Tilghman Island’s Water Ways
A little oyster town on the Chesapeake Bay offers a bridge to the past.
The drive to Maryland’s Eastern Shore is familiar territory for my family and me. I like to count the sailboats underneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, make a mental note of the seafood restaurants on little Kent Island (dinner options for the return trip home?) and enjoy seeing the egrets and herons swooping over the marshy grass along the Choptank River. Sometimes our road trip ends at one of the popular beaches, where colorful towels and umbrellas form a patchwork quilt along the coastline. Other times, we veer onto MD Route 33 at Easton and head to the quaint town of St. Michaels, with its upscale “shoppes” and moorings lined with yachts.
But what I like best is to drive the 14 miles past St. Michaels to Tilghman Island—a place where workboats are the predominant seafaring vessel, serve-yourself produce stands line the roadside, and firehouse fundraisers are the main attraction on Saturday night.
Tilghman Island (population 784) is suspended at the end of a narrow peninsula that points like a finger down the Chesapeake Bay. In certain spots, the water is so close that boats anchored just offshore appear to be floating in fields next to the road.
The magic starts at Knapp’s Narrows, where crossing the busy drawbridge onto the 2.8-square-mile island is like stepping back in time. Passing through town, I notice vintage cottages with peeling paint; further out on the main road is a steepled church built in 1891, its lawn flecked with white tombstones.
Ginny Cornwell, who retired here 17 years ago, says that when people ask her husband where he lives, he answers, “In 1950.”
I start my day with breakfast at Two If By Sea, a modest café just under a mile from Knapp’s Narrows on the main drag, Tilghman Island Road. The place is buzzing with a mix of tattooed 20-somethings and grizzled guys who look as though they’re on their way to the docks. I sidle up to the counter beside an 11-year-old boy and his dad, who tells me they’ve just sailed over from Herrington Harbour, directly across the Bay. The young waitress calls me “Honey” and fills my coffee cup; behind me, a couple of locals chat in the drawl that’s peculiar to the Eastern Shore.
After filling up on crabby eggs Benedict—a signature dish that substitutes local crab for the usual bacon—I pass by the open kitchen to chat with chef Henry Miller, a Culinary Institute of America-trained transplant who worked in a number of East Coast restaurants and catering businesses before opening Two If By Sea in 2008. He happily lets me in on the secret to his spectacular Benedict: mozzarella makes it that much richer.
Popping into the vintage-bank-turned-bookstore next door, I meet Gary Crawford, owner of Crawfords Nautical Books. A big-bellied, white-bearded bear of a man, Crawford is quick to make a friend, and even quicker with a joke. If he’s not delivering a punch line, he’s directing you toward Big Mouth Billy Bass, an animatronic fish that sings “Don’t Worry Be Happy” in the “Sea Myths” section of the store, or toward the photo of a sub sandwich near the books about submarines.
The shop is chockablock full with titles on pirates, yachting, naval history and all things maritime, along with a good selection of regional books, including several chronicles of Tilghman Island history that Crawford wrote himself. Though he’s technically not a native (he first came to the island in 1980), Crawford has become the de facto island historian, drawing much of his material from locals who drop by to spin yarns for him to share. He’s even put together several albums of vintage island photos that he uses to “prime the conversational pump,” he says. “We hope each picture will cause a thousand words.”
On that note, he shows me the album about a waterman-turned-artist (whom I later meet in person in the quirky Tilghman Watermen’s Museum, housed next door in a former barber shop). Bill Cummings, a lanky, square-jawed local, grew up on Tilghman and worked on the water for 67 years. In winter, he was a “tonger,” picking oysters off the bottom of the bay with enormous tongs that dipped over the side of the boat. In spring and summer, he went “haul seining,” handling the heavy nets used to catch fin fish like striped bass.
Those experiences are now reflected in Cummings’ landscapes, with scenes depicting teams of men hauling up nets, or young boys wading in the surf, side-by-side, raking up oysters.
Cummings is a self-taught painter—”the onliest waterman who was a true artist,” Crawford says, mimicking the island vernacular. “Bill brought all these images in his head back to the shore.”
