Chesapeake Float ~ Crisfield

mail boat and ferry to Tangier Island 

 

I wouldn’t say I planned a visit to Crisfield, but it has been in the back of my mind for a while. At 7pm on Wednesday I’m crunching out the gravel driveway with Aeon in tow, golden evening light shining on the new varnish. An odd time to leave for sailing trip, yes. Usually this is the time for coming home.

I’m heading to the Eastern Shore for the Chesapeake Float, to a place just north of the Virginia-Maryland state line. A long drive from here. It’s a long drive from anywhere, about the farthest you can get from any bridge or ferry that crosses the Bay. It means driving hours north to DC or hours south to Norfolk, just to get to a bridge; then driving hours more to get back to the middle of the Peninsula. Twice the distance, at least, of going straight across if you could. This is what makes that part of the Bay still so appealing. Not many people take the trouble to get there.

 

view up Main Street from the waterfront

 

After packing and puttering all afternoon, trying to remember what was forgotten since last year, it’s either leave now or go to bed. Better to get the drive out of the way tonight, better than leave in the middle of the night to start the day exhausted from hours of driving and too little sleep.  No idea what I’ll do when I get there later tonight. At least leaving at night will avoid the traffic.

 

 

 

 

Steve tried to give me some tips on getting through Tidewater and the bridge tunnels. I basically loath urban driving, and choke points like bridges and tunnels are the worst. A history of bad experiences. You’d think, or at least I did, that passing through while everyone else is home having dinner and watching TV would be, you know, better.

But no. Construction crews are working on both tunnels – Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay. They only do that work at night. By 11pm I’m still 10 miles from either shore on the Bridge Tunnel in the middle of the Bay. There’s nothing to do but call Terri and chat, listen to seagulls I can’t see in the dark. Thanks, Steve, but my luck still holds.

Once I get to God’s Country everything improves considerably. It’s dark, and more empty than not. Everything not farm or fishing related clusters near the one road that runs up the spine of the peninsula, alongside a lumpy rail line. I worked out here some 20 years ago. Fortunately, not much has changed since then, and what did is for the better. More businesses open, buildings better cared for. There’s some money here now.

I pass hotels that look open and wonder if I’ll regret passing them all later. I only hope there’ll be a place to stay, and it’s open, when I get to Crisfield. Otherwise, I’ll be sleeping in the car in a parking lot, or maybe in the state park.

 

 

 

I used to hear about Crisfield a lot when I was a kid. The way watermen on the mainland talked about it had sort of mythic overtones. Crisfield was to fishermen what Atlantic City was to gamblers. It was once the second largest city in Maryland – second only to Baltimore – and was populated entirely by people in the seafood industry, and everything needed to support them.

My grandfather went there once, and came back with tales of amazement and wonder. In the early days, so many oysters and crabs came out of Crisfield they had to build a railroad into town just to haul it all out, several trains a day left fully loaded. Much of the waterfront is built on piles of old oyster shells. There was nowhere else to put them all, so they made more land with it.

 

 

There isn’t much happening in Crisfield when I roll in at 1am in 2014, though. Doesn’t look like there’s much happening at any hour now – buildings boarded up, weeds growing tall. I do find one hotel in town. The Captain Tyler. The parking lot is full, which is always a good sign; but that means I have to park in a neighbor’s yard. Lights are on in the office, no one inside. A hand written sign taped to the door says

Knock on Door #1 for a Room or Service

Tapping lightly brings no response. It’s late. Clearly I’m going to have to wake someone up, and this seems like very bad manners. But it’s 40 minutes back to the last hotel I saw on the highway.

I tap some more. The door is opened by a woman who immediately reminds me of my grandmother. Same age, same era, same smell of soaps and powders. She is cheerful and polite. I’ve gotten her out of bed, selfishly arriving at this hour for my convenience, and I feel terrible. In the office she finds a room and records it in a hand-written ledger. The doors aren’t locked, she says, keys are in the rooms. It’s only $60. I get the very clear sense as we chat that she is glad to see me. Glad to have the $60.

She asks why I’m here, and offers ice for the coolers – boaters of the sort she’s used to dealing with always need ice. Says if I move the car and boat by 7am I should be able to leave it parked in the neighbors yard, despite numerous signs there insisting the contrary.

It’s past 2am by the time I get settled and turn out the lights.

