Canal city drifts into gentle renaissance

Short Hop

Eastern Shore: Charming and quiet, Chesapeake City has shaken off tough times to restore its Victorian splendor.

Short Hop

September 16, 2001|By Barbara A. Noe | Barbara A. Noe,Special to the Sun

Not many people realize that one of Maryland's most irresistible small towns awaits less than an hour's drive north of Baltimore. But there it is, the historic canal town of Chesapeake City, snuggled at the base of a graceful iron bridge on the Eastern Shore's northern realm.

I keep returning to this place, enticed by its Victorian grace, storybook setting and relaxing mood. And each time, I'm struck by the yesterday feel of its four historic blocks, each lined with restored, garden-bedecked houses now taken over by inns, restaurants, galleries and shops.

Eager to show my friend John my secret little town -- not many people seem to know about it -- we spent a recent weekend here. After settling into the Old Wharf Cottage (more about this find later), we spent our time strolling around, seeing what there was to see.

The town -- population 787--- sits at the midpoint of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, a 14-mile-long waterway that links the Delaware River with the Chesapeake Bay. The canal, in fact, cuts straight through town, creating a North Chesapeake City (mostly residential) and South Chesapeake City (the main destination by outsiders), connected by a highway bridge.

The heart of town is Bohemia Avenue, the main thoroughfare, if you can call it that, where cheery flags announce open shops and guests rock on the flowery porches of B&Bs. From there, we poked into a variety of antiques stores and galleries, ate homemade ice cream at the Canal Creamery, admired gardens in front of people's homes, took a harrowing walk to the canal bridge's apex for a view back down on the town, and ate a fine dinner at the Bayard House (the only disappointment being that we were ushered to an interior room, rather than to one of the tables overlooking the canal, where diners watched the sun setting over the water).

One stop that stands out in my mind is Franklin Hall. This restored, three-story brick structure on Bohemia Avenue, dating from about 1870 and once serving as a hardware and harness shop, now holds the area's cultural center, including an exhibition area and library (as well as the town's only public restrooms). The works of five women artists were being showcased that weekend, and I was drawn to the bold watercolors of Belle Hollon.

Turquoise, magenta and lemon-yellow swirls, stripes and blurs all came together to create happy depictions of Chesapeake City and its surrounding countryside, capturing the town's sprightly feel. Thank goodness I had only positive things to say about these works, because Belle herself was manning the shop that day. Overhearing my remarks, the friendly artist, a longtime town resident, plunged into a description of how Chesapeake City's outlook hadn't always been so sparkling.

"Twenty or 25 years ago, most of the buildings were boarded up," she said. "The only place to eat in town was the Tap Room, which was a bar." Now lines of people stand outside this local favorite for the chance to dig into platters of blue crab.

"The Hole-in-the-Wall was known for its brawls," she continued, pointing to the pub across the street, now part of the elegant Bayard House Restaurant.

"Chesapeake City was a motorcycle town," added Patricia Garrett, the town manager, to whom I spoke later. "It was a tacky little place. No one wanted to come here."

All that's changed, much in thanks to a group of civic-minded residents spearheaded by Allaire duPont, of petrochemical family fame. DuPont, who owns a horse farm in the area, took a liking to the town, Garrett said. "She saw its potential. It started with her ladies' garden group, people who had some money and some standing in the community. They bought a few buildings and fixed them up."

DuPont owns the Bayard House Restaurant, which is decorated with her own needlepoint work (she started doing needlepoint in the 1940s, after she quit smoking).

The renovation process still continues, and the to-do list is long, Garrett said. Future plans include a passenger ferry between the canal's north and south banks, parking lots under the bridges (the parking problem is probably the town's only drawback), a canal overlook at the foot of George Street, a pier / floating dock on the city's north side, and decorative lighting along Bohemia Avenue.

Watching for ships

Like other visitors, I'm drawn to the foot of Bohemia Avenue, to watch the boats parading through the canal. There's always the hope that a hulking international freighter might pass by, on its way to Baltimore or Philadelphia or maybe across the Atlantic.

Larry Brown of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees canal traffic, said about 100 ships pass through per month, plus 350 tugs and barges.

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