ANOTHER DAY, I find myself on board the Rebecca T. Ruark, a historic skipjack owned by Capt. Wade Murphy Jr. Built in 1886, the Rebecca T. Ruark was once part of an oyster boom, back when 15 million bushels were harvested annually from a bay brimming with shellfish. Since then, disease and environmental conditions—and, some say, overfishing, though that claim is hotly debated—have diminished the oyster beds. In 2012, only 150,000 bushels were harvested.
A seasoned waterman, Murphy has seen it all: $40 a bushel and $2 a bushel; 300 bushels in three hours, and four bushels in a day. “It’s a daggone shame,” he says of the current scarcity. “We put a man on the moon. We can’t bring back the oysters? Something’s wrong here.”
(State and federal agencies have been working for years, though, on efforts to revive the oyster population, including restoring the shellfish in 10 Maryland rivers and tidal creeks by building reefs and planting hatchery-raised baby oysters.)
Soon, Murphy, 72—whose weathered face speaks of years spent on the water—will be gearing up for another winter of dredging with his son, rising routinely at 3 a.m. and motoring 60 nautical miles out to the oyster beds south of Tilghman to see what they can dig up. Until then, he’s following his spring-summer-fall ritual of taking tourists out on his 53-foot beauty, the oldest skipjack in a dwindling fleet of commercial sailboats.
Before the tour ends, Murphy scrapes the bottom of the bay for a tong full of oysters, which we carefully inspect on deck, noting their size (and whether or not they are big enough to be legal) before we toss them back over the side. It’s still a month before oystering season begins in November.
Of course oysters aren’t the only currency in this tiny Bayside town. Back on shore, I meet Wilson “Willie” Roe, 87, who patiently shows me how to make crab nets exactly the way he’s done it since he was a 14-year-old boy. He’s manning one of the many booths that are part of Tilghman Island Day, a fall festival of rowboat races, docking contests, oyster-shucking and crab-picking competitions, traditional crafts and live music—held annually on the third Saturday of October.
Roe was born on the edge of Dogwood Harbor, in the house right behind where he now sits, weaving nets under a shady awning. His father ran a repair shop in nearby St. Michaels, he says, noting that Tilghman’s resident physician, “Doc Reeser,” delivered him in exchange for a fixed-up radio.
In addition to the repair shop, Roe’s dad had a still next to the house—for root beer, he qualifies, though there was also something about a cousin stealing whiskey.
Roe never worked on boats—he was a machinist at Westinghouse on the mainland—but he did “haul seine” from the beach, pulling nets full of hardheads (a kind of catfish) and rockfish. That’s when he learned how to tie nets, he explains, his expert hands guiding the twine through mine as I weave a few rows myself. The work is addictive, slow and satisfying.
Beside us, Roe’s friend Harvey Reed shucks oysters from a bushel at his feet. He tells me he left an office job for commercial crabbing 15 years ago and never looked back. “I went from a good, 40-hour-a-week job to an 80-hour-a-week job crabbing.” He has no regrets.
“You’re your own boss,” he says simply, handing me one oyster after another.
Sitting in the shade with Roe and Reed, I realize that a big part of Tilghman’s charm has to do with slowing down long enough to listen. And the stories are pretty good, too. There’s the one about the ongoing feud between brothers who refuse to set foot on one another’s boats. And the tale about the St. Michaels boy, bullied by his schoolmates, who was fiercely protected by island kids.
Or the time traffic was brought to a complete standstill by a Labrador retriever sitting in the middle of the road—an incident that prompted Jim Moses to pull up stakes and move here 15 years ago. “Any place where a black lab has the right of way is a place I want to live,” says Moses, a retired naval officer. It’s “a real, no-kidding community.”
Moses is now rounding up grant funding to convert one of the island’s many weathered buildings (this one circa 1890/1900) into a new Watermen’s Museum—a grassroots effort to preserve the oral histories and artifacts of this community, and perhaps capture some of its magic.
Residents here recognize that many of the traditions that have sustained the local way of life are fading. Harvesting food from the Bay is not only exhausting, dangerous work, but it’s also becoming unprofitable in light of declining shellfish populations and increasingly restrictive state regulations.
