Chesapeake’s Hidden Treasure

St. Michaels Charms Visitors

Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:59pm

St. Michaels, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is the kind of town that could almost be called too cute if it wasn’t actually an authentic shipbuilding and fishing village with a storied past.

Today the village has fewer than 2,000 permanent residents, but on sunny weekend days, its sidewalks are filled with tourists wandering in and out of the shops that line Talbot Street, the main drag. Beyond shopping, though, visitors can learn much about the history of the Chesapeake Bay, boating and wildlife of the area by exploring the town.

The grand dame of all St. Michaels history is the sprawling Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, with 35 buildings scattered across 18 waterfront acres. A favorite on the grounds is the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, originally

situated nearly 40 miles south at the mouth of Tangier Sound. The first lighthouse, built in 1867, was pulled from its wooden pilings by violent storms and ice and drifted out to sea. The second version, built in 1880 and attached to iron pilings that sunk into the sea floor, also was battered by ice floes. Eventually, the elegant hexagon-shaped building was relocated to St. Michaels.

The museum offers a constant series of exhibits, including one set to open March 27: “A Rising Tide in the Heart of the Chesapeake,” which combines photography and other details to illustrate the effects of a rising sea level on the islands and lowlands of the Chesapeake Bay area.

Beyond the museum, visitors are often treated to one of the most charming stories in St. Michaels history, which dates to the War of 1812. The Battle of St. Michaels on Aug. 10, 1813, started when British naval ships attempted to take the town by coming in from the Chesapeake Bay.

What happened next is the subject of some dispute, but local legend has it that townspeople dimmed the lights in their homes and placed lanterns high in nearby trees, causing the British to shoot over the tops of the houses. Later St. Michaels became known as “the town that fooled the British.”

Only one house — today called the Cannonball House — received a hit. In that case, a cannonball supposedly penetrated the roof and rolled down the stairs, frightening a mother and her infant who were on the stairs. Sadly, although it’s in the heart of town, the home is in private hands so visitors can’t wander its halls and picture that bizarre scene.

But visitors can imagine the British making their attempt on the town by taking a cruise out along the Miles River, part of the Chesapeake Bay estuary. Starting in April, Patriot Cruises will offer scenic cruises for 60 or 90 minutes on weekends. For the more adventurous, there’s sailing: Sail Selina II, for instance, offers two-hour sailing trips starting April 26.

On land in St. Michaels, there’s plenty to do. A self-guided walking tour covers 30 spots in the town, including what may be the oldest African-American lodge buildings in the country, the 1883 Freeman’s Friend Lodge Number 1024. Today it houses the Blue Crab Coffee shop, with fresh-baked goods, coffee and tea.

Another fascinating site is the graveyard surrounding Christ Episcopal Church, with its 19th-century stories of babies lost in their first year and young women who probably died in childbirth. Although the present church was built in 1878, a church has been on the site since about 1677.

African-American history has a fascinating place in St. Michaels history. The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass spent a few of his teenage years in St. Michaels, part of the time with a notorious “slave breaker” named Edward Covey. Douglass actually attempted to escape from St. Michaels and was captured and brought back. His owners feared that Douglass would end up in the South with even more brutal owners, and so they sent him to work in the shipyards near Baltimore. Starting in May, the St. Michaels Museum at St. Mary’s Square offers walking tours marking the life of Douglass.

St. Michaels also boasts plenty of shopping, good seafood restaurants and several bed-and-breakfasts housed in some of the landmark homes of the village. Of course, the signature dish is the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, available at restaurants such as the Town Dock, the Shore Restaurant and St. Michaels Crab & Steak House.

For upscale dining, there’s 208 Talbot Restaurant and Sherwood’s Landing at the famed Inn at Perry’s Cabin. The Carpenter Street Saloon provides some of the only nightlife in St. Michaels, with weekend live music and a deserved reputation for free popcorn and friendliness.

March 21-28 is Restaurant Week for all of Talbot County, including St. Michaels, with two-course lunches for $20.10 and three-course dinners for $30.10. And April 23-25, a wine festival will feature Maryland and international wines, locally brewed beer, Chesapeake Bay foods, boat cruises, music and art exhibits. For more information, go to winefestatstmichaels.com.