Rock Hall, Maryland - Soundings Online

Rock Hall, Maryland

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This Eastern Shore community sports upscale marinas and more than a dozen eateries — and no traffic lights

Rock Hall has made a successful transition from commercial fishing village to cruising destination on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“Thirty years ago almost everyone in Rock Hall was involved in the seafood industry — fishing, processing, boat repair, supplies,” says mayor Ron Fithian. “As the fishing went down, recreational boating went up.”

Now more than a dozen marinas and boatyards line the shores of the peninsular village. Many are rated among the best on Chesapeake Bay, offering 1,700 slips and upscale amenities, and winning awards for personal and environmental friendliness. Many former watermen, certified by the American Boat Builders and Repairs Association, apply their skills as employees at the facilities.

Dredged and jettied Rock Hall Harbor remains the village’s maritime center. Crab houses, small marinas, boatyards and Kent County’s watermen’s dock line the north shore. The Pilgrim-red main building of Sailing Emporium, a full-service destination marina on the south shore, is a landmark for boaters. And there is only one condominium complex on the harbor.

“That condo will be the last because zoning was changed after it was built,” says Fithian, a waterman for 27 years before becoming mayor. “The residents realize that the harbor is their major asset and want all to be able to enjoy it, not just a few rich people.”

“When you come ashore, set your watch back 40 years,” says Gary Stein, who established the Rock Hall Trolley two years ago. There are no traffic lights in town and no chain stores, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find plenty to keep you busy. It should be noted that many shops are closed during the week and open for visitors on the weekend. Durding’s Store, a 1900s ice cream parlor with a tin ceiling and its original soda fountain, is closed on Wednesdays.

The trolleys offer narrated “dock to door” service for $3 a day, occasionally with Jimmy Buffet music or a sing-along at no extra charge. They are an easy alternative to walking, biking or renting a car for exploring the village. The colorful vehicles loop hourly around the one-by-three-mile village, making 35 stops at marinas, museums, restaurants, West Marine, and the hardware and grocery stores. On weekends, trolleys run to Chestertown, 28 miles up the Chester River. Stein also will set up charter trips to Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge or nearby golf courses.

A harborfront waterman statue honors the men who work the Bay, though these days the emphasis in Rock Hall is more on serving and eating local seafood than processing it. Casual and gourmet restaurants alike have opened in the last decade, as marinas expanded and upgraded their amenities to serve growing numbers of increasingly wealthy cruisers.

Rock Hall’s dozen-plus restaurants satisfy most any palate. For seafood — crabs especially — head to the harbor for P.E. Pruitt’s Restaurant and its tiki-style outdoor bar, which shows videos of the Friday night sailboat races, or Waterman’s Crab House (dock and dine, hot crabs, cold beer, rock music). Away from the harbor you’ll find Ford’s Seafood and Sports Bar on Rock Hall Avenue. (Ford’s and J&J Seafood both sell seafood retail.) Locals recommend Bay Leaf Gourmet for deli fare, Bay Wolf Restaurant for German cuisine, Swan Point Inn for prime rib, and The Inn at Osprey Point for fine dining. Watermen breakfast and hold forth at The Snack Bar or Pasta Plus, then stop at The Old Oars Inn for a cold one at day’s end.

Though restaurants dot the town, the retail district clusters around Rock Hall Avenue and Main Street, near the harbor. The Mainstay Performing Arts Center, spearheaded by former Philadelphia musician Tom McHugh, hosts art exhibits and local, regional and national musical entertainment, often much bigger names than you might expect in a small village on the Eastern Shore. (Chicago blues performers Cephas and Wiggins thought “Rock Hall” was the name of the building they were to play in, not the town.)

Surrounding Mainstay are antique shops and art galleries. Behind it you’ll find Oyster Court, a collection of quaint cottages housing artisans and crafters and their wares, plus a museum recalling Tolchester Beach, the Bay’s most popular amusement park, drawing up to 20,000 visitors a season from 1877 to 1962. Photos and memorabilia of the steamers docking at the park, its roller coasters, and activities allow youngsters to envision pre-Disney amusement parks and older visitors to rekindle their own park memories.

Rock Hall Avenue ends at the tip of the peninsula on Chesapeake Bay. Local lore says George Washington and other notables landed here on their travels to Philadelphia. Later, ferries from Annapolis, Md., docked here until the first Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed in 1952. (The second, parallel span opened in 1973.) The neighborhood known as Gratitude is the oldest section of town, with lovely classic homes and a small sandy beach with a boardwalk and gazebo. This remains Rock Hall’s recreational center, especially on hot summer afternoons and at sunset.

