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Maryland’s scenic byways, a drive through history | COMMENTARY

The War of 1812 Caulk’ Field battlefield monument outside Rock Hall, MD.
The War of 1812 Caulk’ Field battlefield monument outside Rock Hall, MD. (David Healey/David Healey)

When looking for a change of scenery this fall and a mental reset from politics and the pandemic, you could do worse than take a drive along one of Maryland’s 18 designated scenic byways — including the Historic National Road Byway and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway — totaling 2,487 miles.

The byway that I’m most familiar with follows Route 213 as it winds through more than 50 miles of rural countryside on the Upper Eastern Shore. Starting near scenic Chesapeake City in Cecil County, this portion of the Chesapeake Country Byway carries motorists over the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, then heads down into Kent County. With its gentle curves and wide shoulders, this state highway was built for cruising. Instead of hills, there are ripples in the landscape.

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On this road, don’t expect to get anywhere in a hurry. You can pretty much plan to get stuck behind tractors and combines, pickup trucks overloaded with pumpkins, occasional Amish buggies, and old Miss Tilghman out in her 1992 Oldsmobile for the weekly grocery run. Sure enough, the drawbridge is likely to be up at the Sassafras River.

The fall colors tend toward warm rust and gold tones, although stands of hardwoods display foliage at the edge of vast soybean and corn fields. Huge flocks of geese may already be moving in, and don’t be surprised to spot a few deer, or a fox or two.

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For the history minded, the byway offers plenty of places to pull off and consider the past. This area is richest in colonial, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 history. While waiting for that drawbridge, admire the same view that the Royal Navy saw when coming up the river to sack and burn the villages there. At least one waterfront building survived — the home of local legend Kitty Knight, who is said to have chased off British invaders with a broom.

Approaching the lovely Bohemia River, the as-yet-unopened 400-acre Bohemia River State Park is on the left, and on the right is the estate of Augustine Herman. This soldier of fortune and self-trained cartographer drew the first map of Chesapeake Bay. For his efforts, he received roughly 5,000 acres here from Lord Baltimore.

Farther along in Kent County, it’s worth stopping at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, surrounded by ancient trees, with headstone epitaphs like this one from the 1700s: “As I am now so you must be/Prepare yourself to follow me.”

Nearby is the monument for Caulk’s Field, the War of 1812 battlefield where Lord Byron’s cousin died leading British troops against Maryland militia. Roughly 350 troops fought there that August night in 1814, with the British ultimately retreating.

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Given our present times, I take comfort in knowing that long-ago Americans survived and thrived despite revolutions and invasions.

Your best bet in exploring this particular byway is to make a big loop, jumping off I-95 in Elkton and then driving south. Continue onto Route 18 to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to complete the loop — but stop first at Terrapin Nature Park and Beach to admire the view.

Considering the cultural and tourism value of the scenery and history along the Upper Chesapeake portion of the scenic byway, local jurisdictions could be doing more to protect it. For example, there is some recent digital signage in Cecil County that doesn’t fit the rural landscape. Some residents of Chesapeake City recently protested plans to build a cellphone tower that would loom over the area and disrupt the view. These are local examples of the larger problem of protecting scenic vistas, whose value can be hard to quantify.

To be sure, Maryland scenic byways should be seen as a vital financial resource. Consider that the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway generated $1.1 billion for the regional economy during 2018, according to the National Park Service. Of course, that drive stretches more than 400 miles. Closer in length to the Upper Shore portion of the byway described here would be the 62-mile Sumter Scenic Heritage Byway in Florida, credited by local officials with generating $4.5 million in 2019. These regions wisely realize that byways are an economic engine.

Economics aside, any of Maryland’s scenic byways remain real gems for a fall drive. What are you waiting for? If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic, it’s that we shouldn’t take anything for granted, and that includes taking time to enjoy our amazing Maryland scenery.

David Healey (davidhealeyauthor.com) is the author of several books, including “Great Storms of the Chesapeake” and “1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War.”

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