 

 

 

 

 

When I get up to move the car at 6am, she’s already up and in the office, serving early risers. She wishes me well on my “kayak trip” (ok, it’s a smallish boat, and is actually under a cover) and makes sure I remember to get ice, from a very nice newish ice machine, which must have cost a bundle.

 

 

Daylight reveals why she was so happy to wake up for three Jacksons. This town is dying. It’s not clear there’s even a place to get breakfast. What doesn’t have plywood windows is a soft-shell crab operation, and many of those look long out of use.

The exception is a couple of enormous condo complexes that seem to have fallen out of the sky from another planet, they look so out of place. They barricade the town from the water, and look mostly empty.

There’s a restaurant where a bunch of blue-haireds are converging, but the cook outside having a smoke says they aren’t open. Points me down the road to the dock. He does ask about the boat under the cover, though. Even covered and across the street he can tell it’s a classic boat design. These are still water people here

 

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Down by the waterfront is a cafe. The owner is doing computer tech support on the phone in the corner. He’s got an older Windows laptop, a printer, a cellphone, and a pot of coffee covering a table in back. Otherwise, I’m the only other person not a cook or a waitress in the place. And no one else comes in while I’m there.

 

 

From the window table I watch the mail boat from Tangier Island (ed.) arrive and tie up at the rebuilt town dock. There’s a golf cart on deck. Tourists disembark. They each drag a single small overnight bag on wheels.

Apparently, no one plans to stay more than one night on Tangier and Smith Islands. Both islands are rather tentative, given rising sea levels. Wouldn’t be prudent to book much more, I guess. Even a single night poses a certain level of risk. With the tourists gone, a grocer rolls boxes of provisions for the island up the gangway. All the comings and goings happen over coffee and a crab omelet.

Actually, it’s all over before the first cup of coffee is cold. They’re pretty self-sufficient on the Chesapeake islands, don’t need much.

 

 

On the way out I drive through the rest of the town. There are vestiges of what it used to be. Lots of churches, one on every block. They’re big and elaborate, a sign they were once well funded. Their flocks have long departed, but like headstones in a cemetery, and bank buildings, they outlast everything else. Main Street is mostly boarded up. Houses stand empty.

 

 

 

Kevin later reminds me that three hurricanes – Isabel, Irene and Sandy – each swept through the town within a single decade. Like a boxer hitting the matt, Crisfield never had a chance to recover from one knockdown punch before the next one landed.

Government grants have trickled in with small transfusions of cash. There’s a new town dock, and one house of the hundred damaged and abandoned has been rebuilt. But the whole town, and fifty square miles surrounding it, is only a few feet above mean high tide. Storm surges were 4 feet above that. Over half the county is now in the flood plain. Native oysters, decimated by disease, have all but disappeared. Crabs come and go in cycles. Foreign markets invade. Not many people make a living in Crisfield on seafood anymore.

It’s time to head for Deal, by way of Chance.

 

 

Editor’s Note:

Apparently, some folks have taken offense at this post. I can assure you, none is intended.

Like many waterfront communities, Crisfield is struggling with forces beyond it’s control. I happen to come from an even smaller town hit by floods at least 20 times in the last 100 years – by hurricanes Agnes and Camille up to the second story windows. It has taken us decades to recover from those, and only now are we getting back on our feet. Many businesses still struggle just to survive.

Scottsville Floods
Main Street Marker 

Town Park 
Obelisk

We wear those scars with pride. Markers of all the flood levels are hand painted on the sides of buildings on main street, and carefully maintained. We even paid to install an obelisk in the town park where the water levels are engraved in stone, so visitors can come and marvel at them. And they do. It’s how we say we’re still here, and proud of it.

No doubt the folks of Crisfield will be, too.

 

22 Replies to “Chesapeake Float ~ Crisfield”

  1. I find it odd that no mention of a nearly kept beach was found, which you are clearly on a pier at it. No mention of the other breakfast spots in town, which Donna would of gladly pointed you to. No mention of the thriving shopping center at which the town had a modern grocery store and a full shopping center of stores. Did ya miss the boat stores you passed by? Clearly you had a picture in your mind of a town that had fallen prior to coming. You should of looked a little harder at what has risen from what the hurricanes left us. Clearly you set out to write a dreary article. Shame on you.

