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Md. town banks on historic trail

VIENNA — VIENNA -- John Smith slept here. Or somewhere near this Nanticoke River town, where the wind twists through vast marshes and gulls wail overhead.

Never mind that the great Chesapeake Bay explorer's visit was short, or that it occurred 400 years ago. Vienna is banking on the lore of Smith's voyage to bring tourists into this sleepy Eastern Shore hamlet a mile off U.S. 50.

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The town is planning to build a John Smith discovery center along the Nanticoke, an interactive museum filled with maps and information about his route. Outside, visitors will be able to rent kayaks, canoes and binoculars so they can paddle through the marshes and watch species of birds that Smith might have seen.

Those plans got a boost last month when President Bush signed legislation authorizing the creation of the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail. The first national water trail will retrace Smith's voyages from Jamestown, Va., to the mouth of the Susquehanna River. And nearly every place along the way where he ate, slept or bartered is hoping to turn his stopover in the summer of 1608 into a tourism boon.

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In Cecil County, Perryville leaders hope construction of a 600-foot pier will encourage boaters to spend the night, visit the town's waterfront park and shop at its outlet stores. In Port Deposit, planners are building a $2.3 million jetty that will enable visitors to fish before or after paddling the trail.

On the Eastern Shore, the Salisbury Zoo is opening an exhibit of native species such as the red wolf that thrived in Delmarva during Smith's time but are gone now. Onancock, a boating town in Virginia, plans concerts in honor of the voyage.

Vienna doesn't want hordes of tourists. Residents experienced crowds and noise when U.S. 50 ran through town, before a bypass was built about 20 years ago so beachgoers could get to Ocean City more quickly. But it would like to attract travelers for a day or a weekend, and perhaps draw enough to the riverfront to warrant a small grocery store and a few antiques shops.

"We have a huge volume of traffic going right by us, and if they had some reason to get off the highway, that would be a huge draw," said Vienna Mayor Russ Brinsfield. 'The fact that John Smith landed near Vienna ... is not only important historically, but it provides a construct for us to grow from an economic development point of view."

Several towns along the trail are just figuring out how to capitalize on their connection to Smith. Early on, local officials said, they didn't want to plan for something that might never happen. Now, they're focused on festivities surrounding the re-enactment of Smith's journey, when a few hardy souls will retrace the explorer's path in a 30-foot shallop, an open wooden boat powered by sail and oar.

The voyage will begin in Jamestown in May and make more than 20 stops, including Baltimore and Annapolis, before returning to the site of the historic colony in September.

The official map for the trail has not been completed, and the National Park Service is expected to spend about $2 million over the next few years to design and manage it.

Among the challenges will be the lack of public access to the water and the dearth of campsites along the trail where tourists can spend the night. John Page Williams, a senior naturalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who has traveled most of the route in his Boston Whaler and written a book about it, said the park service would deal with that.

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Williams said he has also been working with state and county agencies to set up tour packages, possibly run by watermen, for people who don't own boats or would rather not paddle.

"These are still some of the areas where it's easiest to see how the system worked 400 years ago," Williams said. "You can look at it and say, 'Yeah, this is what it must have looked like, and it's beautiful.' These are areas that most boaters don't even see."

The trail will combine the highlights of Smith's two historic journeys up the Chesapeake Bay. The Englishman and his crew had three goals: to discover a Northwest Passage to India; find silver and gold; and size up the native peoples and the goods they had for trading.

The voyages would achieve only that last goal, but in doing so, Smith laid the groundwork for all of the bay exploration that followed. He drew detailed maps that guided settlers in the New World for centuries and are surprisingly accurate even today.

When it came to its John Smith connection, Vienna began planning early. An architect has drawn renderings of the center envisioned along the Nanticoke, and the town hopes to build it next year.

For years, Brinsfield has been working with a developer and a nonprofit land preservation group, the Conservation Fund, on plans to annex two farms outside Vienna and build 300 homes - developments that would fit in with the town's 19th-century porchfront homes. The developers have agreed to build a new town hall, and Vienna officials have asked them to combine the offices with the Smith center so town workers could staff the exhibits.

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Now that the trail has been authorized, Brinsfield says he might be able to get state or federal funding to complete the Vienna center.

Brinsfield, a farmer with a doctorate who co-founded the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy two decades ago, was one of the stalwarts who believed the trail would be established when Conservation Fund founder Patrick Noonan, a longtime friend, came up with the idea three years ago.

Noonan, who calls himself "a child of the Chesapeake," was hoping to encourage the region's ever-growing population to see the bay as Smith saw it - as one large body of water without artificial boundaries for counties and towns.

After his time on the Chesapeake, Smith famously remarked, "Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation." If people looked at the bay the way they do places like Yosemite, the thinking goes, perhaps they would be more likely to connect their actions on land to the fate of marine life.

'The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure. People see it from their state and their view, but they need to see that it's one watershed," Noonan said.

Federal approval for the trail seemed a long shot, especially with a tight budget and no end in sight to an expensive war in Iraq. It certainly wasn't likely to happen on Noonan's timetable - he wanted it done by spring, when Jamestown will celebrate its 400th anniversary and Queen Elizabeth II is scheduled to visit the former English colony. Creating a new federal trail usually takes eight years.

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But Noonan was tenacious. He lobbied politicians, environmental activists and watermen. He worked with National Geographic to create maps that improved upon Smith's excellent cartography. And he reached out to town leaders along the path of Smith's voyages and discussed economic opportunities.

Brinsfield figured that if Vienna was going to capitalize on the long-rumored Smith connection, it had better make sure that the explorer actually slept there. In 2004, the town hired Salisbury University researchers to retrace the explorer's journey along the Nanticoke River. Using Smith's maps, the team determined that Smith had an encounter with an Indian tribe about a mile from present-day Vienna.

But Vienna is important not just because of what Smith did, but what he saw. Williams and Noonan say the town is one of the more pristine spots along the trail.

In a small skiff on a recent winter day, Brinsfield pointed out a few sights that Smith wouldn't recognize - a power station, well-kept homes with American flags flapping and the U.S. 50 bridge. But the marshes along the river were probably there in Smith's day. And the view of a clear horizon, with little but brush and trees on either side, would have looked familiar.

"It's kind of eerie in a way that you could have 400 years pass and have a landscape like this remain unchanged," Brinsfield said. "It just kind of blows your mind."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com


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