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Maryland: Maritime traditions on a timeless track

Courtesy Calvart County DED

Spend a little bit of time in southern Maryland, and you’ll soon discover that this land was shaped by water.

St. Mary’s County and Calvert County are two of the oldest parts of the state — St. Mary’s was the site of Maryland’s first colony — and they both owe much of their history and culture to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

On the mainland and in islands in the bay, visitors to southern Maryland will find a wealth of attractions related to the area’s waterfront location and maritime heritage. From lighthouses to museums and other points of interest, these spots tell the story of southern Maryland’s love affair with the water.

St. Mary’s County
St. Mary’s County features a variety of maritime attractions, including four lighthouses and a living-history site. Groups can tour three of the lighthouses, which were all designed by the same architect in the 1800s.

One of the most visited lighthouses, Blackistone Lighthouse, sits on St. Clement’s Island, the birthplace of Maryland.

“That’s where Maryland was founded,” said Carolyn Laray, tourism manager for the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic and Community Development. “In 1634, 140 brave souls came over from England and established Maryland. Groups that go out get to see the lighthouse and hear the story about the founding of the state.”

Groups can take a water taxi to see the lighthouse, which was severely damaged by fire in the 1950s. The lighthouse has been restored to its original condition, and visitors can learn about the design of the house and some of the notable characters — including female lighthouse keepers — who have lived there. A museum back on the mainland has more information about the Blackistone light.

Further down the peninsula, the 1938 Piney Point Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the Potomac River. Unlike many other lighthouses, the keeper’s quarters at Piney Point were in a separate building from the light tower. The quarters now house a museum with exhibits on the history of the lighthouse, as well as a skipjack and other vessels that have sailed on the Chesapeake Bay.

Down at the tip of the peninsula, Point Lookout State Park is the home of the Point Lookout Lighthouse. Groups can arrange to tour the 1830 lighthouse.

Visitors will learn more about maritime history and Maryland’s beginnings at Historic St. Mary’s City, a living history site that details the development of the colony.

“There, the landscape is so very much like it was when the colonists first landed,” Laray said. “They have a replica of the Dove, which was one of the first sailing ships that landed there.

“And they have first-person interpretation, so people can hear about what it was like to sail over here and what life was like in Maryland in the 16th century.”

Calvert County
In Calvert County, the authority on all things nautical is the Calvert Marine Museum, which tells the maritime and natural history of Southern Maryland.

“It’s all about how the maritime industry has shaped the cultures of the people along the Chesapeake and the Patuxent River,” said Joyce Stinnett Baki, tourism director for the Calvert County Department of Economic Development. “It has boat building, fishing, commercial shipping and military engagements.

“Calvert County was the site of the largest naval engagement in Maryland waters, during the War of 1812.”

The museum has exhibits on geology and natural history, such as the Calvert Cliffs and fossils, as well as a hall dedicated to the Patuxent River and the people who settled along it.

There are a number of historic fishing and transport vessels on display, and the museum also administers the area’s two lighthouses. The Drum Point Lighthouse sits right on the museum campus, and the Coat Lighthouse is about five miles away.

The museum staff can provide interpreters to take groups through both lighthouses, telling them about their histories and answering questions.

The museum also offers opportunities for groups to get out on the water.

“If you’re there during the spring, summer or early fall, you can ride on the Wm. B. Tennison, which is an oyster buy-boat,” Baki said. “It was built in the late 1800s, and it’s the only Coast Guard certified log-hulled boat of that age.

“It was a sailing vessel in the late 1800s, and it’s been refitted to go out and do hour-long cruises in the river right around Solomon.”

Groups also can venture out on a number of fishing boats or charter yachts that offer cruises. Some sightseeing cruises will take visitors to see other lighthouses farther down the river. Others go out on dinner tours, party cruises or excursions to small towns along the waterfront.

Two parks in the area also have sightseeing options for groups. Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is the site of the large naval battle during the War of 1812. Flag Pond Park is home to the Cliffs of Calvert, and visitors there can take guided walks on the beach with paleontologists or nature experts.

More on Maryland:

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Shots that shattered a nation
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Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.