Still, other traditions remain alive and well. Before Tilghman Island Day ends, I make sure to catch the rowing races in Dogwood Harbor, where heats of three take off from the bulkhead, rowing frantically—or methodically, depending on their level of experience—toward a finish line about 30 yards away. As the crowd cheers for its favorites, one rower struggles comically to get his dinghy going in the right direction, while two competitors up ahead get into a shoving match with their paddles. This tussle gives the slow rower just enough time to straighten himself out and breeze past them to win the race. And so another story is born.
Capping off the day, I head to the firehouse, where community members are dishing up dinner. An Eastern Shore band plays a raucous brand of country music, while kids race across the grass and adults line up to buy beer, clam strips, soft-shell crabs and fried oysters from food trucks and tables.
Stepping up to a friendly guy in an apron, I buy some oyster stew—a milky, buttery broth packed with about a dozen plump bivalves—in a Styrofoam cup.
Slurping up this elixir, I imagine what it was like when the Bay was so full of oysters that no one thought twice about having a cup full of them for dinner. And I realize the people who made this stew are still living that dream.
Virginia Myers, an independent writer based in Takoma Park, Md., is a regular contributor to Driving Range.
If You Go
From Arlington, the drive to Tilghman Island is an hour and 50 minutes. Take I-395 north 1.8 miles to the Southeast Freeway/I-695 south. Merge onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and after 0.7 miles, take D.C. Route 295 north. Stay on 295 into Maryland, then take the U.S. 50 exit east toward Annapolis and across the Bay Bridge. Stay on U.S. 50 until you reach MD-322/Easton Parkway, and go right. Drive about two miles to St. Michaels Road/MD-33, and follow this for 22 miles.
Where to Stay
HARRISON HOUSE COUNTRY INN (21551 Chesapeake House Drive; 410-886-2121, www.ChesapeakeHouse.com) is in the center of town. The waterfront property has its own docks and offers one of the largest restaurants on the island, plus fishing and hunting packages with local guides. Operated by the same family that founded it as a boardinghouse in 1875, it embraces island history and enjoys a legacy of return guests. The pool, playground, fire pit, volleyball court and bikes are available, free of charge, to guests of the inn, which has 50 rooms and four on-property rental houses. Rates: $129.99-$179.99 per night; $179.99-$269.99 per night for suites; $1,299.99-$2,999.99 per week for houses (which can also be rented on a per-night or per-weekend basis). Wi-Fi is available in all rooms and some of the rental houses.
KNAPP’S NARROWS MARINA & INN (6176 Tilghman Island Road; 800-322-5181, 410-886-2720, www.knappsnarrowsmarina.com) is perched along Knapp’s Narrows, the boat-lined channel that runs between the mainland and Tilghman Island. Guests often include boaters docked at the marina, and there are sunset sails and fishing charters available for those who come by land. The pet-friendly inn features 20 rooms, each with a balcony or patio with waterfront view; plus a pool, restaurant, tiki bar, Wi-Fi and free use of bikes. Kayaks and paddleboards are available for rent. Rates: $90-$170. Includes continental breakfast.
BLACK WALNUT POINT INN (4417 Black Walnut Point Road; 410-886-2452, www.blackwalnutpointinn.com), at the tip of the island’s secluded peninsula, features a 58-acre bird sanctuary on one side and water views on the other three. The 1840s house includes fireplaces, a sunroom, a screened-in back porch and an expansive lawn that serves as a stopping point for butterflies migrating south each fall. Owners Bob Zuber, a former music teacher and bar owner (guests are encouraged to play the baby grand), and Tracy Staples, once a world-traveling IT engineer and now a fourth-generation minister, have close friends among the locals and can steer guests toward some of the island’s best features. Offering four rooms and three cabins with Wi-Fi, the inn also has a pool, a hot tub, and bikes and kayaks for rent. Rates: $120-$250 (rooms); $280-$350 (cabins). Includes full breakfast.
