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A River Runs Through It
Story by Michelle Brosco Christian
As a small kayak and its passenger slide onto the shore of the Calvert County side of the Patuxent River, the sun glints off the calm water this early spring afternoon. On shore, the sandy beach below the Benedict Bridge is the color of caramel candy and much of the grass along the untouched strip of sand is beaten down from a long winter of wind, rain, and snow. A renegade pine cone found along the sandy strip becomes a makeshift figurehead on the bow of the kayak as the passenger and the small boat head back into the cool water to explore more of this historic river.
While boating on our rivers is primarily a recreational activity today, it once was a primary means of transportation. Now, when you really want to get around Southern Maryland, you simply hop in your car and zip along Route 2/4, 5, or 301. But in Southern Maryland’s early history, the highways consisted of the Potomac, the Patuxent, and the Port Tobacco—Rivers, that is.
Southern Maryland’s main rivers consist of those mentioned above, plus the St. Mary’s and the Wicomico. They are literally things of moving beauty, constantly changing with the season, the day and the tide.
From as far back as 3,000 B.C., when the earliest Native Americans occupied regions in Maryland, our rivers were important as both a means of transportation and a food source. Not only were the Native Americans the first to see the value of our rivers, but their native languages were the source of the names given to many of our rivers, from the Patuxent to the Wicomico.
By the time the first Europeans began exploring the Americas, the Native Americans had already experienced the benefits of our rivers for thousands of years. Captain John Smith was the first European to see the Patuxent River, sailing there in 1608. In the same year, he also explored the Potomac and according to historical accounts, he found fish “lying so thicke with their heads above water, that for want of nets, we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”
Like in many water-bounded countries, American towns grew up around major waterways because of the lack of in-land roads and the relative ease of river travel. The Port Tobacco River became the site of Charles County’s first town seat. It was a major trading post, but now, the river is so filled with silt that it is only navigable by small craft.
“The Port Tobacco River was very significant in the past but today is just a wonderful scenic branch off the Potomac that is enjoyed by locals for water sports and recreation,” said Joanne Roland, director of tourism for Charles County.
Prior to the development of Port Tobacco, however, the Ark and the Dove ships landed at St. Mary’s City on the lower Potomac River in 1632, thus establishing the colony of Maryland.
For many years, the Potomac River would make its indelible mark on history for its “oyster wars” fought between the colonies of Maryland and Virginia over the river’s lucrative bivalves. These “wars” began in colonial times and lasted until after World War II.
Today, “our Potomac River is designated an ‘American River’ and has national significance for largemouth bass fishing and seasonal rockfish. Sections are renowned for trophy catfish,” said Roland. “Anglers come from all over the country to fish here. The main stem of the Potomac is enjoyed by recreational boaters and the many scenic creeks along the Potomac provide excellent kayaking and canoeing.”
Along with the Potomac, the Patuxent also has great historical significance in our area. According to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, “During the War of 1812, the largest naval battle in Maryland’s history took place here. In this fierce battle, British ships, boats, and rocket barges fought against the war barges of the Chesapeake Flotilla supported by gun batteries on what is now park property.”
In 1977, archeologists at the museum found “the submerged wreck of the flagship of the Chesapeake Flotilla” in the Patuxent River, buried under five feet of silt. As in all rivers, over time, silt begins to take its toll and fill in many of the deeper areas; a treasure trove of history may still lie under much of this silt.
The Patuxent River’s history also includes the colorful period of steamboat travel. According to records kept by the state of Maryland, “Throughout the 1800s, steamboats traveled the waters of the Patuxent River. This traffic continued until the early 1900s when sedimentation finally closed the upper river to large ship traffic.”
On the Calvert County side of the Patuxent River, Herman Schieke, director of Calvert’s tourism, said that the river is “just so beautiful and easily accessed” for fishing, crabbing, kayaking and canoeing. At the northern end of Calvert County, the river can also be accessed at Lower Marlboro, a site that was once an active steamboat stop.
St. Mary’s County’s primary rivers consist of the St. Mary’s and the Wicomico and the county is “bounded by 400 miles of shoreline and has hundreds of coves and inlets for canoe and kayak enthusiasts.” There are literally miles and miles of open river for cruising.
Southern Maryland’s major rivers have been important economic resources to the region since the Native American’s time. Long before European settlers came to Maryland, the Native Americans “camped and feasted on the shore, leaving millions of oyster shells acres broad and yards deep.”
While today’s shad and herring fisheries are large harvests, according to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, oysters and crabs are in a precarious position. Oysters, crabs, and fish have long been an economic boon for Southern Maryland, but as of late, these precious resources have been in desperate states of decline due to thousands of years of human use of the river systems.
Scientists have long known that sediment runoff from agricultural and construction sites harms living creatures in the rivers and tributaries. In the case of Southern Maryland rivers, this sediment eventually leads to damage in the Chesapeake Bay, where each of the rivers “unloads” its silty cargo. “Sediment covers important spawning and feeding areas for fish and shellfish and blocks the sunlight that is needed by submerged aquatic plants to grow,” according to experts at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
In all, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s are bounded by well over 600 miles of shoreline—much of it river shoreline. While some of those who swim in or boat on our local rivers today may not fully appreciate the history of the rivers, others revel in both the rivers’ beauty and history.
Maury Tobin, who spends a fair amount of his time on our modern highways, said, “I live on the Port Tobacco River and though it has changed dramatically in the last several hundred years, it is a slice of paradise to me. When I see the congestion and development in the Washington metropolitan area and later look out my living room window at this peaceful river, I am thankful someone is taking steps to preserve Maryland’s waterways and surrounding land.”
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