Tidewater Day Tripping - December 2010

 

Poking Around Pocomoke City
by
Bonna Nelson

 

We embarked on our Pocomoke City adventure thinking that we could complete a tour of the small historic town in a half day. We arrived just before noon. Our first stop, after driving over the Pocomoke River draw bridge, was the Delmarva Discovery Center (DDC), one of the town’s premier attractions, located next to the river.
We learned from the DDC staff the at a delightful Pocomoke River cruise would depart from their dock at 1 o’clock ad that seats were still available. They encouraged us to take the river cruise then tour the museum to fully experience the wonders of the Delmarva Peninsula waterways, ecosystems, nature and history.
The river cruise sounded appealing and we purchased our tickets but we had a big problem – we were famished! The DDC staff suggested we drive about a mile down Market Street, Pocomoke City’s main street, to the Market Deli for refreshments. The deli was busy with seated patrons and a line at the carry-out gave us concern about getting back to the boat. We explained our situation to the young man who waited on us. He prepared out box lunches quickly and flashed us a smile. We made it back to the dock just in time.
Pocomoke City is located next to the Pocomoke River in Worcester County on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland. Settled in the 1600s and called many names over the years, the current name, Pocomoke City, was adopted in 1878.
The town was a major shipbuilding center from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Even luxury oceangoing vessels and steamships were built there. Known for its traditional Eastern Shore hospitality, Pocomoke City calls itself the “Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore.” And everyone we encountered that day was – friendly, that is.
At the dock, Captain John Riggi helped us aboard the tour boat, Bay Queen, for a relaxing, entertaining and enlightening cruise up and down the Pocomoke River. The fall day was grey, overcast, cool and crisp at 55 degrees. For the comfort of the passengers, the captain prepared the cruiser by putting up a few plastic windows to block the light breeze and provide some protection.
The Bay Queen’s chairs and benches were comfortable and there were enough open windows to catch the views in all directions. While we dined on scrumptious egg salad sandwiches from our box lunches, the tour began with Captain John calling the bridge tender to open the Pocomoke River draw bridge.
The Bay Queen moved away from the dock and turned around to head upstream. We watched as the road traffic stopped and the white ornate metal bridge rose high in the air and split in half, allowing us to pass under.
Tannic acid from the bark, roots and decaying leaves of the bald cypress trees lining the banks of the river gave the water a dark tea-colored tint. Locals say that “Pocomoke” is a Native American word for black water. In the wake of the boat the water had a golden amber hue.
The Captain shared stories mixed with facts about the river as we chugged along at a leisurely pace – 6 miles per hour. The 73-mile river runs from the Great Cypress Swamp at the Maryland/Delaware line, past Snow Hill to Pocomoke Sound at the Chesapeake Bay. Pocomoke City is the point where fresh water from up river begins to mix with salt water from the Bay. The further west the river flows the saltier it becomes. The Pocomoke ranges in depth from 7 to 45 feet, averaging 15 feet. Swimming is discouraged because of the river’s strong currents and deep channels.
The first sight on the right of the river heading northeast is the city’s Cypress Park with playgrounds, picnic areas, tennis, a river walk, boat docks and a walking trail. The park looked peaceful and inviting. It is also the location of town festivals and a weekly flea and farmer’s market. We noticed a few private homes scattered along the river up and down stream but not many because much of the land is protected from development.
The Pocomoke has been designated by the National Environmental Trust as a “Wild and Scenic River.” It is part of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail and is known as the deepest and swiftest tidal river of its width in the United States as it winds through the northernmost cypress swamp in the country.
Further up river beyond the point where the Bay Queen turned around is the Pocomoke River State Forest and Park which is really two parks, Shad Landing Area on the east side and Milburn Landing on the west side of the river.
Captain Riggi pointed to cypress trees lining the shore and mentioned that they love water. Cypress tree roots, called “knees,” grow into the water, anchoring the trees to the bottom. The knees stabilize the trees and the shoreline too. One to three feet in height, the thin knobby knees remind me of a gathering of meerkats guarding the riverbanks. Some of the trees visible along the banks are close to two hundred years old and have an impressive six to eight foot base.
