay on the east side of the naval air station, is now located on museum grounds. It is not open to the public.

St. Mary’s River State Park

[Fig. 11(6)] St. Mary’s River State Park has a split personality. Two tracts of land make up the park, one with 250-acre St. Mary’s Lake as the focal point and one with 2,200 acres of Maryland undeveloped wild lands. Both sections of the park are located in St. Mary’s County between MD 5 and MD 235 and between Leonardtown and Lexington Park. The lake and the wild lands are about 0.5 mile apart, separated by a stretch of private land and MD 471.The Western Branch of St. Mary’s River was dammed in the 1970s for flood control, forming a popular freshwater fishing lake. The denuded trunks of hardwood trees that grew in the former river valley poke above the lake surface and are fantastic fish attractors. Today, anglers cast popping bugs into the shallows or play deep-running crankbaits for trophy largemouth bass in the dark green waters. Chain pickerel, crappie, bluegill, and sunfish are also available both to the angler and the occasional predatory bald eagle. Bulletin boards at the boat launch area list current regulations. Electric trolling motors up to one horsepower may be used but gasoline motors are prohibited. Camping, swimming, and fires are also banned.A well-used trail around the lake gives boat-less anglers access to the entire 11.5-mile perimeter of the lake. The imprints of horses’ hooves and mountain bike tires indicate other popular uses of the trail.In the wild lands section of the park, men and women with bow and arrow or firearms still pursue rabbit, squirrel, and white-tailed deer on the same stretch of the St. Mary’s River where tribes of Indians such as the Algonquins, Piscataway-Conoy, and the bellicose Susquehannocks once hunted. An alert hunter or hiker sometimes finds evidence of early life along the river in the form of arrowheads, axe heads, or pottery. Runoff from a heavy rain can uncover relics from as far back as 3000 B.C.Swamp and marsh habitat characterize the river and its tributaries in the central and northern part of the wild lands area. The main river is enlarged at the southern tip of the wild lands area by the western branch tributary, flowing in from St. Mary’s Lake. The St. Mary’s River empties a 5,600-acre watershed that, before the flood-control lake was created, could and did flood the town of Great Mills regularly. The town took its name from the numerous mills that harnessed the river’s power. Cecil’s Old Mill (on MD 5 at Great Mills), listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is the last water mill in St. Mary’s County. Originally constructed as a textile mill for long-since failed cotton fields, the mill now sells local arts and crafts.

Greenwell State Park

[Fig. 11(28)] Two bay horses stand in the shade of a white barn, switching their tales. On both sides of the long, dusty lane leading to Rosedale Manor House, yellow-green fields of soybeans soak up the afternoon sun. Driving down the entrance lane to Greenwell State Park, visitors might be able to imagine themselves arriving more than a century ago by horse and buggy at this grand manor house.The park is part of a 4,000-acre tract formerly called Resurrection Manor that was one of Maryland’s oldest land grants. Lord Baltimore made the grant to Thomas Cornwayles in 1650 in appreciation of Cornwayles’s service as president of the Provincial Council.Located on a bluff above the scenic Patuxent River, the manor house that was built by a later owner in the 1830s remains as a focal point of today’s park. The house is on Maryland’s list of historic properties. The most recent owners of the manor house, John Philip Greenwell Jr. and his sister, Mary Wallace Greenwell, donated their 177-acre farm for use as a state park, with special emphasis on facilities for the physically challenged. The State of Maryland bought an adjacent farm to add to the Greenwell donation to form the current 576-acre park.Huge red oaks, pin oaks, red cedars, hackberry trees, ginkgoes, magnolias, and walnuts planted by a former owner now shade the picnic area and grounds around the house. Behind the house is a pier reaching into the Patuxent River where people can crab and fish. Swimming is permitted on a nearby beach. Boaters may also launch canoes or kayaks or other nonmotorized craft on the beach to explore the river shoreline. One area of woods is set aside in fall for hunting.

Hiking Trails of Greenwell State Park

Five trails, named for the color of their blazes, skirt fields of crops and lead into woods where hikers may get a glimpse red or gray foxes, cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, and groundhogs. The Orange Trail is described below.

The wooded White Trail begins across the road from a small parking area located on Steerhorn Neck Road about halfway between MD 245 and the park entrance road. The Gray Access trailhead is on the left side of the entrance road near the entrance and leads to the Blue, Red, Yellow, and White trails. Each trail is shaped like a lasso, with the same beginning and end, and with a loop at the far end. A current park map may be helpful, as trail colors are sometimes changed.

Orange Trail. Beginning beside a paddock and barn, the Orange Trail is a guided nature walk with weathered signs that are getting increasingly difficult to read. The path leads to a patch of deciduous forest, makes a loop around the woods, touches the Patuxent River shoreline, and then returns by the same trail to the parking lot. Often, a transition area between field and woods is a good place to spot animals that use the woods for cover, venturing into the field to eat. Ducks may glide out from shore in the wetlands of the trail.