  2. I think you missed the mark here. It seems you were looking for cafe culture near the riviera. Crisfield is a blue collar town with tough folks who treat each other well unless you give them reason not to. May is still fairly off-season for a town that is mainly fueled on tourism. If you didn’t go to Gordon’s, you didn’t do much research. The real story is how the septic systems in the northern part of the bay watershed have increased nitrogen levels to a point where seafood cannot thrive. I have been all over the US and every other small town that is “thriving” looks the same: you have a Walmart, a couple of chain restaurants and every mom and pop store is out of business. I think it’s a blessing that some places are outside the scope of corporate interest. The housing projects were created to keep a population of seafood workers within walking distance of the crab-houses. Now the seafood is gone because everyone upstream has been irresponsible and the town has been left holding the bag. People in Crisfield will still drink vanilla-cokes and make a living; you will continue to wander about making arrogant snap judgements.

  3. I think I would have enjoyed this post more if you’d identified what you expected from this small town before you visited. Did you want a thriving waterfront town with lots of business, bustle and accommodation? Or did you want an authentic rural experience? Seldom do they come in the same package.

    With bustle and business there must be a population center, and there isn’t one single bustling town on Delmarva that is 15-20 miles from the main road … on the road to nowhere. Rock Hall, Tilghman Island, Hoopers Island, Deal Island, Nanticoke, Oxford, Snow Hill — and many more. They’re all located on the edges of the peninsula, removed from the population centers, yet they all draw visitors who come back repeatedly.

    Those small towns can’t be what Cambridge, Easton and Berlin are because the population doesn’t support that capability. So this post is imbalanced and in being so, is a discredit to Crisfield and all the rural water towns on the Shore.

    Had you mentioned the marsh, the sunset, the storytellers or the waterfowl .. or what the wind sounds like when it’s rustling through the marsh grass …. then you would have identified some of the amazing qualities of Crisfield. Perhaps a walk through the state park or a ride out to the private beach on Janes Island, you might have had a different impression. Had you gone into Gordons and listened to the people talking, you would have been able to connect with what is uniquely Crisfield — something worth visiting a town for, culture that has remained. One can’t grasp the treasure in these small towns with a whirlwind rush through…snap some pics, be inconvenienced that everything isn’t right there when you want it. To enjoy these amazing spaces takes time.

    I could have read forever about a woman who gets out of bed a 1:00 am and is so tender and polite to a stranger who needs a place to stay. Another quality rarely found in the larger, more populated cities and towns.

    And please stop feeling sorry for Crisfield because of the storms. There value that was there for visitors before the storms is still there.

  4. I find it almost humorous how folks take offense at this article. THIS is the reason that the town does not thrive. If you’re stuck in the old ways and don’t take constructive feedback to heart, you won’t get better and the town will die. Defending the town by saying “If you didn’t go to Gordon’s you didn’t do research” is like saying, “We don’t care what you say because it’s what the people who never leave here have to say that matters!” That’s all fine and good, as long as you’re ok with the town and the lifestyles in the town becoming extinct for the next generation. That’s why so many people move out, the close minded, never changing attitudes that keep people and towns poor and non-evolving. I’m pretty sure that before the crabs, there were people in Crisfield/Marion who farmed, then they saw an opportunity on the water and took it. Probably considered revolutionary in their time. Why not listen to outsiders who want BETTER for the town rather than those who have been there forever and are not interested in change because they’re a) lazy, b) complacent or c) don’t care about the future generations that will be in the town.

    1. Most of the people who “defend” the city are come-heres anyway. Noone can take to heart what they say. They either were born here and left for a long time and came back or they just came here randomly. Now that they are here they think they run the city and want to be huge assets and make change and what not. They don’t have a clue.

  5. FYI–The boat. Courtney Thomas is not the mail boat and ferry to Smith Island, it is the mail and ferry to Tangier Island where lots of precious people call home just like the proud generous loving people of Smith Island. Maybe you better come back and stay a while and get to know some of the best people in the world.

  6. Your final lines assure readers that no offense was intended. If that’s the case, it’s probably because you assumed that anyone backward enough to like Crisfield does not read blogs. Surprise. Like a lot of readers, I was surprised anyone would attempt a visit to a strange place having done zero homework, and then arranging to arrive after midnight. Savvy travelers like yourself really should not stray from the beaten path.

