So named because it abuts the eastern margin of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland’s Eastern Shore is endowed with scores of inlets, bays, rivers, and canals. Even the livelihoods (farming and fishing) and pastimes (hunting and sailing) of those who live here reflect the Eastern Shore’s age-old interplay between land and water.
1. Chesapeake City
Beginning at the town of Elkton, the drive cruises south on Rte. 213 toward Chesapeake City, or Canal Town, as it is known locally. There the highway soars across a bridge high above the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which connects the Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware Bay—a shortcut to the Atlantic Ocean. Completed in 1829, the waterway saves oceangoing vessels a 300-mile journey south, then north, around the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Chesapeake City itself consists of a restored tavern, general store, and pastel saltbox houses where canal builders once lived. At the edge of town, near an inlet dotted with sailboats, the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Museum houses a fine collection of canal memorabilia. The museum is perched right on the bank of the canal, and visitors can watch giant barges led by tugboats and ocean freighters ply the placid waters.
Continuing south, Rte. 213 swings through cool woods and rolling hills, past farmhouses and fields of wheat and corn. As far back as the 17th century, English planters tended tobacco plantations here, using their profits to build gracious mansions and spending their leisure hours caring for their racehorses and hunting foxes.
Even today, racehorses are an ongoing “industry” in this part of Maryland. The 10,000-acre Maryland Lands Trust, one of the largest land preservation areas on the Eastern Shore, is home to a number of horse farms (as well as agricultural farms) and more than 1,000 of the nation’s most prized Thoroughbreds. They have included such equine luminaries as Kelso, Northern Dancer, Bet Twice, and other world-class equestrian champions.
The drive glides along Rte. 213 through Colonial villages such as Georgetown, Locust Grove, and Kennedyville, passing over tidal streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay to the west. Farther along, the entrance to Chestertown is signaled by a compound of brick edifices known as Washington College (named for the first president, who visited here in 1784 and donated 50 guineas towards its establishment). The handsome 18th-century village features sycamore-shaded streets, gardens trimmed with boxwood, and an inn more than two centuries old. Pre-Revolutionary houses built by well-to-do merchants face the Chester River, best viewed by walking across the Chester River Bridge. Down by the waterfront near the customs house, a historic moment took place in 1774 when townsfolk, disgusted with the British tax on tea, dumped a large shipment into the water. This patriotic act (reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party of 1773) is commemorated by residents each May with a Colonial-style parade.
3. Wye Mills
Traffic often crowds Rte. 213 as it nears the turnoff for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which links the Eastern Shore with Annapolis and Washington, D.C. After gliding by thickets of pine interspersed with wetlands, the drive crosses Rte. 50 and joins up with narrow Rte. 662.
Driving south, you’ll soon enter the crossroads of Wye Mills, where visitors can tour the 18th-century Wye Mill that lent the town its name. The mill once supplied cornmeal to George Washington’s hungry troops at Valley Forge during the frigid winter of 1778.
4. Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area
As a side trip, drive west on Rte. 50 a few miles, then follow signs to the turnoff south to Wye Island Natural Resources Management area, located in the tidal rescesses of the Chesapeake Bay between the Wye and the Wye East rivers. It is a prime spot to observe migratory waterfowl and shore birds in their native habitats.
Returning to Rte. 662, the drive takes what seems to be an indecisive course, weaving its way back and forth across Rte. 50—the Main Street of the Eastern Shore, with the traffic to prove it—on its way south to the town of Easton, which dates to Revolutionary times.
Clapboard houses and white picket fences line narrow, shady streets in Easton, gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. For a scenic detour that offers a wind-in-the-hair view of the bay, ramble down Rte. 333 to Oxford.
Once rivaling Annapolis among pre-Revolutionary ports, Oxford saw many tons of tobacco and grain (and, on a somber note, slaves and convicts) pass through its customs house. A replica of the original building stands down by the Tred Avon River, where the landing for the Oxford–Bellevue Ferry (nine-car limit) beckons to travelers. (A ferry has operated here since 1683; the first owner accepted tobacco for fares.) On the other side, motor up to the picturesque village of St. Michaels, whose harbor on the Miles River is crowded with sleek yachts. For a detailed view of the town’s seagoing legacy, visit the famed Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum; it features everything from an old lighthouse and waterfowl decoys to historic bay boats.
Follow Rte. 33 down the narrow neck of land known locally as Bay Hundred Peninsula to Tilghman Island, connected to the mainland by a tiny drawbridge. Here you get a wide-angle view of the vast blue-gray waters of the Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary. Crab huts are scattered here and there on the windblown island’s shores, home to hardy fishermen who for generations have sought blue crabs, oysters, clams, and other treasures in the bay’s salty depths. After sampling the local harvest transformed into such succulent delights as crab cakes and soft-shell crab sandwiches (or eaten steamed), backtrack to Easton on Rte. 33 and head south on Rte. 50 into Cambridge.
This old port dates from the 1680s, but the earliest buildings that survive here are the elegant Georgian- and Federal-style homes that line High Street. The street slopes down to the town wharf, which commands a beautiful view of the Choptank River. Eight miles southwest of town, poised serenely on the banks of Church Creek, lies the Old Trinity Episcopal Church, erected in the late 1600s. Built with money from the royal pocketbook, this brick chapel (one of the nation’s oldest in continuous use) is surrounded by a fascinating old graveyard.
7. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
In a land obsessed with goose hunting, where marksmanship is highly esteemed and decoys decorate mailboxes, migrating geese are in need of a safe haven. Consequently, each year legions of these birds flock to the enormous Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, where they can hide out in peace. The maze of marshy channels and woodlands provides a year-round home for many other birds as well. For a close-up view, take the sinuous five-mile Wildlife Drive into the heart of the preserve, which recalls the tidewater scenery witnessed by Eastern Shore settlers some three centuries ago.
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