In spring and summer, the bright flash of an azure bird may draw your attention to the bluebird boxes along the trail. In fall, look for pokeweed loaded with crimson berries, bright yellow tickseed sunflowers, and a path strewn with the dark husks of walnuts. The Christmas smell of cedar and the red berries of American holly lend their color to a winter hike.The parking lot for the trailhead is located on the right side of the entrance road, just before the first side road to the right. The trailhead is on the left side of the road. Check with the park for any possible rerouting of this trail.

Sotterley Plantation

[Fig. 11(29)] This plantation house, built in 1717, is the earliest known post-in-ground structure in the country. It is supported by cedar timbers driven into the ground rather than by a traditional foundation. The intricate latticework, Chippendale staircase, and shell alcoves inside are fine examples of period woodwork. The house has been continually occupied and the land has been a working plantation from the start.Situated on the scenic Patuxent River, Sotterley was well positioned to become a colonial port of entry and tobacco plantation. Of interest on the grounds are a tobacco shed, a smokehouse where country hams are still cured, and restored slave quarters. The colorful past of Sotterley includes governors and gamblers, and enslaved and later free African Americans.

Beaches in St. Mary’s County

Several public beaches provide access to the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries in St. Mary’s County. There are also beaches at Greenwell, Point Lookout, and St. Mary’s River state parks.

Elm’s Beach, Forest Road, Dameron. [Fig. 11(7)] This beach in the southern part of the county features picnic tables, a swimming beach, a pavilion, and portable toilets. There is no running water. Open daily Apr. 15 through Oct. 31. Pedestrian access to beach year-round. Phone (301) 475-4572.

St. Inigoes Landing. [Fig. 11(8)] This beach, also in the southern part of the county, is located at the end of Beachville Road at the southern end of St. Inigoes Neck. It is southwest of St. Inigoes and MD 5. A boat ramp offers access to St. Mary’s River. There is a pier and picnic area. Open dawn to dusk (does not apply to boaters). Phone (301) 475-4572.

Myrtle Point Park. [Fig. 11(9)] Located off MD 4 at the eastern end of Patuxent Beach Road in California, Myrtle Point Park has walking trails, a beach, and picnic tables. Open dawn to dusk. Phone (301) 475-4572.

Wicomico Shores Landing, MD 234, Army-Navy Drive, Chaptico. A ramp at Wicomico Shores Landing in the western corner of St. Mary’s County gives boaters access to the Wicomico River. There is also a pier, a beach, a picnic area, and a gazebo on this state scenic river. The area opens at 6 a.m. Closing time varies according to season. Closed Nov. through Mar. Phone (301) 475-4572.

Restaurants in St. Mary’s County

Here are a few of many fine restaurants in St. Mary’s County that serve fresh Chesapeake Bay seafood.

Scheibel’s Restaurant. MD 5, Wynne Road, Ridge. Fresh seafood, steaks, and chicken. Waterfront dining. Open May through Oct. Inexpensive. Phone (301) 872-5185.

Still Anchors at Dennis Point Marina. Dennis Point Way, Drayden. Steamed crabs, steaks, seafood. Waterfront and outside dining. Closed Mondays. Moderate. Phone (301) 994-2288.

Ye Olde Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlour. Washington Street,
Leonardtown. Home-cooked meals, steak, seafood, sandwiches, and Eat Smart Menu. Open Monday through Saturday. Inexpensive. Phone (301) 475-3020.

Clarkes Landing Restaurant. Clarkes Landing Road, Hollywood. Fresh seafood, steak, steamed crabs. Waterfront dining, outside dining. Open daily Memorial Day through Sept. Inexpensive. Phone (301) 373-8468.

Lodging in St. Mary’s County

Planning ahead is a good idea for those staying overnight in St. Mary’s County. Because of the county’s rural character, inns and motels tend to be a little hard to locate. The county can provide a complete listing. Here are a few suggestions.

Bard’s Field of Trinity Manor. Pratt Road, Ridge. This historical waterfront house (1798) is an example of Tidewater architecture. It has fireplaces in the living and dining rooms and features access to boating, fishing, crabbing, bird-watching. Moderate. Phone (301) 872-5989.

Swann’s Hotel/Inn. MD 249, Piney Point. 12 rooms, 3 cottages, lounge. Moderate. Phone (301) 994-0774.

A&E Comfort Hotel. MD 246, Lexington Park. 35 rooms, discounts offered. Moderate. Phone (301) 863-7411.

Patuxent Inn. MD 235, Lexington Park. Lounge and restaurant, continental breakfast, two lighted tennis courts, jogging trail, outdoor pool. Moderate. Phone (301) 862-4100.

Super 8 Motel. MD 235, California. Continental breakfast. Pets accepted. Inexpensive. Phone (301) 862-9822.

Charlotte Hall Motel. MD 5, Charlotte Hall. Outdoor pool. Near restaurants. Moderate. Phone (301) 884-7411.

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