They cypress trees were heavily harvested in the past. Loggers could easily pull the trees down in a row into the water and float them to saw mills downstream. That was before 1500 acres of cypress became protected.
Here and there lily pads floated on the water along the banks in front of the cypress. Called “spatterdock,” they have about a three-foot stalk and are only found in the shallows. They are a key element of the Pocomoke River ecosystem.
“The way it works is that insects are attracted to the lily pads, then amphibians, frogs and such, hop on the spatterdock to eat the insects, and the next thing you know a fish jumps out of the water to eat the frog,” said Captain John.
We turned around to head downstream and had the opportunity to watch the graceful bridge open one more time.
The Captain said that he had spotted five families of resident bald eagles on his river trips west of the bridge. We only spotted one eagle soaring overhead that day along with black vultures gliding on thermals. Herons and egrets stalked the shallows for lunch. Naturalists say that there are over 127 species of birds and waterfowl in the wetlands surrounding the river.
In February, the captain said that he might see as many as 20 eagles a day. Migrant eagles from the north settle on the Pocomoke since it never entirely freezes over in winter, food is still plentiful. The eagles feast on bass, shad, perch, pickerel, gar and trout which also attract fishermen to the Pocomoke.
As we headed west the sun poked through the clouds warming us as we passed some old industrial sites and some new ones as well as a working saw mill. We cruised through the opening of a rusting railroad bridge and passed several barge docks made with cypress trees. Both abandoned now, they remind us of the shipbuilding and commerce activity which once supported Pocomoke City.
We chatted with the Captain and finished our lunch as we headed back to the dock after the pleasant two-hour nature and history cruise.
DDC Executive Director Brian Garrett gave us a special tour of the new cultural and natural heritage museum. A showplace for Pocomoke City, the Center is a journey through Delmarva river ecology and human history and an attraction for all ages. The 16,000 square foot museum in a 1920s era building includes aquariums filled with river fish, reptiles and amphibians, human and natural history dioramas, art galleries, classrooms, conference rooms, changing exhibits, a gift shop and offices. The largest aquarium, a 6,000 gallon exhibit, reflects life in the Pocomoke River. Atlantic sturgeons, perch, bluegills and long nose gars were circling in the tank the day we visited.
Other exhibits that we found intriguing included a recreated cypress swamp and hand-carved waterfowl and songbirds on perches nearby. Like the visiting school children, we were entertained by frogs and turtles cavorting in aquarium tanks.
In the middle of the museum is a steamship diorama. Statuary replicas of a boat captain and mate beckoned us to board the steamship while the story of the ship was relayed at the press of a button. Years ago steamship lines traveled between Baltimore and Pocomoke City transporting tobacco, seafood, produce and other goods as well as passengers. Replicas of the various trades are displayed near the ship.
Brian said that the exhibits are always growing and changing. He showed us a fascinating exhibit of photographs of living Delmarva Native American Indians including voice recordings of their stories. The photographer was giving a lecture at the DDC the following week. The Center offers monthly lectures on topics related to the exhibits.
After the Center we attempted to visit a few other noted sites in Pocomoke City, most within walking distance, including the Sturgis One-Room School and Heritage House, the art-deco Mar-Va Theater Performing Arts Center, the Costen House Museum and other historic houses, churches and buildings. By late afternoon most of the sites had closed. We also missed Cypress Park at the bridge and the Nature and Exercise Trail. The town also offers the opportunity to fish, bike, play tennis, golf, camp, boat, birdwatch, kayak and canoe. Dining, shopping and accommodations are available.
Driving down historic Market Street headed home we concluded that Pocomoke City is a special town that we want to poke around in again to see the sites we missed. We hope to go back for upcoming Pocomoke City events including the annual Christmas Parade on November 29th, the Winter Waterman’s Festival at DDC on December 11th and the Christmas at Costen House event in early December.
Pocomoke City is 35 miles south of Salisbury off Route 13. For more info.: www.cityofpocomoke.com, www.pocomoke.com or call the Chamber of Commerce at 410-957-1919.

Bonna L. Nelson is a Bay area writer, columnist and photographer. With a master’s degree in liberal studies and English, she has taught both memoir and creative writing. The former Social Security Administration Director resides with her husband, John, two dogs, two kayaks and a power boat in Easton, Maryland.