High Street ends at Long Wharf on the Choptank. This is where the Nathan of Dorchester, a modern, volunteer-built skipjack like those that plied these waters for centuries, ties up. It offers sailing excursions and charters in the warmer months. Boat trips are also available May through October on the Cambridge Lady, which docks a short distance up Cambridge Creek. Those seeking more aquatic history should try the James B. Richardson Maritime Museum up the street or the Brannock Maritime Museum across town.

Bounty of the bay

After learning so much about Cambridge's nautical history, it would be a shame not to sample some of the bay's bounty. Snappers Waterfront Cafe serves crab cakes and other traditional seafood dishes with a view of Cambridge's old working waterfront. The Place on Race Cafe offers light lunches and other snacks, as well as coffee drinks. Across the street, the Canvasback Restaurant serves up a traditional pub menu for lunch, as well as some more complex dinner entrees. Try the pan-seared rockfish with orange beurre blanc or the canvasback duck with lingonberry sauce.

Blackwater surprise

Those who prefer their waterfowl on the wing won't want to miss Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 12 miles south of town. These 26,000 acres of protected marsh and woodlands are a haven for migrating Canada geese, tundra swans and more than 20 species of ducks. Blackwater is also the center of the greatest nesting density of bald eagles on the eastern seaboard, north of Florida.

Water dominates the landscape here and the views from the six and one-half-mile wildlife drive can be stunning. Great blue herons work the muddy flats while ospreys soar above the deeper waters. Looking south, the marshy maze of the Blackwater River stretches to the horizon. All that breaks the line between the powder blue sky and the brackish water are the small copses of trees marking the higher ground.

Making her way north in darkness, Harriet Tubman didn't have these visual clues. Following many of these same waterways, Tubman used the North Star to escape from a plantation in nearby Bucktown in 1849. She would return to the south 19 times throughout her life, helping more than 300 slaves escape and gaining a $40,000 price tag on her head.

The modest Underground Railroad Museum in Cambridge offers displays recounting her life and guided tours of Harriet Tubman sites throughout the county. Its president, Evelyn W. Townsend, is also a storehouse of local knowledge.

Townsend was a young schoolteacher that summer night in 1967 when much of Pine Street's business district -- the center of African-American Cambridge since the 19th century -- went up in flames after a speech by militant civil rights activist H. Rap Brown ignited a riot.

These simmering racial tensions can sometimes still present themselves in a town that has long lacked many economic opportunities, Townsend says.

But she is hopeful that the promised land is on the horizon. The Hyatt resort holds the possibility of hundreds of jobs and the town's residents hope that some of its wealthy visitors will take a break from their mud wraps long enough to spend some money downtown, creating a viable tourism industry in long-forgotten Cambridge.

Townsend says the town is gaining momentum and "the Moses of her people" can help show Cambridge the way. Tubman's life holds lessons for people looking to overcome great odds -- valuable lessons in a town taking its first steps in several generations toward economic freedom.

"We have to remember the past, but use it to go forward," Townsend says.