The dozen in-town lodgings range from a motel to bed-and-breakfast inns. Several, including the luxurious Williamsburg-style Inn at Osprey Point, overlook marinas.

On their circuit, the trolleys follow some of Rock Hall’s side streets, dotted with 1950s cottages, some of which have been expanded into year-round homes. Others were destroyed when Hurricane Isabel sent its surge through low-lying neighborhoods and across marinas last September. (Isabel had been downgraded to a tropical storm when it passed through the Chesapeake.)

“I’ve been here all my life, but I’ve never seen anything like [that hurricane],” says Douglas Edwards, owner of Lankford’s Marina. “High tide was at 2 a.m., but the water came in all night. It was 8 feet above normal by morning.”

The hurricane destroyed 100 cars and 70-plus homes but no boats — or the town’s spirit. “We and the other marinas went the extra mile to protect our customers’ boats,” Edwards says. “Customers reciprocated by helping clean up. We had 4 feet of water in our office Friday morning, yet we were up and running and selling gas by Monday.”

Unlike some villages where tourism has supplanted commercial fishing, Rock Hall residents are boater-friendly. It’s a tight-knit community that accepts new people, say Stein and McHugh, who both summered here for years before settling permanently.

Rock Hall’s residents aren’t forgetting their past, but it seems they welcome their future — cruising boaters.

If you decide to go

Rock Hall, the only upper Eastern Shore town directly on Chesapeake Bay, is within a daysail of many communities on the upper Bay: 16 nautical miles from Annapolis, 18 from Baltimore Inner Harbor, 20 from St. Michaels, 40 from Oxford, and 35 from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

More than a dozen marinas and boatyards offering more than 1,700 slips line the Rock Hall village peninsula. Water depths are around 6 feet. Lunar tides range about 2 feet. Many slips become available to transients when seasonal slip-holders are cruising.

“It works out well,” says Jonathan Jones, manager of Haven Harbor

Marina, Maryland’s second so-called Clean Marina and consistently named one of the Bay’s best. “The majority of our slip holders are from Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, and many cruise weekends. Boaters cruise across the Bay from Baltimore or Washington and fill the slips.”

On most summer weekends the marinas are full, and as many as 150 visiting yachts may pack Swan Creek anchorage.

Boaters enter Rock Hall Harbor between the lighted jetties to reach North Point Marina, Sailing Emporium, Rock Hall Landing Marina and several facilities catering to commercial watermen.

Gratitude Marina, directly on Chesapeake Bay at the tip of the Rock Hall peninsula, will again offer transient slips in 2005, says manager Jonathan Wright. Nearby Moonlight Bay Marina also takes transients. Gratitude Yachting Center offers yacht sales, service, instruction and charters only.

Swan Creek, forming the village’s north shore, carries 6-foot depths to Swan Creek Marina, Haven Harbour Marina, Osprey Point Marina (all major destination resorts), and Spring Cove Marina (seasonal slip rentals only). Lankford Bay Marina and Long Cove Marina are full-service destination marinas five miles south of the village.

Fuel is available at all marinas and boatyards except Moonlight Bay, Rock Hall Landing and Swan Creek Marina. All except Moonlight Bay, Rock Hall Marine Railway and Swan Creek Marina have pumpouts.

Rock Hall’s resort marinas offer friendly staff, country club surroundings and luxurious amenities, such as tennis courts, swimming pools, immaculate wash rooms, and air conditioned lounges, as well as Internet access, libraries, laundries, bicycles, dog walks, restaurants, gift shops, marine stores and Web sites showing real-time weather. Slips often include pumpout, Internet access, cable TV and telephone. Rates approach $2 a foot per night plus electricity; less at the smaller marinas.

Gratitude, Haven Harbour, Lankford Bay, Long Cove, Sailing Emporium and Swan Creek Marinas specialize in repairs. Haven Harbour and several other yards have state-of-the-art indoor repair facilities. Ninety-year-old Rock Hall Marine Railway, (410) 639-2263, mainly caters to commercial boats.

Most boatyards are spotless, lacking the clutter of work in progress. “Our employees walking across the parking lots will pick up cigarette butts,” says Jones.

Boaters who anchor can tie dinghies at Haven Harbour for $20 a day and use the facilities. (Tie-up is free if visiting the store.)

Rock Hall boasts new and brokerage yacht sales, a sailmaker, fishing charters, kayak tours, cruises and several sailing schools.

NOAA chart 12272, Chester River, Kent Island Narrows and Rock Hall Harbor, covers Rock Hall and approaches.