Where to Eat
TWO IF BY SEA RESTAURANT, 5776 Tilghman Island Road; 410-886-2447; twoifbysearestaurant.com. Hours vary by season. The cozy café-style restaurant earned a “Best Weekday Breakfast” award from What’s Up Eastern Shore with selections like “crabby” eggs Benedict, a down-home corned beef hash, and blueberry- or cherry-stuffed French toast. Look for soft-shell crabs and rockfish among the specials and sandwiches at lunch. Dinner may include Chesapeake chicken (stuffed with crab) or swai, a cousin to catfish, paired with produce from the garden out back. For dessert, try the Smith Island Cake, a nine-layer Eastern Shore tradition. Breakfast $4.95 to $9.95; lunch $5.95 to $8.95; dinner $12.95-$18.95. BYOB.
HARRISON’S CHESAPEAKE HOUSE, 21551 Chesapeake House Drive; 410-886-2121, www.ChesapeakeHouse.com. Daily, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. The companion restaurant to the Harrison complex, this sprawling eatery dominates the waterfront with a 100-seat outdoor patio, a separate bar on the dock and a full 180-seat restaurant indoors. The menu offers a mix of fresh, local seafood (think rockfish and crabs), plus local specialties such as oyster fritters or the pot o’ cheese and apple-butter appetizer. You’ll also find standbys such as chicken wings and fried calamari. Live music on weekends. Dinner entrées $14.99 to $27.99.
CHARACTERS BRIDGE RESTAURANT, 6136 Tilghman Island Road; 410-886-1060 (for online info, see Characters Bridge on Facebook). Hours vary by season. The view is outstanding at this 200-seat (half indoors, half outdoors) restaurant on Knapp’s Narrows, where you can watch the boats go under the drawbridge or see the sun set over the water. Seafood is the specialty. The rockfish bites are especially popular, and you can get a crab feast of hard-shells in season. Dinner entrées $18 to $30.
Things to Do
TILGHMAN ISLAND DAY, www.tilghmanmd.com/tilghmanday.htm. Held on the third Saturday of October, this annual event begins at 10:30 a.m. and ends in the late afternoon. Festivities include oyster-shucking and crab-picking contests, rowing races and docking competitions, plus net-making demonstrations, watermen’s story sessions and the best oyster stew you will ever taste. The day also brings live music from local bands, all sorts of seafood for sale, arts and nautical crafts and a silent auction featuring everything from automotive tools and a free oil change to a guided fishing trip, framed nautical photos and a T-shirt from the Maryland Watermen’s Association. The $5 admission includes a map to the exhibits, events and food booths.
SKIPJACK SAILING, 410-829-3976, 410-886-2176, www.skipjack.org. Capt. Wade Murphy Jr., a fifth-generation Eastern Shore waterman, has spent 50 years dredging oysters off the coast of Tilghman Island; his boat, the 53-foot Rebecca T. Ruark, was built in 1886, and is the oldest in the dwindling fleet of sailing oyster boats called skipjacks. During the tour, Murphy will describe the history of the fleet, the restrictions on oystering (the skipjacks are permitted to dredge under sail for one month before motorized dredges are permitted to fish the oyster beds) and the complicated politics around protecting the Bay and its bounty. The two-hour tour includes an opportunity for passengers to dredge a few oysters, and guests often get to hoist the sails and take a turn at the helm. $30 per person for two hours (bring your own food/drink). Half-day or full-day trips also available.
TILGHMAN WATERMEN’S MUSEUM, 5778 Tilghman Island Road; 410-886-2930, tilghmanmuseum.org. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., April through December. Housed in a former barber shop, this crowded collection of artifacts includes both historic and current treasures. Paintings, oral histories (some from locals who still live down the road) and model boats compete for space with nautical knot displays, photographs, fishing poles and totes made from sailcloth. A vibrant group of Tilghman enthusiasts, many of them transplants, is now raising money to move the museum to a historic “W-house”—so called because of its shape, which is designed to catch the breeze in the notoriously hot summers.
CRAWFORDS NAUTICAL BOOKS, 5782 Main Street; 410-886-2418, www.CrawfordsNautical.com. Open weekends only, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., April to December. Specializing in maritime-themed titles ranging from Patrick O’Brien novels and yachting guides, to books on pirates and ship modeling, Crawfords is charming not only for its books, but for its historic location in an old bank building—complete with the original safe. You’ll also find locally focused literature and a jolly shopkeeper, Gary Crawford, who can tell a few tales himself.