Tilghman Island

By Ellen Moyer

It was one of those days between ice and snow with the temperature above freezing and a hint of Spring to come that I decided to break Winter doldrums and strike out on a Maryland Eastern Shore road trip. Crossing the Severn River, Buddy Morrow’s orchestration of “Candy” was playing triggering childhood memories. So it was with a sense of nostalgia that I headed south passing farmland and landscapes that hadn’t changed much since Talbot County was founded in 1661. For 100 years this was tobacco plantation country and now the remnants of the great estates of America’s first wealthy Europeans still exist, many of them on the National Historic Register.

The road to Tilghman Island winds through the town of St. Michaels, home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and many fine restaurants and gift shops. Route 33 billing, itself as the scenic highway of Chesapeake Country, wanders down a narrow peninsula of land, dotted by tiny hamlets named after long-ago families, bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the Choptank River.

Route 33, also known as the Frederick Douglass Discovery Road, was named after the most important African-American civil rights leader of the 19th century. Douglass was born in 1818 in Talbot County, where there are 14 sites that tell his story. One is near McDaniel on the road to Tilghman at the farm of Edward Covey, “the slave breaker.” Covey tried, but he didn’t break Douglass and in 1838 Douglass escaped slavery to become a powerful orator, counselor to presidents and leader for human rights.

Twelve miles from St. Michaels is the Knapps Narrow Draw Bridge that connects the original Great Choptank Island to the mainland. Apparently some sort of bridge has crossed Harris Creek since the 1600s, but today’s drawbridge is the oldest and busiest in the nation. Crossing the bridge to Tilghman is an instant step into a time warp where life seems quiet and unchanged from decades past. Oyster tongers with high water boots maneuver their boats around the waters. Men gather to share news in the local bait shop. This is not a day-trippers’ shopping mecca; this is a place to hang your hat for a while.

Water defines Tilghman Island. Dogwood Harbor is home to the watermen’s oyster fleet and nearby is the largest privately owned sport-fishing fleet in the nation. Presidents Clinton and Bush and a host of famous baseball greats, governors and elected officials have fished with the island’s captains. Built in 1886, the oyster dredger skipjack, Rebecca T Ruark, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008, is docked here as well as the few remaining Bay skipjacks. Today’s visitors can also kayak around the island in and around the work boats.

Harvesting the land and the water is the way of life on Tilghman. In the 1817 census, the island housed 104 slaves to farm the land. General Tench Tilghman removed them in 1830s and subdivided the land for homes for those who would make their living on the water. The steamboat brought another change to the island. To escape Summer heat Baltimore natives, found their way south to the island. Restaurants and sport fishing followed.

A watermen’s museum, recently organized to tell the stories of island life, is housed in the turn-of-the-century barbershop. A new home for the museum is proposed for a 19th century home vacant since 1971 known as the old W house, of which only five remain. The W house is unique to the area. It was designed (before air conditioning) to provide natural airflow throughout the house no matter the direction of the breeze. Near by is the Methodist Church organized in 1784 and rebuilt in 1879 in this ancient county of Quakers.

Five generations of Harrisons have offered hospitality services to the public since 1875 when Ida Harrison began opening her home to summertime borders traveling to Tilghman on the steamboat captained by her husband, Capt. Levin “Buddy” Harrison.  Harrison’s Chesapeake House is the largest restaurant, inn, bar (despite the Methodist heritage) and sport-fishing center on the island.

Locals claim Tilghman used to have some of the best oystering on the Bay. The Department of Natural Resources recently covered up producing oyster beds with three feet of rocks. And the locals are not happy. This has had a negative economic impact on people who make a living from the water. One grizzled waterman grumbled it was time for a revolution. The government, in this corner of independent, self-sufficient, down-to-earth people, was not a trusted partner, a chink in the otherwise peaceful environment.

Tilghman Island’s step back in time beckons you to stay and relax and walk and talk with 970 locals. There are seven inns that provide an escape from frantic urban life. Boutiques and gift shops and the bustling that goes with it are absent. There was once a bank, which is now a bookstore, and retail clothes shop, which is now a café. Summerduck Studio offers Summer landscape painting workshops. Bird watching is popular. The monarch butterflies arrive in August.

The road from the village of Tilghman continues another five miles to its end at the mouth of the Choptank and the Chesapeake Bay. On the way are new retirement homes, a World War II Naval research station, a broad area of asphalt built for watermen to repair their pound nets in one of the few areas where pound netting still goes on.

At the end of the road is a secluded bird sanctuary and the Black Walnut Point Inn described as a secret place of peace. In a way this describes much of Tilghman Island, where” life begins where the road ends.” 

Ellen, a former mayor of Annapolis, can be reached at [email protected]











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