Where Chesapeake steamboats once docked

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A two-lane stretch of road crawls toward the village of Whitehaven, between cornfields and head-high marsh grasses, past farm and chicken houses that teeter on a fading way of life. A bare breeze carries a distinctly Eastern Shore hint of salty sea, river marsh and soil -- rooting me to this region I still consider home.

I grew up just down the road in Quantico, a town of about 100 people with roughly twice the population of Whitehaven, which is a short drive from Salisbury, a metropolis by comparison.

My grandparents used to dock their houseboat in the tiny Whitehaven marina, and I have fuzzy memories of gliding into shore, intrigued by the architectural grandeur of the Whitehaven Hotel, which stood for years as a ramshackle building, some sad reminder of a glorious past. And now I am headed there again.

In the mid-1990s, the Maryland Historical Trust joined with local preservationists to save the 19th-century landmark from demolition, and it has since undergone a restoration. Today its Victorian-era furnishings, carved mantelpieces, working fireplaces and wide-plank floors recall the history of one of the last hotels of the steamboat era on the Eastern Shore.

My husband and I, both with strong ties to the Eastern Shore, had stopped in a few years back when only a few rooms were finished. Now we're "home" for the weekend -- a night at the hotel and dinner at the nearby Red Roost, one of the region's most noted all-you-can-eat steamed crab restaurants.

People from all over the Delmarva Peninsula and beyond come to this converted chicken house in the middle of nowhere, lining up early these days because Chesapeake Bay crabs are scarce. The crab feast with corn-on-the-cob, hush puppies, fried shrimp, fried chicken and clam strips has been standard for as many summers as I can remember.

Whitehaven enjoyed its heyday from the 1880s to the 1920s as seafood canneries sprang up around a thriving fishing industry. Boat building and repair took root in Whitehaven, its deep-water port perfect for pulling boats out of the water.

Those arriving by steamboat from Baltimore stopped off in Whitehaven before continuing on to visit farming communities throughout the Lower Eastern Shore. And from here, locals boarded steamboats that took them out to the Chesapeake and to the cities of the Western Shore. People came from Salisbury, 20 miles east, and the "islands" -- Deal, Smith, Tangier -- to shop in Whitehaven for hats, clothing and groceries.

The Whitehaven Hotel, built in 1810 as a private residence, opened its doors wide to accommodate all the activity.

"It was like living on the interstate," says Jefferson Boyer, 37, a longtime resident and member of the Whitehaven Heritage Association. Boyer has spent hours studying old newspapers on microfilm, piecing together the Whitehaven story.

With the advent of railroads and the automobile, a decline in the fishing industry and the establishment of Salisbury as the Wicomico County seat, Whitehaven's importance faded. Shipbuilding moved upriver. The riverfront shops disappeared.

And soon after World War II, the Whitehaven Hotel again became a private residence, eventually falling into the disrepair that I recall from childhood. But last May, the town celebrated the hotel's grand reopening.

A calming place

Mostly, I remember being bored out of my mind by small-town life on the Eastern Shore, but the moment I check into the Whitehaven Hotel's Victorian Room, I find respite from deadlines and obligations and an overcommitted city life.

I drop my things and flop onto the four-poster bed, taking in the cabinet-mounted porcelain sink in the corner, the marble-top vanity and dainty sitting stool, the brick hearth and working fireplace with original mantelpiece.

Through the windows of the sitting alcove overlooking the Wicomico River, ducks glide into view near the shore. The osprey are nesting. Egrets, heron and goldfinch twitter, coast, dip and dive. The mournful call of a loon harmonizes with the hum of the Whitehaven Ferry engine. Said to be one of the longest continuously operated ferries in the country, the ferry carried horses from the opposite bank of the river long before it carried cars.

For years, Whitehaven saw a steady flow of traveling salesmen on the old stagecoach route between Princess Anne on the Somerset County side of the river, and once-bustling towns like Quantico on the Wicomico side.

Today, Whitehaven's population of around 50 people consists of a handful of artists and many with an interest in historic preservation. Bertil Whyman, whose paintings of Eastern Shore scenes can be found at the Whitehaven Hotel gift shop, says he likes the light here and the old architecture that's disappearing fast.

Nationally recognized artist F. Wayne Taylor grew up in Whitehaven and returned after traveling the world. "Coming home wasn't hard," he says. "When you grow up on the water, it's in your blood forever. There's just something about it."

Nighttime at the Whitehaven Hotel, we take to the front-porch swing and rockers, marveling that replenished bottles of complimentary red wine keep magically reappearing in the living room throughout the evening.

