History

Haunted Harbors of the Chesapeake Bay

The bay is an ideal haunting ground

By
Susan
Elnicki Wade

When you cruise the Chesapeake Bay and hear a bump against the side of your boat, do you wonder if it's an unmarked crab pot? Or could it be a chance encounter with a ghost ship? And when you see a glowing orb in the mist, could it be a distant lighthouse beacon, or a restless spirit roaming the marshes?If you have a preference for the paranormal, the bay is an ideal haunting ground for encounters with the supernatural. Rickety Victorian houses, isolated coves and historic battle sites set the stage for stories guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Even if you don't believe, Chesapeake folklore will add to your arsenal of spooky yarns to spin after you tie up at the dock and the sun goes down.

In the spirit of Halloween, here are four mysterious tales to spark your imagination. Explore the spirited locations if you dare.

A Witch's Double Ducking

In the early 1700s, the bay was a vast wilderness reluctant to be tamed. Settlers battled frigid winters and scorching summers that could wipe out farmlands and villages. Most of them were devout Christians who prayed for help against unpredictable natural elements and feared that witchcraft could topple their communities and tarnish their souls.

At that time, Grace Sherwood lived with her husband and three sons on a farm near the mouth of the Chesapeake on what is now Virginia's Lynnhaven Bay. She was a beautiful, headstrong maverick who was often the target of the townsmen's wistful glances. Female neighbors circulated rumors that Grace was a witch, and accused her of blighting gardens, causing livestock to die, and influencing the weather.

After eight years of badgering and slander, Grace was charged with witchcraft and sentenced to trial by ducking, the practice of tossing an accused witch into a river or lake. If she sank she was innocent, but if she floated she was guilty. On July 10, 1706, Grace was pulled out of jail and paraded down a dusty road to the bank of the Lynnhaven River in front of onlookers. Officials bound her thumbs to her big toes and flung her into the river. She treaded water long enough to untie the ropes and swim safely to shore.

Soaking wet, she glared at the meddling spectators while dark storm clouds gathered overhead. She pointed a dripping finger at them and shouted, All right, all of you po' white trash, you've worn out your shoes traipsin' here to see me ducked, but before you'll get back home again you are goin' to get the duckin' of your lives. Thunder crashed, the heavens opened, and a ferocious rain washed the horrified crowds off the roads and into the ditches. Afterward, Grace was convicted of witchcraft, served her time, and returned home to live to the ripe old age of 80 in what is now called Witch Duck Bay.

A Six-Fingered Sea Captain's Revenge

Take your boat up the bay's Pocomoke River and you'll discover an old mansion called Cellar House high on a bluff between Snow Hill and Pocomoke City. It's located on a remote track of land with bald cypress trees lining the shore, their gnarly roots digging deep into the marshlands.

A French sea captain with six fingers on his right hand built the house in the early 1700s as a wedding gift for his bride. At the time, Pocomoke City was a bustling port, and the captain managed a fleet of ships that traded in the Caribbean. Lonely and isolated, his wife became involved with a young man in the nearby village. One night the captain arrived home unexpectedly and caught the two lovers together. A vicious fight broke out. The young man was wounded, but he and the wife managed to escape. The wife was pregnant and her new beau died from his injuries a few months after the incident.

After the child was born, the wife decided to return to Cellar House and beg forgiveness from her husband. One evening, a man with a raft transported her and the baby upriver to Cellar House. Unfortunately the raft capsized, and the man and baby drowned. The wife swam to shore and dragged herself to the front door of Cellar House, pleading for mercy. The sea captain's heart was enflamed with rage, and he dragged her up to the bedroom and stabbed her to death with a knife. He left her on the blood-stained floor, gathered up his valuables, and took to the high seas with his crew, never to be seen again.

On rainy evenings, locals hear the cries of a baby and report sightings of a mysterious light in the swamp near Cellar House, which they believe is the wife's ghost holding a lantern while searching for her child. Visitors who park near the house have found a six-fingered handprint on their cars when they leave.

The Light Is Out, but the Ghosts Are In

On the southern tip of Maryland's western shore, where the Potomac River flows into the bay, stands Point Lookout regaled by many as the most haunted lighthouse in America.

The lighthouse was erected in 1830, but things started heating up during the Civil War. In 1862, Union forces built nearby Hammond General Hospital to treat wounded soldiers. In 1863, the U.S. government added a prison camp for Confederate soldiers, the largest of the Civil War, intended to house 10,000 men, and conditions were miserable. Men froze to death, food spoiled and wells became contaminated. Overcrowding led to smallpox and other diseases. By the time the camp closed in 1865, more than 50,000 prisoners had been contained there, and 3,000 to 8,000 had perished.

As if that weren't enough to stir up a bubbling paranormal stew, Point Lookout also witnessed several dramatic shipwrecks. In 1864, the U.S.S. Tulip exploded offshore, killing 47 crewmembers. During the gale of 1878, a steamship sank north of the point and 16 passengers were lost.

Lighthouse keepers lived at Point Lookout for 135 years, but the era of human inhabitants ended in 1965 when the Navy bought the lighthouse, installed electronic alarm systems and placed an automated light offshore. Today the lighthouse is part of a Maryland state park. Rangers and visitors regularly report encounters with guests from the other world, including deceased wives of lighthouse keepers, victims of shipwrecks and Civil War soldiers. Ghost hunters flock to the site to witness mysterious lights, odd smells, cold spots, sounds of moaning, voices whispering and boots marching. One renowned ghost specialist recorded 24 voices at Point Lookout. The most frequent sighting is of a Confederate soldier dressed in rags dashing across the road. Perhaps his soul is still trying to escape the camp?

Ghosts and Guinness

The epicenter for supernatural activity on the bay is Baltimore. The gallows at Fort McHenry, the haunted deck of the U.S.S. Constellation, and the grave of Edgar Allen Poe are just a few of the city's spooky spots.

But if you want to experience an evening of ghost inhabitations (and maybe a few libations), hit the cobblestone streets of Fells Point, a waterfront neighborhood full of 18th-century buildings. The Horse You Came In On is Baltimore's oldest saloon and the only Maryland bar to stay open before, during, and after Prohibition. The Horse's other claim to fame is being Poe's last drinking spot before his mysterious death. The Cat's Eye Pub has a Wall of Death displaying photos of previous owners and patrons who have passed. Their spirits like to knock pictures off the walls and shove glasses around the bar. An energetic ghost occasionally sets a heavy boxing bag in motion when all the windows are closed. And Bertha's is home to tasty mussels as well as ghosts who appear at tables and follow guests down the stairs. The neighborhood has plenty of ghostly places and you never know who will be sitting next to you.

Boaters' Superstitions

WHEN TO START A JOURNEY

Beware of three and four-day weekends! Fridays are an unlucky day to set sail, because Jesus was crucified that day. Thursday doesn't bode well, because it's the day of Thor, god of thunder and storms. Forget about departing on the first Monday in April that's when Cain slew Abel. But you can change the mojo of unlucky days if you sneeze and turn your head to the right just before shoving off.

DESTINY LIES IN THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

Sorry, ladies, but women on board allegedly bring bad luck, because they distract the crew from their duties. But topless gals are acceptable company, because their breasts calm the seas. That's why a bare-chested female figurehead with its eyes wide open mounted to a ship's bow can guide the ship to safety. Redheads of any gender fetch bad fortune, but you can reverse your fate if you speak to a carrot-top before he talks to you.

PASSION FOR LUCKY FASHION

Gold hoop earrings, the symbol of sailors who have traveled around the globe, are believed to prevent drowning, and jewelry made of coral wards off lightning and hail. Tattoos became such a hallmark of superstition by the 19th century that 90 percent of the U.S. Navy wore them. Inking the North Star on your skin helps guide the way home. Tattoos of pigs and poultry were popular in pre-refrigeration times. Live animals were brought along to feed the crew, and the crates holding pigs and chicken often floated after ships sank, so those livestock images were used in tattoos to ensure that sailors wouldn't drown.

A FALSE STEP CAN TWIST YOUR FATE

It's okay to sing, dance, and drink, but don't ever whistle on a boat. You'll summon bad weather by whistling up a storm. Spitting or tossing a coin into the waves brings good fortune, because those are considered tributes to Neptune. Never enter or leave a boat with your left foot, or you'll be courting disaster. Don't knock a bucket overboard, or luck will go out with it. And don't mess around with gulls, albatrosses, or other seafaring birds, because they are believed to carry the spirits of dead sailors. To remove the bad luck incurred by killing an albatross, a sailor would wear the lifeless bird around his neck until its flesh rotted away.

Related Articles
Hurricane Hunters
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Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.

Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.

Three Who Paved the Way for How We Track & Predict Hurricanes Today

Father Hurricane

When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.

The Aerial Acrobat

Len Povey

Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.

When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.

Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.

The Data Cruncher

One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.

Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.

Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.

In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.

Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.

Hurricane Tracking Apps for Your Phone

You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

THE WEATHER CHANNEL

Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.

NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER DATA

Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.

WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.

CLIME

Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.

RADARSCOPE

If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.

HURRICANE – AMERICAN RED CROSS

Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.

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How Hurricanes Get Their Names
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Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.

In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.

Read More
The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD
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With its sandy beaches and boardwalk attractions, Ocean City is the quintessential family summer vacation destination. It’s also a popular spot for sport fishermen and boaters traveling up and down the East Coast. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Ocean City was established on a barrier island called Assateague that extended 60 miles from the Indian River Inlet in Delaware to Chincoteague, VA. The section of the island belonging to the State of Maryland had no outlet to the sea, and early visitors came to bathe in the surf and take in the fresh ocean breezes. These travelers arrived by ferry boat from the mainland until 1876 when a wooden trestle train bridge was built. 

In its younger days, Ocean City was half resort town and half fishing village. The fishing was “pound fishing,” a style I’d wager few people today have ever seen. It was practiced originally by Native Americans and became popular in the 19 century along the East Coast from Maritime Canada to the Carolinas.

Pound fisherman used wide nets attached to wooden poles to catch fish. They drove these tall poles into the ocean floor about a half mile from shore, creating permanent structures called pounds. When fish entered the open end of a pound, they were then corralled by the nets and couldn’t escape. 

With no passage into the Atlantic, crews of Ocean City fishermen needed to launch 40-foot boats from the beach directly into the ocean and row out to the pounds. To harvest the fish, the crew would remove the ends of the nets from the poles and pull them up by hand. The fish were then brought back to shore, carted across the island, packed in barrels of ice and shipped via railroad to fish markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

It was laborious work, and for years local businessmen petitioned state and federal agencies to create a manmade inlet to connect the bay directly to more fertile fishing grounds farther off the coast.

A Fierce Storm Carves Out a New Inlet

In August of 1933, a hurricane came ashore in Norfolk, VA, and then tracked up the center of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing up to 10 inches of rain per day and flooding the back bays to the west of Ocean City. Oceanside, wind and waves destroyed homes, hotels and businesses on the town’s boardwalk. 

When the storm subsided, the railroad bridge and fish camps had been washed away, replaced by an inlet 50 feet wide and eight feet deep that formed when built-up water driven by high tides rushed east over the barrier island from the swollen back bays to the ocean. Mother Nature did what governments wouldn’t do, and it changed Ocean City forever.

It didn’t take long for officials to take advantage of this event and enlarge the inlet to ensure its permanence. As a result, a commercial harbor, marinas and docks began sprouting up around the inlet and across the bay on the mainland. Most fishing was commercial in those immediate post-hurricane years, but a few captains realized the recreational fishing potential in the shoals and fertile canyons offshore that were teaming with billfish and other species. During World War II, a lack of fuel and the presence of German U-Boats in the Atlantic virtually shut down offshore fishing. Things picked up after the war, and by the late 1950s and 1960s more and more fishermen were coming to Ocean City. 

But it was the white marlin that really put Ocean City on the sport fishing map. A challenging fish known for its beauty, the white marlin wows anglers with its speed and jumping antics. These fish travel in packs and are prevalent in Maryland waters in late summer and early fall. 

Sport fishermen have been chasing white marlins off the coast of Maryland since 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt visited and caught two of the feisty billfish. To celebrate this exceptional fish and attract more attention to Ocean City, local fishermen launched the White Marlin Open in 1974. Fifty-seven boats entered that first year. By contrast, the 2021 Open drew 444 boats, more than 3,500 contestants – including NBA superstar Michael Jordan – and awarded $9.2 million dollars in prize money making Ocean City the undisputed “White Marlin Capital of the World.”

Ocean City today counts eight marinas, 20 fishing tournaments and numerous charter boats. According to the city council, boating and sportfishing are significant economic drivers bringing tens of millions of dollars annually to the local economy. 

So, whether you’re a hardcore sport fisherman, casual angler or a boater who simply enjoys a cocktail dockside at sunset, there’s something for everyone “Goin’ downy O, Hon!” as native Marylanders like to say about a visit to their beloved Ocean City.

Check Out Three World-Class OC Fishing Tournaments

Ocean City Tuna Tournament
July 8-10, 2022

Entering its 35th year, this has become the world’s largest tuna tournament with more than 100 participating boats and a record payout that eclipsed $1 million in 2021. 

White Marlin Open
August 8-12, 2022

First held in 1974, the WMO is inarguably the highlight of the Ocean City fishing tournament calendar. Now the biggest and richest billfish tournament in the world, the WMO drew 444 boats and 3,500+ contestants last year.

Poor Girls Open
August 17-20, 2022
Launched in 1994, this is the largest ladies-only billfish release tournament benefitting breast cancer research. Despite its charitable overtones, the tournament is all about the fishing, and the hundreds of boats and hundreds of competitors take it very seriously.

The Orange Crush: A Cocktail Born on the OC Docks

Orange Crush | Susan Elnicki Wade

The Orange Crush is a staple cocktail in most Maryland bars. It’s basically a screwdriver with a shot of triple sec and a splash of lemon-lime soda. The secret to a good one, though, is fresh-squeezed orange juice. And there’s no place better to try one than the Harborside Bar & Grill in Ocean City where the cocktail is said to have originated on a slow night in 1995 when a couple of bartenders were bored and playing around with a bottle of orange-flavored vodka.

Harborside is a wooden establishment whose backside opens onto the commercial harbor in West Ocean City. Gritty is the word that comes to mind. As you would expect, the sign out front boldly announces the home of the Orange Crush, as do newspaper articles framed on the walls and t-shirts for sale. Inside, people pound crabs and watch the Orioles play baseball. Ceiling fans whirl, and it smells of Old Bay and French fries. White lights strung across the ceiling add a festive touch. It doesn’t get more Maryland than that. 

To try your first Orange Crush, visit Harborside Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, MD, 410-213-1846.

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