For tourism, a lost colony Landmark: St. Mary's City offers a trove of historical lore, but remains an attraction with disappointing numbers of visitors.

August 19, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Obscurity may be an asset when protecting antiquities, but it's no great ally for a tourist attraction.

That may prove the most important discovery at taxpayer-owned Historic St. Mary's City, cradle of Maryland and widely acclaimed as the best-preserved founding site of any English colony in North America.

Archaeologists consider the artifacts at the Southern Maryland settlement to be as significant as any found at Jamestown or Plymouth. But as a tourist destination, St. Mary's attracts fewer visitors in a year than the National Aquarium in Baltimore welcomes in a typical August week.

Stuck at the end of a remote peninsula in a rural county and assigned just $4,500 a year for advertising, Maryland's small-scale, small-budget version of Colonial Williamsburg is not only off the beaten path, it's practically unlisted.

"This will never be Disneyland," said Del. John F. Slade III, a St. Mary's County Democrat and a museum supporter.

Don't try driving the 100 miles south from Baltimore to Historic St. Mary's City on a Monday or Tuesday because the facilities will be closed. Only three actors are on staff to re-create Colonial life. Tourists expecting to spend more than a couple of hours here are bound for disappointment.

Last month, St. Mary's City's executive director quit after just two years on the job to protest what she called the state's inability to properly fund and manage the historic landmark.

"I'm hoping that if nothing else comes from my resignation, it's a wake-up call to the importance of the site and the lack of support Maryland gives it," said Sara E. Patton, who will leave her post next month. "It's been very frustrating."

It was not supposed to be this way. When it was founded 27 years ago, Historic St. Mary's City was meant to launch a tourism industry that would help replace the economic benefits of Southern Maryland's banned slot machines.

Taxpayer money financed the purchase of 835 acres of land that had been left largely undeveloped since Leonard Calvert, the state's first governor, and his fellow colonists arrived in 1634.

None of the settlement's original buildings remained (it was largely abandoned by the early 1700s), but planners envisioned a re-created St. Mary's City based on the evidence gathered by archaeologists. They expected the "living history" museum to eventually attract a half-million visitors a year.

Today, the site draws about one-tenth that number. It features a restored State House, an Indian hamlet, a tobacco plantation, some reconstructed buildings, a hiking trail and a gift shop.

That represents millions of dollars of investment, but it is not on the scale of a Jamestown or Williamsburg. And in an isolated county without much in the way of tourist attractions, it clearly hasn't been enough.

"The state could pour money into capital improvement down there, but the return would be minimal," said J. Rodney Little, the state's historic preservation officer. "You have to question whether this is a marketable tourism engine."

Archaeological jewel

Yet as an archaeological site and for its place in history, St. Mary's City's value has never been questioned. Because the settlement was abandoned and left undisturbed and because of favorable soil conditions, its 17th-century artifacts are unrivaled.

Skeletal remains unearthed at the site of a former Catholic chapel are providing researchers with unique insights into early Colonial life including what people ate and what diseases were prevalent. Three lead coffins recovered four years ago gained national attention when scientists hoped to get samples of air from the 1600s.

"In terms of learning about the population during that time period, St. Mary's City holds the key," said Dr. Douglas W. Owsley, curator for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. "Less than 100 sets of remains from the 17th century have ever been recovered. St. Mary's has given us without question the best preserved."

High marks have gone to its education program, which attracts 20,000 students each year, and to its nationally recognized archaeology staff.

Numerous milestones happened here, including the first Catholic chapel in English America and the first vote by an African-American in a legislature.

"It's an extremely important site," said Thomas E. Davidson, senior curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Virginia. "It's a major contributor to everything we know about the 17th century in Maryland or Virginia."

The museum subsists on an annual budget of about $1.68 million, about one-quarter the budget for Jamestown-Yorktown. Its staff of 30 are state employees; its budget is managed by the Department of Housing and Community Development, which principally oversees public housing.

Although the museum is guided by a 13-member commission chaired by Benjamin C. Bradlee, former Washington Post editor, the housing department gets a say in administrative matters.

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