Where to stay

• Gratitude Marina, (410) 639-7011, www.gmarina.com

• Haven Harbour Marina, (800) 506-6697, www.havenharbour.com

• Lankford Bay Marina, (410) 778-1414, www.chesapeake-bay.com/lankfordbay

• Long Cove Marina, (410) 778-6777, www.rockhallmd.com/longcove

• North Point Marina (and motel), (410) 639-2907, www.rockhallmd.com/npoint

• Moonlight Bay Inn and Marina, (410) 639-2660, www.moonlightbayinn.com

• Osprey Point Marina (also Inn at Osprey Point), (410) 639-2663, www.ospreypoint.com

• Rock Hall Landing Marina (and motel), (410) 639-2224, www.rockhallmd.com/rhlanding

• Sailing Emporium, (410) 778-1342, www.sailingemporium.com

• Swan Creek Marina, (410) 639-7813, www.rockhallmd.com/swancreek

Information

• Kent County Visitors Center, (410) 778-0416, www.kentcounty.com

• Rock Hall Merchants Association, www.rockhallmd.com

Events

• Sept. 25 — Rock Hall Fall Fest, with music, crafts, performers, children’s

activities, watermen’s exhibits and

contests, (410) 778-0416.

• Oct. 30 — Halloween (costume) Parade, (410) 778-1342.

• Dec. 4 — Decorated Boat Parade, with tree lighting and caroling downtown, (410) 778-0416.

• Dec. 31 — Rock Hall Crawl, Mardi Gras party with crazy hat parade, music, “Rock Fish Drop” and fireworks, at harbor bulkhead, (410) 778-0416.

Hand-tongers and clam boats

The waterman statue on the harbor and the so-called “ark” — a floating fishing shanty — at the intersection of Main Street and Rock Hall Avenue both honor the era when the seafood industry supported 90 percent of the population and Rock Hall daily shipped trailer-truckloads of crab and rockfish.

The Rock Hall and Waterman’s museums give glimpses of that way of life.

Rock Hall Museum occupies two rooms in the municipal building and is open weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (www.rockhallmd.com/museum) In the “Maritime” room, 33 locally built models illustrate indigenous and whimsical vessels. A wooden skiff — the type of boat most every waterman owned for working inshore waters — dominates the space. Surrounding the boat are oyster bed charts, ice buoys, a hand-winder mast and boom oyster rig with patent tongs, a shrimp net, and other gear locals used to harvest seafood from Bay waters.

“Imagine spending your day hoisting those 13-foot oyster tongs filled with oysters,” says museum curator Larry McDaniel, who is revitalizing the 28-year-old

museum’s exhibits with the help of volunteers.

Steamboats were almost as important as workboats, says McDaniel, because they linked Rock Hall with other towns and cities, carrying passengers, seafood and agricultural products. Looking at the vintage photographs you can almost feel the excitement in town when the steamboat arrived.

A re-created workshop contains master decoy carver Roger Urie’s tools and the decoys he crafted for both gunning and display. Urie, who died in 2000, was one of the last of Rock Hall’s five master carvers.

In the museum’s adjoining “Domestics” room, agricultural implements, quilts, sleighs, dishes, vintage photography, sheet music, clothing, instruments and much more illustrate family and community life. The schoolroom display includes books and an original blackboard with pupils’ names and assignments still intact.

The Waterman’s Museum, next to Haven Harbour Marina, recalls the glory days of the 1970s, when Rock Hall had many hand-tongers, dozens of clam boats and hundreds of watermen with oyster licenses. “Each clam boat carried two rigs, and you could get 25 bushels of clams per rig,” recalls Ron Fithian, a waterman for nearly three decades before becoming Rock Hall’s mayor. “In those days there were 5,000 or 6,000 oystermen on Chesapeake Bay. In 2004 only 50 men had [Maryland] oystering licenses, and two or three of them were in Rock Hall.”

One room re-creates the interior of a waterman’s “ark,” a barge-like houseboat that was towed behind workboats to live in while the shad were running in the upper Bay.

Photos show local watermen oystering, seining, eeling, pound netting, clamming, crabbing and working other fisheries. Models, duck decoys and gear — from blocks and lines to traps and pots — illustrate equipment used both formerly and today. You can examine the 18-foot bateau displayed inside the building, and the 42-foot workboat and two heavy skiffs outside.

There is no charge to visit the museum, though donations are accepted and benefit the Maryland Waterman’s Association. www.havenharbour.com/hhwatmus.htm