Dick Cooper - August 2010


The Wye - Hidden Treasure of the Eastern Shore
Dick Cooper


The bald eagle sits stone still near the top of a dead tree at the mouth of Dividing Creek off the Wye East River. Watching through the binoculars, I see him slowly turn his head. Suddenly, he jumps up, and with a few flaps of his long wings, he is soaring over the creek. His shadow skims over the water as he wheels higher and higher on the updrafts. His sharp screech cuts the air.
Just another afternoon at anchor on the prettiest river on the Eastern Shore.
I have sailed the Chesapeake from top to bottom for more than three decades, but I keep coming back to the Wye for a glimpse of what it must have been like before much of the Bay’s waterfront was subdivided to build big homes for the nation’s old and new rich.
The tree line comes down to meet the water along the edges of Wye Island. Deepwater coves offer safe harbor during a summer squall. Open stretches of river funnel steady breezes down the hatches of boats on the hook.
It is hard to imagine that we are less than 30 miles as the crow flies from some of the most densely populated areas in the country. It is even harder to realize that this oasis of solitude is just a few miles from the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 50. We are alone in the cockpit as city-dwellers fight their way to Ocean City, where they have recreated the urban experience on a sandbar.
The headwaters of the Wye are near the factory outlets at the Route 50-301 split. The only view of the river’s reach from Route 50 is the marshland where the forks of Skipton Creek pass under the highway near the SHA overhead traffic alert marquee.
The Wye and Wye East never fail to calm the soul. Even as daylight falls, they have a magical way of turning the pollution over I-95 on the western shore into spectacular sunsets. The sky goes from deep blues and oranges on the horizon, to stunning red back flashes in the overhead. On a good summer day, the sunset off Drum Point can last an hour.
The Wye is not really a river. It, like most of the Eastern Shore rivers, is a tidewater complex of branches, courses and circles.
Its northern and western banks are heavily developed. Ever since the first Bay Bridge opened in 1952, developers have been working long and hard to turn every square foot into dollars. A Google Earth view of that part of the river looks like a dangling cactus, bristling with private docks.
By contrast, The Wye East and Wye Narrows remain rural and agricultural. Corn and bean fields pop out from behind the trees as you sail up the river.
The Wye is one of those Chesapeake treasures that are best experienced by water. There is limited public access by land because most of its banks are privately owned. Wye Island is the exception. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources manages it as a wildlife sanctuary. About six miles of hiking trails lead to secluded coves, beaches and kayak launches.
Sailing into the Wye from the Miles River, you get an immediate sense of the differences between the Wye and the Wye East branches. As you turn to starboard, you leave the clustered mansions to stern and round Bruffs Island (it is now attached but was once an island) and enter Shaw Bay. The bay is a large, almost round cove that is a very popular anchorage for cruising boaters. At night, the anchor lights on a score of boats make it look like a twinkling village. In fact, the southern edge of the bay was to have been Wyetown, a centuries-old subdivision that was platted but not built. A familiar concept, even today.
This has been a special place for a very long time.
Ancient native civilizations inhabited the area, hunting its forests and fishing its waters for more than 13,000 years. The big trees were cleared and fields tilled in the earliest colonial days. African-American slaves built the plantation homes of the landed gentry and labored in the tobacco fields.
The Lloyds, the first among the firsts of Eastern Shore planters, named the Wye for the river that separates England and Wales. Wye House, the mansion on Lloyd Creek, remains in the family to this day. The plantation was also briefly the home of a young Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, the slave who became Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist orator, editor and diplomat. In his memoirs, Douglass had no good things to say about his time in Talbot County.
The 2,800-acre Wye Island has a fascinating history. William Paca, Maryland’s third governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John Beale Bordley, a wealthy lawyer and student of agriculture, were married to sisters Mary and Margaret Chew. In 1770, their wives inherited the island that was divided roughly in half by Dividing Creek. The Pacas received the land west and north of Dividing Creek, and the Bordleys took possession of the eastern half.
Paca was a public figure, holding several colonial and state government positions. Paca’s Annapolis home, the imposing Georgian mansion on Prince George Street, is now operated by the Historic Annapolis Foundation and is open for tours.
Bordley, on the other hand, liked the more remote countryside. For a decade, he farmed in the hinterlands of Baltimore County near Joppa, before moving to Wye Island. He was an agricultural adventurer, planting and nurturing crops other than tobacco, the local staple. Goods shipped from his Wye Island plantation found their way to England and Europe. During the Revolutionary War, Bordley supplied Washington’s troops with provisions and the island was raided by Tories who, in turn, were chased off by the local militia.
For the better part of the next 200 years, Wye Island was a backwater island farm in the deepest recesses of the inaccessible Eastern Shore. According to the DNR, the island was gradually parceled off into smaller farms.
“The most influential owners were Glenn and Jacqueline Stewart,” according to the DNR’s Web site. “Ultimately they owned a majority of the land and turned Wye Island into a cattle ranch. The Stewarts built the hunting lodge (Duck House), which remains today on Granary Creek. In the mid-1970’s the encroaching threat of residential development forced the State of Maryland to purchase the island to ensure its preservation.”
That last sentence is a bit of an understatement. Easton-born developer James Rouse had proposed building a small village of about 750 houses, preserving most of the island for open space and estate homes. After heated debate, the state bought the 2,450 acres of the island.
Now, almost 40 years later, the impact of the state’s purchase stands out as a very fine idea. Each day before dawn, the local watermen run their trotlines along the river bottom, pulling up blue crabs, one dip at a time. The throaty rumble of their diesels is the alarm clock for the cruising fleet lying at anchor.
Even after all of our visits to the Wye, my wife, Pat, and I found yet another great anchorage just east of Pickering Creek. The cove carried nine feet to the shore. Only two other boats made their way that far up the river, and the breezes kept us comfortable all night long.
The eagles seem to appreciate it too as they circle overhead, looking for unsuspecting fish swimming a little too close to the surface, about to become part of the chain of life.


Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, MD. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.