340-year history

The next morning, I lounge in one of the hotel's cotton terry robes, sipping coffee on our semi-private, screened porch on the second floor. Warmth hits my face as the sun rises over the marshlands, thinning out heavy mist from a late-night thunderstorm.

The aroma of innkeeper Dorothy Daniel's cinnamon sticky rolls beckons us to breakfast in the communal dining room. Along with fresh-squeezed orange juice, there's cantaloupe draped with prosciutto and dribbled with fresh raspberries, followed by French toast topped with raspberry sauce, served on antique china.

After breakfast, I browse the hotel's gift shop, where you can buy handcrafted items like decorative holders for dried flowers, homemade Trillium Soaps from the nearby town of Tyaskin, plus books like The Art Of Catching and Cooking Crabs and The Illustrious Oyster Illustrated.

I contemplate things to do in Whitehaven, like go canoeing on the river or cycling around the countryside. From the hotel, it's an easy day trip to Smith and Tangier islands, or to Salisbury for antiquing and shopping.

Perhaps another time.

I've come here to do as little as possible, except take a quiet walk. The street along the river bends clockwise around a cluster of restored 19th-century homes. Painted Lady Victorian facades frame come-sit-awhile porches. Neighbors chat over white picket fences.

The Whitehaven Methodist Episcopal Church is idle, seeing just two services a year. In the one-room Whitehaven Schoolhouse, built in 1886, a village timeline dates to 1663. A schoolmaster's bell, a late-19th-century pump organ, old photos, documents and early maps of the town constitute a museum collection.

Visitors can pick up a few souvenir offerings, including Whitehaven brick, which was used to build the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Just outside the schoolhouse, a plaque explains how the town earned its name, from Col. George Gale who settled here from Whitehaven, England. There's also a dubious association, according to historian Boyer, between Whitehaven and George Washington's grandmother by a previous marriage.

"We need to get that changed," he says. "After all, it's his step-grandmother, and she never actually lived here."

The plaque also neglects to state that the Whitehaven soldiers who fought with the Maryland Line during the Revolutionary War were actually a black militia group. Despite the large Eastern Shore slave population, Boyer explains, there was also a sizable free black population, particularly around Whitehaven and the other waterfront communities.

The lane runs down to the river's edge and ends at the Whitehaven Ferry, where the asphalt meets the Wicomico River. Wooden pilings jut from the dark water like tombstones, testimony to a wharf that once was.

I watch the ferry, as I have many times before. It chugs across the river like a devoted link between past and present. And back at the Whitehaven Hotel, Dorothy Daniel tells me I'm not the only one who hates to leave.

"People come in so stressed out," she says, observing that most of her guests are from the city. "By Sunday, they don't want to go. They're walking around in their bare feet. This is what they're searching for."

When you go

Getting there: From the Bay Bridge, take Route 50 east toward Salisbury. Just before you get into Salisbury (do not take the bypass), turn right onto Nanticoke Road (Route 349) and follow it about 7 miles. Turn left onto Whitehaven Road (Route 352) and follow it about 8 miles. The road ends at the Whitehaven Ferry and the hotel.

Lodging:

The Whitehaven Hotel, 2685 Whitehaven Road, Whitehaven MD 21856

877-809-8296

www.whitehavenhotel.com

* Seven guestrooms with private baths. Gourmet breakfast is included in the room rate, which ranges from $85 to $115 per night. The local marina accommodates overnight anchorage for boat arrivals.

Whitehaven Bed and Breakfast, 23848 River St., Whitehaven

410-873-3294

www.whitehaven.com

* Located two doors from the Whitehaven Hotel, the B&B; occupies the restored Otis Lloyd House (circa 1850) and the Charles Leatherbury House (circa 1886). Five Victorian rooms range from $80 to $100 per night.

Dining:

The Red Roost, 2670 Clara Road, Whitehaven, MD 21856

410-546-5443

www.redroost.com

* All-you-can-eat seafood feasts start at $19.99 (all-you-can-eat crabs are $24.99). Full entree menu available. There's also complimentary transportation to and from the restaurant's private dock if you're coming by boat.

Attractions:

* The Whitehaven Schoolhouse museum is free and open by appointment. Ask for assistance at the Whitehaven Hotel. The innkeepers at the hotel and Whitehaven B&B; can also help you arrange tours to Smith and Tangier Islands (one week's notice preferred), arrange sea kayak, canoe and fishing trips, or facilitate a visit to one of the local artists' galleries.

* Whitehaven painter F. Wayne Taylor opens his doors to visitors Friday through Sunday "until the Red Roost closes" in late-October, then by appointment. Prints range from $50 to $250, originals are $2,500-$20,000. For more information, call 410-873-3119 or visit the Web site www.fwaynetaylor.com.

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