Through the big Plexiglas windows of the Hole in the Wall tavern you can watch a maritime spectacle worthy of Panama or the Suez.

Seven or eight times a day, ocean-going freighters go steaming by on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a man-made waterway that cuts across 19 miles of farmland to connect Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware River.

A small armada of high-priced and high-powered yachts usually accompanies them or ties up across the canal for the night to the music of a steel band.

With the canal enjoying one of the biggest booms in its history, the procession of boats should warm the hearts of the Hole in the Wall's patrons and everyone else in Chesapeake City. Usually, though, they just play pinball or shoot pool, oblivious to a canal that, for all the good it does them, might as well be in Egypt or Panama.

It is one of the strangest ironies of Chesapeake Bay that in this town of 1,000, where there is no more graphic example of the Bay's continued prosperity, the local people sometimes sound bitter and seem to yearn for the past.

"I've heard a lot of people in these yachts say this is the prettiest little town they ever saw," says John Schaefer, 76, whose store and restaurant on the canal used to be a symbol of the town's vitality. "In my opinion, it's the ugliest son of a bitch around here compared to what it was in the old days."

Like an interstate highway that is built through a declining city neighborhood, the C&D canal has had a mixed impact on Chesapeake City. On the one hand, more people pass through. On the other hand, they do not stop, and the route they take goes straight through town.

As the canal was widened and deepened over the years and a new highway bridge was built away from Chesapeake City's main street, businesses have deteriorated or been demolished. Most of the people who have stayed in town shop and passing scene at all, they do it as outsiders in their own hometown.

Envisioned as far back as the 17th century and built in the 19th, the canal cuts 290 miles off a Philadelphia to Baltimore run and 153 miles off a trip between Baltimore and New York.

In a fuel-conscious age, that has translated into a big increase in shipping. During 1978, the last year for which full figures are available, the canal showed a 40 percent increase in commerical traffic. Uncounted pleasure boats also come through, heading north in the spring and south in the fall and occasionally stopping for the night or to refuel.

"We're just like a semi-truck pulling in or a Greyhound bus, so to speak," said Ray Church, nursing a cocktail at dockside by the 65-foot motor yacht he skippers for a Tulsa, Okla., holding company and which rents for $10,000 a week.

To accomodate the larger ships and the increased traffic, the canal has been widened and deepened to its present dimensions of 450 by 35 feet. With each improvement, the town that owes its existence to the water-way has paid a price for its success.

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the canal, requesting federal money for upgrading the town's sewage plant, Mayor J. William Mason described the impact:

"Although the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is a well-maintained body of water, it has in the past been a deterrent to growth and, in fact, has reduced both the population and approximately 60 housing units in the town."

The Corps turned down the request. "I thought it was worth a try," shrugged Mason, a construction superintendent who, like most townspeople, makes his living away from here.

The canal has always divided the town. In John Schaefer's youth, the north side boys rowed across to play the south side baseball team, "and we didn't have a game that didn't end up in a fight."

The business district on the south side used to draw shoppers from Galena and Cecilton. But about 20 stores shut down when the new highway bridge and bypass was built to replace a span wrecked in a 1949 canal collision. Now there are a couple of bars, one grocery store, a funeral parlor, several vacant storefronts and a lot of weathered-looking frame houses. A few freshly-painted homes testify to a small influx of renovators.

A convenient symbol, for many in town, of the dominance of outside forces is the Canal House restaurant, which Schaefer owned before selling a few years back to an Austrian named Gunter Sunkler.

Sunkler, who owns three restaurants in Wilmington, prides himself on running a tight ship. "You won't see any employe with hair over their collar," the crew-cut Austrian said proudly. "No jewelry, no necklaces, nothing like that. We inspect them for rings and nail polish. Those that survive like it because they make a barrel of money."

The complaint in Chesapeake City is that Gunter, who lives in a home overlooking the canal, refuses to hire any natives, a charge he describes as "nonsense."

But, he concedes, "I do not hire anybody that lives within the same block. If you have to let them go, it could cause problems. I don't want an enemy next door to me."

"It's just a shame," said Mayor Mason. "When Schaefer had that place, they did a lot for the community, mostly hired local people. I think what rubs everybody the wrong way is Sunkler's attitude toward the community in general."

But, Mason concedes, "If it weren't for the Canal House this town would be in twice as worse shape."

The pilots who guide big ships through the Chesapeake and Delaware represent another part of the maritime prosperity that seems closed to Chesapeake City.

Some of the Chesapeake pilots earn as much as $81,000 a year, but their contact with Chesapeake City is limited to "the pilot shack," a long white-framed building used for naps, or meals at the Canal House.

The Delaware pilots don't fare quite as well, earning less and usually eating cold cuts in the shack rather than dining out.

Universal among all pilots, however, is the view expressed by Carson Smith, of Rehoboth, Del.; "Navigation is just a science. Piloting is an art."

"You gotta know everything: numbers and positions of buoys, shoals, courses of every channel, how to work with the tides," said Stewart Drennan, a retired pilot who lives in Havre de Grace. "I didn't have many dull moments, I'll tell you."

There was the time on the canal, he recalled, when "a tug and barge went across my bow without any signal, 1948 I think it was. I brushed him but I was pretty lucky." They are not always so lucky. "One of my best friends was lost at Chesapeake City 10 years ago. Going out to a ship at 1 a.m., the pilot launch went across the bow of a ship. She flipped over."

Here on the canal, at Annapolis and three miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Henry, Va., where they live aboard a floating hotel complete with Filipino stewards, Maryland's 75 pilots board foreign flag and foreign-cargo carrying vessels for the often long and sometimes treacherous trip through the Chesapeake's narrow freighter channels to Baltimore.

"The ships are getting so much bigger and deeper and the tremendous number of small boats are a growing hazard to pilots and ships," said George Lock, newly arrived here aboard a Venezuelan vessel he guided from Baltimore. "You get a big ore carrier, it takes two or three miles to stop the ship, your momentum is so great, and you can't turn in less than a mile."

Charatered by the state, the Maryland Pilots Association employs 65 people and owns five launches, one 200-foot boat and six automobiles. They don't actually steer the ships themselves but, armed with intimate knowledge of the Bay, direct others who do.

Chesapeake City, for them, is a way station, where they trade places with the Delaware pilots.

The other day the transfer of pilots was made aboard a French freighter as she moved slowly through the canal.

"She's steady, makes about 18 knots," said Delaware Bay pilot Henry Hess to newcomer Tom Uhlfelder, of Maryland, on the bridge five flights above the deck. "I've been running her through at 12 knots."

She carried 5,123 tons of cargo in 800 containers bound for Baltimore. Ship's Capt. "Mike" Lavorel knew nothing of their contents.

Lavorel had come from New York and after 128 miles on the ship's bridge was dead tired. "Here comes the French Foreign Legion," he joked as the Delaware pilot boarded at Cape Henlopen. "I've been looking for you for two hours."

He then promptly sat down and fell fast asleep. The canal, for him, is a place to rest. The Corps of Engineers museum here calls the canal "the stuff that dreams are made of." For Chesapeake City, the dream is over.