The past, present, future: side by side Snapshots: Visitors to Southern Maryland's coast turn into time travelers as they pass through old seaside villages, trendy hot spots and new shops to attract tourists.

July 23, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

A voyage down the Southern Maryland shoreline tells the whole story.

One spot is so small and remote, its downtown is a blur to passing travelers. Ice. Bait. Chum. Fuel. Gone in a drive-by second.

A few miles away, an old shore town is remade. Builders rip up abandoned fishing shanties. Commuters roar down newly paved roads. Jet skiers rumble on the waterways. The past is only a name on a tombstone. The rest is just a memory.

As Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties undergo one of the biggest population explosions in the nation, towns on the shore are bracing for change. Side by side, they sit on the coast -- snapshots of the past, the present and the future.

Old seaside villages fill with anxiety as fishing catches dwindle, watermen die out and the next generation goes into the drywall business.

New shoreline hot spots profit off nightclubs and trendy boutiques while saving just enough old oyster houses to still look good on postcards.

Day after day, coastal hideaways grow more popular because they are so remote, and less remote because they are so popular. Watermen open gift shops, folks line up for cruises to nowhere, tourists buy Hearty Fishermen -- breakfast specials, not people -- and a new shore emerges.

Solomons Island: the future

It's a rain-swept Saturday night at the Tiki Bar, and Jennifer Payne is getting splattered. Not with rain, but with a mai tai.

"It's like Hawaiian punch, only really, REALLY strong," says the bartender, who is pouring drinks under the thatched roof at the roaring Solomons Island bar.

The singles scene at the Tiki Bar could be anywhere. A man in a Defense Intelligence Agency sweat shirt tells several women they're the only one for him. A few beefy guys stand by palm fronds and check out anyone in a midi top. A blonde in a leather jacket describes a disastrous date who told her not to bleed in his car. A guy named Chip says he's definitely psyched.

This waterfront community at the southern tip of Calvert County offers one glimpse of Southern Maryland's future. It is as different as can be from the fishing mecca established by the old-time families -- the Elliotts, the Garners, the Doves. Those folks filled the community with oyster shucking sheds, boatyards and fishing shanties.

Now tourism means everything on Solomons Island. The commercial district is one of the hottest miles in Southern Maryland, with at least 50,000 tourists visiting the narrow downtown strip each year. The county has created a waterfront park, and it is building a new riverwalk and planning a beautified island entrance.

There are 10 gift shops, four antique stores, five bed-and-breakfasts, 16 restaurants, six fishing boat businesses and two otters on display at the Calvert Marine Museum (Bubbles and Squeak: They like crowds).

The family that used to manage an oyster house now runs two gift shops. Tourists can try on watermen's clothes at the museum and pretend they are fishermen. Sea captains give group tours and lead charter expeditions.

On the stormy Saturday night, the island was host to hundreds of people -- from three wedding parties to a fleet of senior prom-goers. Pleasure boaters pulled in for a night, joining the more than 1,100 people who reside there.

"Solomons is really the flagship of the county as far as our tourism development goes," said Solomons tourism specialist Herman E. Schieke Jr. "It's just so much fun."

Most locals attribute Solomons' commercial health to the Johnson Bridge, connecting Calvert to St. Mary's, and the installation of sewer lines in the late 1980s. Now, transplanted Washington and Baltimore commuters move in greater numbers each year, looking for a summer hideaway or a year-round home near their sailboats and cabin cruisers.

The growth has obliterated much of Solomons' past. Entire streets filled with Victorian houses were destroyed for new businesses -- recently one was razed for a parking lot. The houses that still stand are private and gated -- they didn't used to be -- so neighborhood folks cannot cut through to the water.

But even the longtime residents are reluctant to condemn the change.

"I think the good old days are nice to read about," says Gladys Bowers, a native who lived through the Depression. "Anybody who has lived on Solomons and lived through the hard times will say, 'Forget about the good old days. I'll take now.' "

Broomes Island: the past

Broomes Island, population 275, is the place that stayed behind.

Broomes used to be considered something of a Solomons Island twin. The two remote spots shared families and fishing traditions, separated only by a short stretch along the Patuxent River. But the two don't even seem part of the same stratosphere anymore.

Derek Wentz can draw a map of Broomes Island in half a minute, in between sales of chum and clamsnout. He can do it on a piece of paper no bigger than a receipt for chicken neck or jumbo worms.

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