Tidewater Day Tripping - December 2007
A Tilghman Island Trek
Bonna L. Nelson
The trek began as they usually do, meandering down a flat winding Eastern Shore road, Route 33, St. Michaels Road, past small towns and villages with quaint names like Newcomb, Royal Oak, Rio Vista and past the popular town of St. Michaels, fairly quiet on a late fall day. There were wisps of cloud puffs in a hazy, pale blue sky and the sun shimmered on glimpses of water where the peninsula occasionally narrowed.
Between brown soybean and cornfields guarded by white pines, cedars, maples, locust and oaks were signs pointing to more little towns and villages; Bozman, Neavitt, McDaniel, Claiborne, Lowe’s Wharf and Sherwood (sights for future treks?). I traveled past marinas, farms, meadows, marshland, abandoned barns and silos, and a few cyclists on that glorious day.
Tilghman Island is 24 miles from Easton and about 11 miles west of St. Michaels, Maryland. Once past St. Michaels I felt like I had entered another world, a quieter world, an easy world, a world the way the world used to be when we were kids, or, maybe, the way we remember the world being then. There were very few cars or people along the road. I noticed that I was sinking further down into the driver’s seat, relaxing and breathing deeply. I loosened my grip on the steering wheel. It reminded me of the feeling my parents used to talk about when they traveled from the Western Shore to the Eastern Shore many years ago. Once they got over the Bay Bridge they would put their workaday cares behind them, let out a deep sigh, and relaxed. I guess those who can make it over the congested Bay Bridge these days do the same thing.
Shortly after passing Sherwood, I approached the Knapps Narrows Bridge, a steel and concrete drawbridge, gateway to Tilghman Island. The bridge operates like a seesaw with one end counterbalanced by the other with weights and is raised full height on the Sherwood side. Boaters needing the bridge tender to open the bridge must blow on their horns three times.
The island’s only stoplight is at the bridge, stopping cars before the bridge is raised. The bridge’s midshore location may account for it being one of the most active drawbridges in the world, opening between 10,000 and 15,000 times a year for work and pleasure boat traffic.
Tilghman Island, a popular destination for sports fishermen heading out to the surrounding waters, boasts the Chesapeake Bay to the west, Harris Creek to the east, the Choptank River to the south, and Knapps Narrows to the north. According to J. K. Keatley in The Place Names of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the island was named in 1775 by its then owner, Matthew Tilghman, known as the Patriarch of Maryland. Tilghman was one of the key political figures in the state during and after the American Revolution. Tilghman Island forms the southern portion of what is known as the Bay Hundred Peninsula.
Curious about the Bay Hundred place name, I went to the St. Michaels Library and, with the courteous assistance of the staff, I found the above mentioned book and this explanation:
Bay Hundred is the easternmost finger of the [Talbot] county’s storied Chesapeake Bay peninsula, bordered by Harris Creek and the Bay. Hundred was an old British term used to designate subdivisions within a county, much like the more contemporary “district.” The English used the word hundred because land was often sectioned off into 100 acre blocks or contained 100 farms or settlers.
I noticed work boats, pleasure boats and a few fishermen along the banks of the rippling Narrows as I drove over the slender bridge and entered the quaint watermen’s town. Some people call Tilghman paradise and many know the tranquil island as a place to enjoy fishing, hunting, bird watching, eco touring, paddling, sailing, boating, walking, biking, painting, and dining for a day, weekend, week or more.
I took the first left after the bridge, Chicken Point Road, to meet up with my Tilghman Island hosts, Kelley and Jerry Cox at the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC) and Dockside Express, Ltd. Kelley, a native of Tilghman Island and a natural resources biologist, inherited the Knapps Narrows waterfront property from her grandparents. Kelley is a Phillips, one of the traditional watermen families of Tilghman Island. Her mother’s home, where Kelley, grew up, is just across the Narrows from PWEC.
Jerry was raised nearby on Hooper’s Island, a descendant of a schooner captain. Jerry spent years operating and designing research vessels for the State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The Coxes rebuilt the storm-damaged pier, renovated an old crab shanty on the pier, and established the non-profit educational organization, PWEC, to provide hands-on experiences with Chesapeake Bay marine life, animals and plants onsite and at schools and festivals. PWEC is dedicated to promoting the stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystems and preserving the history of the area and the heritage of the Chesapeake Bay waterman.
Before I could steady my camera, Kelley was holding a large squiggly horseshoe crab plucked from one of the several touch tanks located next to the crab shanty and discussed its anatomy, mating habits, reproductive capabilities, medicinal uses and overharvesting. I learned that they have 10 eyes, 6 pairs of legs, lay 8,000 eggs, live 30 to 50 years, and live and mate in the Bay in May and June.
In the next tank we eyed the spotted flounder, a Bay bottom feeder, with an eye on each side of its flat, gray body. Oysters and oyster spat resided in a nearby touch tank, and there were baby terrapin to pet too.
Inside the shanty are aquariums. The Coxes have rigged up a pumping system so that the tanks contain bay water pumped in from the Narrows. White perch, oyster toads, snapping turtles, baby fish and baby horseshoe crabs, the size of a thumbnail, greeted me there. In another aquarium, saltwater hermit crabs change shells several times a day. Kelley shared her knowledge of the anatomy, habits and habitats of each of the Bay area critters. She said that they are looking for volunteers and donors to help PWEC offer more tours and to get into more classrooms.
I heard a boat engine revving up outside and found Captain Jerry readying the Dockside Express, a 50-foot, 49-passenger touring boat, and we were off for an ecotour of Tilghman Island by water. Both the hands-on exhibits and the ecotours allow visitors to learn about the animals and plants of the Bay, to learn how the Bay is affected by human activity and natural phenomena and what we can do to improve its quality.
