Nora Roberts set steamy scenes there. James Michener researched one of his books at a house just outside of its town. Frederick Douglass fought back in one of its fields. Tons of oysters have been shucked along its calm waters and the town folk are mighty proud of their fishing boats and watermen.
We’re talking Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and more specifically St. Michaels. Unlike other Eastern Shore cities and towns such as Easton and Cambridge, St. Michaels is situated on the shore. By the way the birds fly, this historic fishing town of just over a thousand people is about 45 miles east of Washington. With just one bridge over the Chesapeake Bay, the getting there translates to about one hour and forty-five minutes.
As we now know, this hook-shaped drive is more than worth it. Here are the highlights of our visit.
Cherry Street runs from Talbot Street, the town’s main street and only thoroughfare, down to the water. A lovely pedestrian bridge then takes you to the north side of the marina. This waterfront walk is indeed a cherry for marker buffs. Eight historical markers, two of which are new ones made of porcelain enamel, tell some of the town’s history.
War of 1812
Folks who come to these parts hear about how the town “fooled the British” by using lanterns to draw their fire too high. Ralph Eshelman (“A Travel Guide to The War of 1812 Chesapeake”) and others have concluded this is more than likely a myth. Give credit to the marker that notes it is “local lore,” but some other sources still perpetuate the apocryphal story.
Having said that, you’ll forgive the town folk of St. Michaels if they brag about the town’s role in the War of 1812. Washington burned, Alexandria surrendered, and other towns suffered. St. Michaels successfully defended itself twice. Eshelman notes only two places did so – St Michaels and Elkton.
St Michaels is about a mile long but its five small peninsulas provide almost double that in waterfront. Their marina is one of the most attractive we’ve seen.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
$13 admission was a barrier we did not cross, but this museum and its associated buildings looked fabulous. Some reading up found that almost a dozen boats in St. Michaels are listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Bugeyes, skipjacks and log canoes are all a part of the history here.
St. Michaels possesses some fascinating and unique historical geography. Walking around town, it seemed to us the center of gravity is along Talbot between Railroad/Cherry and Canton streets, a four-block stretch with a concentration of shops and activity, shouldered by the above-mentioned places. A few blocks northward, Railroad/Cherry is the north and south designator for Talbot Street.
But the original layout shows the town started further south. Speculator James Braddock laid out the streets around a town green square. I can’t think of another tidewater town that tried this.
St. Michaels Museum
Much to their credit, the town kept the town green. I’m sure their decision to put the museum at its center was controversial, but it doesn’t seem forced or shoehorned.
The museum is comprised of three small buildings. A scattering of trees gives them shade and camouflage. All three were brought in from other locations and live in harmony with the historic residential homes.
One of the museum’s houses is The Chaney House. Here is the website’s primer.
The Chaney House originally stood at 101 S Fremont St. It was built in 1850 by three free African-American brothers – Charles, Samuel, and George Chaney. George was listed as an oysterman and the other two brothers were farm laborers. The house stayed in the Chaney family until 1907, later became a commercial building in an area primarily catering to the black community, and then reverted back to a dwelling. The building is significant because it is one of the few surviving dwellings built for and by laborers from antebellum St Michaels.
In “Frederick Douglass American Hero: And International Icon of the Nineteenth,” author Connie Miller notes that his overseer in St Michaels, Edward Covey repeatedly beat Douglass. At one point, the enslaved teenager fought back, and was never harassed again by Covey. His next overseer showed more kindness. Douglass was sent to Baltimore where he soon escaped to Havre de Grace, and made his way further north.
The town museum offers a guide walking tour for Douglass, but unfortunately we did not have time to take it.
Primacy effects make it difficult to judge all our road trips in a fair manner. But it sure seems St. Michaels is in our top ten and maybe even top five. I’m now engrossed in Michener’s Chesapeake, perhaps the ultimate compliment to this lovely spot on the bay.