After years of economic hard times, this Eastern Shore town is promoting itself with new vigor as a tourist destination.

By Jon Goldstein

Special to SunSpot

June 14, 2002


The advertisement is yellowed and torn, but its message is clear. Beans canned by Cambridge's Phillips Packing Company have "that down in Dixie flavor." The statement appears below an image of a large African-American woman wearing a headscarf and holding a steaming silver platter.

Greg Vande Visser pulled the old advertisement from an iron safe in his graphic design office on Cambridge's main street. The safe and the ad are relics of the Phillips Packing Company, once Cambridge's largest employer. During the war years the firm did more canning than Campbell's. But, its vast complex of brick warehouses and factories clustered on the east side of town closed in the 1950s, leading Dorchester's county seat into decades of economic stagnation.

"It was a one horse town," Vande Visser says. "When Phillips went out of business, there went the town."

This is the "old" Cambridge, a town long mired in the past, whose center is only a few blocks from Route 50 beach traffic and a few miles from cosmopolitan Easton. Despite the proximity, Cambridge draws few tourists. It is a place where quiet churchyards hold half a dozen Maryland governors and in whose countryside Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman was born a slave. At the turn-of-the-century Cambridge was the nation's No. 3 oyster exporter. Today, it is a town with double-digit unemployment.

Vande Visser found the ad, the safe and several other pieces of Phillips memorabilia in February 2002 when he purchased the 20,000-square-foot building that had housed Phillips' accounts in the heart of downtown Cambridge. The 1910 structure had been virtually dormant for years, Vande Visser says. Like many of the historic buildings along Race Street, Cambridge's main drag, it was frozen in time, encased by forgetfulness and neglect.

Vande Visser and his business partner Steve Von Den Bosch are in the process of bringing it back. The Eastern Shore natives have already moved their two-man graphic design business here from Easton. Next, they plan to lease out studio space to artists and open a gallery to display their work.

"Artists could turn this place around," Vande Visser says noting the frisson of culture and cool that artists bring to an area, as well as the industry they create -- everything from coffeehouses to hang out in to shops that sell their paint and other supplies. "The sky's the limit here."

This effort is part of a growing trend in Cambridge to attract tourists. A $3 million visitor's center opened in 1999 near Route 50 and the Choptank River to direct people to the historic homes, museums and businesses in Cambridge's center seven blocks west. Down the street from Vande Visser's budding arts center is Joie de Vivre, a small shop selling clothing, jewelry and artwork that opened in 2002.

"Things are changing very fast," says Anthony Thomas who opened the Canvasback Restaurant and wine bar in November 2000 in an old Woolworth's on Race Street.

The catalyst behind much of this development -- and the crucial link in these plans -- is the 400-room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay. The $150 million resort looms on 350 waterfront acres just across Route 50 from town. Opened in August 2002, the resort comprises three pools, two beaches, a spa, golf course and marina, as well as the hopes and dreams of a town wishing for a turnaround.

"Buy a building now," says Charles Kelly, owner of Craig's Pharmacy, which has offered medicine, cards and gifts in downtown Cambridge since the 19th century. "You'll kick yourself in five years if you don't."

A historic town

To discover Cambridge, it is necessary to slow down. The town's charms are quiet ones and cannot be appreciated from your driver's seat as you pass by on Route 50, which humps over the Choptank River beside Cambridge before loping east toward Salisbury and Ocean City, Maryland. The visitor's center is a good place to start. It's easy to spot with its 110-foot-high Teflon and fiberglass sail arching at the southern foot of the Route 50 bridge.

Peruse the restaurant, shop and museum brochures offered here and be sure to pick up a copy of the historic walking tour. A boardwalk by the riverbank offers a nice introduction to Dorchester County's natural history, where 1,700 miles of shoreline give it the most in the state.

Hop back in the car for the short cruise into downtown. The road glides across a drawbridge at Cambridge Creek. Though quiet today, a century ago this narrow body of water would have been full of sailing ships jostling and jockeying to offload their catch before heading back out into the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay.

Stretch your legs on High Street. A stroll along this street's short two blocks to the river -- beside stately captain's homes -- reveals Cambridge's maritime heritage and the wealth the former port town once enjoyed.

The gothic spire of Christ Episcopal Church rises here near the head of High Street. The third church built on this site (the first was erected in 1693), Christ Church's burial ground is the final resting place of settlers, Revolutionary and Civil War heroes and five Maryland governors.

High Street's shady trees are what impressed novelist and Cambridge native John Barth. In "The Floating Opera," his National Book Award-nominated first novel, he describes them as, "oaks and cottonwood poplars that rustle loftily above you like pennants atop mighty masts; that when leaved transform the shabbiest houses into mansions; that corrugate the concrete of the wide sidewalks with the idle flexing of their roots."

In one historic manse, you'll find the Dorchester Arts Center's small shop and gallery with a rotating selection of work. At the Cambridge House bed and breakfast, its red brick Victorian exterior and period furnishings give guests a taste of a well-to-do sea captain's life.

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.