As we motored out toward Dogwood Harbor, Kelley and Jerry pointed out sights of interest. The boat includes an observation deck to watch the watermen at work as well as interpretive signage about marine life and working on the water. Kelley mentioned that Captain John Smith was the first to chart the island in 1608. The island comprises about 1300 acres, measures about 3 miles long by 1 mile at its widest, and has a population of about 1,000.
We passed a waterman on his workboat checking his buoy-marked crab pots for blue crabs, stacked baskets onboard hopefully awaiting the day’s catch. Berthed at the Harbor, sails snapping in the wind, sat the famous Rebecca T. Ruark. The 1886 skipjack is said to be the oldest working authentic skipjack and one of the largest and fastest. Captain Wade H. Murphy, Jr. waved to us as he readied the ship to take a group on a sailing tour to demonstrate how the skipjack dredged the Bay for oysters. No baskets awaited his catch, but stories and sea tales were waiting to be told. Dogwood Harbor is also home to many local watermen’s vessels.
Further down on Harris Creek, past Harrison’s Chesapeake Hotel, Restaurant and Marina and its fleet of sports fishing boats, sits the newer community of Tilghman on the Chesapeake, retiree and second-home haven. Formerly the Tilghman Island Packing Company, the point made of oyster shells now has a clubhouse, pool and marina with a growing housing development, its fourth phase across the main street on the Bay side.
In addition to captaining the Dockside Express for tours and parties, Captain Jerry told me that he takes families out on his 25’ boat for half-day crabbing cruises. The large and small boats are both used for sunset cruises and eco cruises. He said that vacationers love to catch crabs using chicken necks or bulls’ lips. Yes, folks, get your bulls’ lips and catch your crabs!
We turned around in Harris Creek and headed back to the Narrows for a run out to the Bay. Jerry tooted his horn three times for the keeper to open the bridge. As we rode down the Narrows we passed watermen cleaning fish pound nets with high pressured hoses on one of the docks. The pound nets, used since the time of the Native Americans, get fouled by organic beings, algae, barnacles, etc. and water can’t get through them to keep the impounded fish healthy. Later on our tour we saw the pound nets set up in the Bay on poles near the shore. Watermen must be licensed to own pound nets for live fish entrapment.
One of the last surviving watermen’s communities in the country, Tilghman Island is still home to commercial fishing boats, crabbing boats, hydraulic clam boats, and oystering vessels. You’ve got to be down at the docks pretty early in the morning to watch the watermen leave for a day of trolling on the Bay, rivers and inlets.
The Knapps Narrow Bridge hovered vertically above us as we passed under and traveled down the Narrows. On the right Kelley pointed out Back Creek, one of many peaceful, quiet coves to kayak or canoe on Tilghman. The Creek was lined with tall marsh grasses. Heron stalked fish near the shore and a late-to-migrate osprey screeched at us for nearing its nest high on a pole at the Creek entrance.
Boats, kayaks and canoes can be rented at marinas on Tilghman or you can bring your own to travel one of the ten newly identified Tilghman Island Water Trails. Some of the designated water trails are protected and calm, like Back Creek; others are in the more open waters of the Bay and the Choptank River for experienced paddlers. Paddlers may see schools of fish, rays, skates, dolphins, turtles, waterfowl and shorebirds, and maybe small mammals while exploring.
Out in the Bay near the Island’s western shore, we drifted around the pound nets and over a school of menhaden fish. We spotted pelicans, seagulls, cormorants, terns, and osprey diving and splashing at the fish feast. Jerry said that at the southernmost end of Tilghman Island on Black Walnut Point migratory swan, geese and ducks stop to rest, as do monarch butterflies, a spectacular sight to see. There is also an inn and a 50-acre wildlife sanctuary.
Back on the PWEC dock I thanked Kelley and Jerry and promised to return for one of their sunset champagne cruises. Next, I hopped in the car to explore Tilghman on my own. After passing several marinas, restaurants, shops, inns, B&Bs and homes, I passed the handsome new firehouse, elementary school, and library. At this location the residents of picturesque Tilghman Island host the popular Tilghman Island Summer Seafood Festival in June and Tilghman Island Day Festival in October. Visitors enjoy music, crafts, contests and especially the delicious local seafood.
I passed farm fields, churches and more homes before arriving at a spot on the southern end of the island. There behind a chain link fence stood a US Naval Research Laboratory where signs indicated that electro-optic research was underway. Next to the lab is a large parking lot and a seawall. There, the naval research didn’t seem to bother the dozen or so fishermen and women lined up at the popular public fishing area, as they pulled in one white perch after another from the Bay. They told me that in addition to good fishing the sunsets there are magnificent.
Hunger pangs sent me back down the main drag, Tilghman Island Road, saving Black Walnut Point at the southernmost tip for another trip. I was craving a crab cake and stopped at Harrison’s Chesapeake House, where I was treated to a plump, well-seasoned crab cake with ample sides of green beans and coleslaw and homemade rolls. Iced tea was served to quench my thirst as I relaxed in the quiet, dimly lit restaurant overlooking Dogwood Harbor and Harris Creek and watched the work boats and sports fishing boats traveling in and out of the harbor and marina. Seagulls flew overhead hoping for a piece of the day’s catch.
I’ll return again soon for an oyster feast, an overnighter at a B&B, to kayak, and to browse the gift shops and book store, before taking that sunset cruise. Oh, and then there is Black Walnut Point, crabbing and fishing…
For more information about PWEC: www.docksidexpress.com or 1-888-312-7847; about Tilghman Island: www.tilghmanmd.com or the Talbot County Office of Tourism at 410-770-8000. The Tourism Office also has copies of the Tilghman Island Water Trail brochure for paddlers.