Capt. Smith's Bay Path, as He Saw It

The House voted to establish a historical trail along the Chesapeake, above, that would replicate the path that Capt. John Smith took in the early 1600s.
The House voted to establish a historical trail along the Chesapeake, above, that would replicate the path that Capt. John Smith took in the early 1600s. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

What does a "water trail" look like? For the most part, it seems, a whole lot of nothing.

But that's the thinking behind plans for a national historical trail that would follow the early-1600s explorations of Capt. John Smith around the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The trail, as it's planned, will be detailed on maps and marked with a few signs and buoys, but little else will be done to signal the route.

That way, planners say, boaters retracing Smith's route might get an inkling of what the explorer saw.

The aim is "to try to get them to have a sense of what might the bay have been like 400 years ago," said Michael Shultz, a spokesman for the Conservation Fund, which has advocated for the trail. "So, in a sense, less is more, to allow more imagination."

The U.S. House voted Tuesday to establish the route as the country's 17th historical trail -- and the first not to include an inch of dry land. The Senate also might act this week. Anne Arundel County seems likely to play a major role in the trail: Smith's boat hugged its shoreline on two trips, and he also explored parts of the Patapsco and Magothy rivers.

The trail, which would be named the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, would join a list of routes that include a path taken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and one linking civil rights-era sites in Selma and Montgomery, Ala.

The exact route of the John Smith trail wouldn't be set until after it got federal approval. In general, supporters said they want to include sites that Smith visited during four voyages between 1607 and 1609.

He left from the Jamestown colony in Virginia, at the bay's southern end. Smith, a leader among the colonists, had been ordered by backers in England to locate a "northwest passage" to the Pacific Ocean, to look for silver and gold and to explore the region around the colony. It was one of many such attempts to find a northwest passage in the Age of Exploration, and like others, Smith failed.

But, even in failure, Smith did something extraordinary: He managed to map and document the Chesapeake Bay region and its tributaries in astounding detail, reporting back that "heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a more perfect place for man's habitation."

The two most significant of his voyages were made in the summer of 1608. They took him and a small crew around much of the bay's shoreline and far up into tributary rivers; he passed through the modern-day states of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, as well as the District. He even came within a few miles of present-day Pennsylvania, following the Susquehanna River up from the bay's northern end.

In all, the voyages are estimated to have covered more than 2,000 miles.

Supporters hope that the trail will be designated before ceremonies next year marking the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Their vision includes guidebooks and maps to show boaters the way, as well as perhaps 10 or more "interpretive buoys" that could beam out information about Smith's voyages to boaters' cellphones. The same information would be available on the Internet.

The chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund, Patrick F. Noonan, told a House committee this fall that the first three buoys could be set up this spring in Jamestown, the Potomac River and the northern bay.

Beyond that, planners say, the trail will cause few physical changes and cost relatively little.

"The beauty of the water trail idea is that these are public waters, so we don't have the cost," Noonan said in an interview.

Still, even without major construction plans, the trail is expected to cost about $2 million between 2007 and 2011, according to its backers. About $400,000 of that would be spent on the initial planning, and $500,000 a year would be needed for operating it after 2009. All of that would be paid for by the National Park Service.

Former Anne Arundel county executive Janet S. Owens said she hoped that one of the trail's stopping points would be at Hancock's Resolution, a historical site at the confluence of the Patapsco and Bodkin Creek. Owens noted that Smith had mapped that area and had possibly spent a night near there in 1608.

In Anne Arundel, as in many other areas along the bay and its tributaries, county officials hope that the trail would bring tourists to shop, sail, eat and stay overnight. An added bonus for Annapolis, Owens said, is that the tourists wouldn't be the kind who jam downtown parking garages.

"I'd love it [if they came] by boat," she said. "We don't need any more cars."


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