Chesapeake City, Md., Has a Lock on History Tied to the C&D Canal

Chesapeake City is divided by the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Chesapeake City is divided by the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. (By James Lee For The Washington Post)
By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

As you travel over the huge bridge that spans the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal at Chesapeake City, Md., it's easy to overlook the hamlet below. Linking the two parts of the town that were separated 180 years ago by construction of the canal, the Route 213 bridge is a technological marvel connecting what another marvel had divided.

I think about that image as I look down from the passenger seat of the car. To the east, the canal curves into the distance through the flat country of northern Delmarva; below, the larger part of the town sits tucked along the south bank, small Victorian houses and businesses side by side. It really is tiny: just two tree-lined avenues crossed by four streets. One friend of mine calls it a two-by-four.

Running from the mouth of the Elk River in Maryland to Reedy Point, Del., the canal -- 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep -- is the busiest one in the United States, handling more than 40 percent of Baltimore's shipping traffic, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

My wife and I were in Chesapeake City in early spring to check out the two things it has always been known for: the canal, of course, and the food. Our first stop was a white building on Bethel Road at the edge of town, where the Corps monitors canal traffic. Dave Titter, a maritime traffic controller, showed me the impressive control center and its bank of computer monitors. He and his fellow controllers keep track of thousands of vessels passing through the canal each year, from huge supertankers to barges, tugs and pleasure craft. When a very large ship approaches, Titter and his colleagues alert pilots to send out a "Maryland man" if a ship is going westward toward Chesapeake Bay or a "Delaware man" if the ship is heading east. These pilots guide the ships through the tricky waters of the canal and into the bay or the Delaware River.

Next door is the C&D Canal Museum, also operated by the Corps, where you can get a concise history of the 14-mile canal. A stone building that was once the canal's pump house, it houses a 10-foot-high water wheel made of cypress that used to lift more than a million gallons of water an hour from Back Creek into the canal in a constant battle against evaporation. It hasn't been used since the 1920s, when the canal was deepened to sea level, eliminating the need for locks. Among the many photographs is one of the old drawbridge at Chesapeake City after it was destroyed by a freighter that struck it in 1942.

That accident had a direct impact on the town, closing vehicle traffic between north and south Chesapeake City until 1949, when the current bridge opened. The new bridge had to be tall enough to allow supertankers to pass beneath it, resulting in a structure so high (135 feet above the water) and so long that cars literally drove right over Chesapeake City. Businesses suffered, sending the town into decline. By the 1970s, many of the old families had moved out, and buildings were left to decay.

That's when a group of concerned residents got together to save Chesapeake City. They raised $2,000, and with the support of Allaire DuPont, a wealthy preservationist, purchased Franklin Hall, a lovely brick building at the foot of Bohemia Avenue, which now serves as a cultural center and houses a jewelry store. That got the ball rolling, and the town has never looked back.

On Bohemia Avenue, signs of success are everywhere, in well-kept Victorian homes and in antique shops, gift stores, restaurants and inns. Back Creek General Store is a step back in time with its creaky wooden floors and original 1860 shelving and cabinets. The owner, Jayne Foard, was one of the pioneers who contributed to the purchase of Franklin Hall. Committed to rejuvenating the town, she bought the general store 24 years ago. Because she knows what the place was like decades ago, seeing it today is, the 80-year-old said, "my reward."

But even in bad times people still came to Chesapeake City to eat, and that remains true today. On Bohemia Avenue and on Second Street, five restaurants offer seafood, takeout, Italian and American food and fine dining. We had lunch at the Bohemia Cafe on Second Street, a friendly place where customers are greeted by name. For dinner we chose the Bayard (pronounced By-ard) House at the foot of Bohemia Avenue, a Chesapeake City mainstay that offers Eastern Shore cooking and is famous for its (superb) Maryland crab soup. Our table was by a window with sweeping views of the canal and the soaring arch of the bridge almost above us. If a ship should come by, we had a ringside seat. I asked our waitress whether we might see one while we ate, but she said that our timing was off: The best viewing times were early morning and later at night.

The next morning we were at the canal bank before dawn, camera at the ready -- but no luck. During that walk, though, we noted that the bridge seems to be everywhere you look. Turn a corner and there it is, soaring above somebody's back yard; look up at a gaily painted Victorian house and there's a truck up in the sky high above the town.

"We love the bridge," said Christine Mullins, our innkeeper at the Blue Max Inn bed-and-breakfast. "Go over the bridge at night and it is beautiful" because of the town lights and the navigation lights that run along the canal, she said.

After breakfast, the whole town was in a hubbub: It was the day of the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. People sporting green hats and shamrock sunglasses lined the sidewalks, waiting for the show to begin.

"Get ready," Mullins said. "You're about to see the world's biggest little parade."

As the revelers marched along Bohemia Avenue toward the canal, I looked up at the bridge looming overhead and thought, yes, the view from up there is nice. But from down here, it's even better.

James F. Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.

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