Fair Harbor

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After this dose of what Jim Thomas apologetically called “serious history” he led the way to the small boats that are closer to his heart and mine, boats that have provided St. Michaels with its livelihood since the British went away. He showed me a sixteen-foot skiff supporting a nine-foot gun—the kind used in the nineteenth century to bring down entire flocks of geese or ducks with a single shot—and several sailing canoes made of logs joined side by side with iron drifts. Until recently, Thomas told me, “if you had an eighteen-year-old son and he brought home a new bride, you’d take him up in the woods, cut down five or eight logs, borrow a neighbor’s ox team, haul the logs down to the water, and build a boat. As soon as it was done, you’d say, ‘So long, you’re on your own.’” Today fewer than twenty log canoes remain sailing on the bay. Their races, held several times during the summer, are so hotly contested that the owners pile on as many extra sails as they can find room for. Then, to balance the overcanvassed craft, crew members hike out on long boards for extra leverage. Capsizes are frequent, not dangerous, and comical to watch.

In addition to its canoes, the museum has the Chesapeake’s last remaining log bugeye rigged for sail, and two skipjacks, the larger, beamier craft designed in the 1890s expressly to catch oysters. The bay’s skipjack fleet is in danger of disappearing as disease gradually kills off the oyster population. If you drive to Dogwood Harbor on Tilghman Island, just twelve miles past St. Michaels, you can see as many as fifteen of them rafted together. They’re the last sail-powered commercial fishing boats in the country.

Thomas has sailed on skipjacks, fished from crab boats, and worked as a marine surveyor, and when he took me to the Hooper Strait lighthouse, moved in 1966 to the museum’s grounds, it turned out he had been at the wheel of the salvage boat that carried it there. Built in 1879, the low, hexagonal building had marked a channel. Now visitors can climb its spiral staircase for a view of St. Michaels Harbor and a look at the lighthouse keeper’s life of a century ago. In addition to keeping the oil lamp burning, in fog or snowstorms the keeper cranked up by hand a massive steel cable that would then slowly unwind, sounding a bell three times every thirty seconds. The job had to be tended to every two hours day and night. “Worse than a baby,” said a visitor behind me.

Saying good-bye to Jim Thomas, I remembered what Hulbert Footner had written about the area and the sociability of its residents in his excellent local history Rivers of the Eastern Shore . “The waters are full of food; until recent years there was game for everybody also; the garden will produce two or three crops in a season. . . . Hardship may be good for the character; ease develops the personality.”

From St. Michaels it’s a ten-minute drive to Bellevue, where you can put your car on a small ferry (in business off and on since 1683) and cross over to Oxford, a tranquil colonial-era town with broad streets and tall trees, a place remarkably undisturbed by tourism. Many of the old houses have disappeared, but the Robert Morris Inn, built in 1710, gives a sense of how they must have looked. The one-room customhouse, a replica of one from the 1790s, reminds visitors that Oxford once served as the trading center for the Eastern Shore; its tiny size suggests how little paperwork this entailed.

Some visitors stay overnight in Oxford, but the quiet made me miss the energy of St. Michaels, and I headed back to dine on crabs at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. An oversized, salmon-colored moon lifted out of the bay, and as the sky grew dark, a cluster of sailboats moored in the harbor turned on the white lights they’re required to show at the tops of their masts. From the shore the lights looked like low-flying stars, or like lanterns hung to fool the British.

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP