Existence on the Chesapeake Bay has always centered around the life-sustaining properties of its waters. Since the time of Native American tribes about 10 millennium ago, inhabitants have depended on the Bay for food, transportation, defense, recreation and a fresh start.
Pieces of Bay heritage are lovingly collected and detailed in small, regional museums scattered along its shoreline. Visit these little treasures to absorb the unique culture of Chesapeake life.
Chesapeake City, 410-885-5621
Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this maritime gem depicts the origin and operation of the manmade waterway connecting the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Learn how a charming historic town grew up around the 14-foot hand-dug passage and why it remains important to commerce nearly 200 years later. The original waterwheel and pumping engines, a miniature version of the canal's workings, and tools and fossils from the initial dig are housed in the old pump house. A real-time monitor tracks ships' locations. At nearby canal-side restaurants, munch on your favorite crab dish while awaiting a passing vessel.
Where to Dock: Bohemia Bay Yacht Harbour
Havre de Grace, 410-939-3739
Historically a central element of Chesapeake culture, decoys were originally rough-hewn wooden birds used to lure waterfowl within shotgun range. Today, decoys are sophisticated works of art displayed on a shelf to attract admirers. Contemporary carvers create with century-old skills passed down for generations. Through more than 3,000 objects, the museum seeks to preserve the legacy of Chesapeake water fowling and decoy making. More than 300 regional decoy carvers are represented in this premier collection of unique American folk art about working and decorative Bay decoys. The museum also owns decorative carvings, boats, guns, books and photographs.
Middle River, 410-682-6122
Much of Maryland's rich aviation and aerospace history was made by the Glenn L. Martin Company (later Martin Marietta). From the early days of aviation to the space shuttle, exhibits depict the World War II home front, Maryland astronauts and the Maryland Air National Guard. Learn about Rosie the Riveter and the impact women made during the war effort. Archives contain aircraft documents, research models, aircraft tools, and more than 200,000 aviation and company photographs. Outside on the tarmac is a flight line with numerous aircraft in various states of on-site restoration. Open-cockpit days are popular with kids of all sizes.
St. Michaels, 410-745-2916
Once a busy complex of seafood packing houses, work boats and docks, this working museum on the Miles River houses extensive collections of maritime heritage including water fowling, seafood harvesting and indigenous vessels. On the 18-acres are a boat yard with friendly craftsmen ready to share their knowledge and the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse. The gift shop is packed with Bay books, maps and collectibles. Stroll over Honeymoon Bridge to shop, dine or sip at the local brewery, winery and distillery.
The town's early 20th century architecture inspired artist Alyssa Maloof to create an enchanting environment for exploring the legends of mermaids. The new displays include mermaid scales, hair and nails, artifacts like a taxidermy mermaid hawked by P.T. Barnum as an authentic Fiji mermaid and oddities such as a mermaid shaped Cheeto. A timeline of mermaid sightings from the 1800s illustrates how these sea maidens remain an enduring myth in cultures around the world. Next door is the iconic Atlantic Hotel, a favorite stop in this delightful small town made famous by the movie, Runaway Bride.
Pocomoke City, 410-957-9933
Located in an historic 1922 brick building on the Pocomoke River, the center reveals the natural world of the history-laden Delmarva Peninsula. One exhibit details how Native Americans, who lived on the peninsula about 12,000 years ago, constructed 15-man canoes from one piece of timber. Meet bay creatures up close in the touch pool, crawl through a real beaver dam reassembled on site, and delight in the antics of two North American river otters, Mac and Tuck, who use a water slide to get from their large land habitat to a 6,000-gallon aquarium. Backsliding and bellyflops guaranteed!
Tilghman Island, 410-886-1025
What began as an effort to preserve an historic workboat, The Kathryn, evolved into an impressive collection that celebrates the history, culture and traditions of the island's watermen and their families. Photographs, documents, artifacts and artwork are housed in a restored W-shaped home, designed to catch the breeze in Bay summers. Ongoing interviews with generations of watermen are recording precious local stories about life on the water.
This little hideaway is a fascinating intersection of art and nature. A walking path meanders through the woods where artful surprises like whimsical gnome homes and fairy palaces are tucked in among larger, weightier works on loan from the Smithsonian. The Arts Building includes rotating exhibition space, a gift shop and a sunny patio. Through its engaging exhibits, programs and popular annual festivals, Annmarie Garden encourages creativity and reflection for visitors of all ages. The island's main road has a boardwalk along the banks of the Patuxent River and shops and restaurants on the opposite side.
Coltons Point, 301-769-2222
Located on the Potomac River, this museum outlines Maryland's earliest beginnings and heritage. It describes the English religious and political issues that inspired George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore, to seek freedom from British tyranny. Catholic voyagers on the Ark and Dove left England on the feast day of St. Clement, the Patron Saint of Mariners, to establish a colony based on religious tolerance. Water taxi service to St. Clement's Island State Park is available March to October.
At the largest stone fort in the United States, 21 unique sites and 170 historic buildings are waiting for you to explore on a walking tour, which begins at The Casemate Museum. A casemate is a fortified chamber within the walls of a fort used as living quarters or gun emplacements. Exhibits chronicle more than 400 years of social and military history on site, including Quarter #1 where Abraham Lincoln spent four nights with the Union Army, and the cell where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after the Civil War. Fort Monroe closed as a military installation in 2011.
Slip back in time to the steamboat era, circa 1813-1962. These vessels opened trade avenues between major cities and small communities, and later carried families to beach resorts on the Bay. Amid the models, dioramas, artifacts and photos is a constellation of small white lights outlining a map that reflects steamboats' impact on the towns they connected. A new exhibit features a restored pilothouse and a wall hung with sections of the pilothouse in their original state. Pack your mallet in case your visit coincides with the annual Irvington Crab Festival.