  7. I’m surprised at 1AM you didn’t also see the drug addicts, prostitutes, and drunks that hide in the shadows! I hate Gordon’s, it’s a greasy spoon, dirty, tacky place to eat! The old men, and some young, are mostly locals and are rude. I went in one time with a minority friend and stood for several minutes, ignored and never acknowledged! Walked out – no one cared. The people are typical of a small town, gossip, gossip, gossip.. They hide all THEIR DITY LITTLE SECRETS from outsiders. But they all know the truth. There have been murders, one recently just two years ago, Aaron Culbertson…read all about it. It is the poorest, most uneducated place I have ever seen. Sadly, I find myself there often because of family ties. They still call black people “colored boy” . Not a place I ever want to live in again. I’ve slept at the Paddlewheel and used my debit card at Willies, only to have it stolen and used.
    Good for you for only staying briefly and getting out safe!

  8. im not sure what your visit was for ??take a few beautiful shots with that fancy camera of yours….it surprises me that a small town has lost its charm without a coffeeshop or bookstore. available …..as for sealevels rising….sorry tell ya its everywhere~the islands will take more then a day to vanish.

  9. The people of Crisfield are, by far, some of the finest, most upstanding people on the planet! The problem is, complacency. They had their chance years back to revitalize the town completely and because they believed the advice of a few bigmouthed naysayers complaining that the investors wanted”sweetheart” deals, they voted down the last chance they probably will ever have to improve that city. It was small town mentality that generated fear in the constituents . There was then, and is now, a complete disconnect to the understanding of how big enterprise operations work. Sure, there are sweetheart deals. Do you think, looking at what you see now, which hasn’t changed much since the revitalization offer, anyone in their right mind would attempt to expect a return on serious investment without serious concessions? That group offered to go out on a very thin limb to bring that city out of despair, but the city was dubious of the “come heres” offer , as I said, due to a few bigmouths with clout, who, I might add, didn’t even live in the city. Despite rising water issues, that community might be a whole lot different right now, but, despite having said that, I doubt that most of the constituents even care. That is a testament to the level of complacency that exists then and now. I live here and no one ever talks about what might have been. They just go on living in the here and now…

  10. Wow Barry! I see you really took it on the chin over Crisfield. I must say I can identify with the melancholly feeling that comes with seeing the plight of some locales. Crisfield Md. hasn’t cornered the market on such things but there are cities and towns all over this country in a similar state, (am fighting the urge to name some of them). With that being said, I too am planning a trip to Crisfield. I can assure the people of that area that nothing that’s been said about the area, (on this blog or anywhere else – either positive or negative), has influenced that decision in any way. I’m going for my own reasons! I don’t frequent restaurants much but probably will while in the area. I’ll be willing to take the advice of the locals on where to go but will if it’s not clean or the food isn’t good I don’t go back, (word to the wise). As for the bad elements, (ie. murderers), I plan to to be on a killing spree of my own, (ducks/ fish). I must say thought that a town is like a person in the respect that people see you as they see you, not as you want to be seen. So ready or not Crisfield here I come!
    I’ll close by saying that obviously your blog is very far reaching Barry. Regardless of the comments you should be sincerely flattered! Did you happen to get any pics or video while out on the water there?

    1. I did get both, Joe. Those are coming in the days ahead. And glad to hear you’re making the trip undeterred. Actually, everyone I met in Crisfield was very friendly, and went out of their way to welcome visitors. I’m sure your experience will be the same. Several restaurants looked intriguing. Maybe next time, as I’ll be back for sure.

  11. Followed the breadcrumbs that lead to your blog via a photo of an old family friend that you posted on FB. Glad I took the crooked course. I’m enjoying your photography and writing. Had several instances myself lately when what I felt was benign blogging was taken offensively by others. I went out of my way to clarify and apologize. . .even going so far as to pull a post down. I guess the trick is that my blog is about me and my life, not ‘you and yours’. I put great energy and effort into what I write that it’s troublesome that people seem to be looking at times for a reason to make it about them and take offense (yet I’m not allowed to take it personally that my writing or feelings are criticized). I don’t have the answers, just some empathy…and I’d tell you to keep up the great work but I’m already confident you will.

  12. I thought the blog was well written. The negative comments to the article are the ones who don’t want the city to thrive. Look at the current mayor when a business want to come to Crisfield more or less told them to go shove it.
    When I moved to Crisfield over a decade ago the town had some hope but nothing. Crime happens in your backyard and the police turn a blind eye to it. The police chief is too busy getting his drink on at the VFW instead of taking care of busy. When he was hired into the position “he stated he had an open door.”
    The town is too busy spending money on the subsidy housing and forgets about the real law abiding tax paying people of the city.

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