Dick and Gayl's Cruising Adventures

Exploring the Potomac

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We will spend nearly two weeks on the Potomac.  We have reservations to spend a week at the Capitol Yacht Club in D.C., and will take several days getting there, and several days getting back to the Chesapeake.
This section has three pages.  If you have already read about our adventures before we got to DC, click one of the links below to go straight to DC. (There is another link to DC at the bottom of this page.)

Click here to visit Washington, DC with us July 24-26.

Click here for the second half of our DC visit, July 27-29.

Horseshoe Bend Anchorage, St. Mary's

Friday, July 20, 2007
Solomons to St. Mary's City
42.2 miles
We left the Potomac and traveled eight miles up the St. Mary's River to get to St. Mary's City.  Despite its name, there is no city here, and there hasn't been one for about 300 years.
Back in the 1600s, though, St. Mary's was a bustling metropolis.  Established in 1634, it was the fourth permanent English settlement in North America, Maryland's first capitol, and a haven of religious tolerance for Catholics (Lord Baltimore, whose family heraldic crest graces the Maryland state flag and seal, was Roman Catholic). 
The Colonists finished their State House here in 1676, but it wasn't used long -- the Protestant majority in Maryland objected to having their capitol in a Catholic city, and moved it to Annapolis in 1695.  So much for religious freedom, and for separation of church and state.  And, so much for St. Mary's -- the town was abandoned and forgotten for 300 years. 
At Maryland's tercentennial, a couple monuments were installed, reminding folks of the historical import of St. Mary's, and about thirty years later, a commission was formed to develop the site in a way that would help preserve the site and the story of Maryland's founding.

Today, an 800 acre archeaological site and recreation of Historic St. Mary's City, complete with interpreters in period attire, stands on the site of the ghost town, high on a bluff with commanding views of the wide St. Mary's River.
An obeslisk in a church cemetery marks the spot where Governor Calvert met with Indians under a mulberry tree to negotiate the purchase of the land now known as St. Mary's City, and other markers in the cemetery trace the outline of the foundation of the original State House (a replica stands nearby, next to the church). 
The major population center of St. Mary's today is St. Mary's College, a small public liberal arts honors college with buildings dating back to 1839, when it was a finishing school for young ladies.  This is the only college we have ever seen with no college town -- no bars, no fast food restaurants or pizza joints, nowhere to go off campus if you don't have a car. This is somewhat ironic, since when St. Mary's was in its heyday in the 1600s, the place was loaded with places to eat and drink and carrouse, to serve all the people visiting to do government business, so the recreated fake town has several such establishments for demonstration purposes only, while the real St. Mary's of today has none, unless you count the Campus Center and the Cafeteria.


Every Friday night in June and July, 3000-4000 people gather for a college sponsored concert series held on the Cote de Crabe, a large lawn on campus overlooking the river.  There they picnic and listen to the Chesapeake Symphony Orchestra perform great music as the sun goes down.
We dinghied in with our lawn chairs, and selected our dinners from the vast array of food booths.  But, other concert-goers came with more elaborate picnics -- tables with cloths and flowers, expensive champagne cooling in a silver bucket, vintage picnic baskets, expansive fruit and cheese trays.  Just ogling the audience provided plenty of entertainment before the concert began.
The featured soloist -- James Gourlay -- was a tuba impressario from Scotland.  He performed a Ralph Vaughan Williams Concerto for Tuba with the orchestra that was exquisite. It shattered all our notions of the musicality of the tuba. 
The rest of the concert was wonderful, too (although we would have liked to listen to James Gourlay play tuba all night, instead).  We watched the sun set with crimson drama behind the band shell during Tchaikovsky's Symphony 4, which may not be as good as watching fireworks during his 1812 Overture, but it is close.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
St. Mary's, MD to Colonial Beach, VA
39 miles
We dinghied to shore to begin the day with breakfast at the St. Mary's College Cafeteria.  We paid $3.20 apiece for a belly busting array of breakfast choices -- made to order eggs and omelettes; all sorts of breakfast meats, including my favorite, creamed chipped beef; multiple potato options; bisquits and breads and sweet rolls; fresh fruit; yogurt, cereal . . . lots of juices and coffee.  We have never seen a better breakfast deal in all our travels (and we have traveled far and wide seeking breakfast).
The dining area of the cafeteria is also exceptional -- it has a high vaulted ceiling with the wood rafters and cross-ties exposed, the walls are stained wood and big glass window panels, and the floor is polished black slate.  All the tables and chairs are cherry wood in a simple Shaker style.  Breakfast here was simply elegant.

Colonial Beach Pier

Thus fortified, we raised anchor at 9:40 and were one our way upriver to Colonial Beach, Virginia. 
Colonial Beach's rich oyster beds attracted Indians and colonial settlers to its shores.  Since colonial times, artificial reefs created by discarded oyster shells have created a hazard to navigation, threatening to ground unwary ships.  In the 1800s, bloody feuds known as "Oyster Wars" were fought over the rights to harvest the bountiful oyster beds. Oysters were so plentiful that the owners of indentured servants and slaves were tempted to provide them as the exclusive diet for their laborers.  In response, laws were passed requiring the owners to feed their laborers something other than oysters at least twice weekly. (Imagine the workers' reaction to enactment of that compassionate legislation -- now they could look forward to just five days of week of oysters for breakfast, lunch and dinner!)
We took the 25 cent hour long trolley tour about Colonial Beach, and decided we had seen enough to know we didn't need to bring our bikes off the boat to explore further. 
Around the turn of the twentieth century a series of developers acquired the land where the town lies, with a vision of develping it as a waterfront community. They began with naming the new town Colonial Beach.  Evading laws against gambling in Virginia, they built gambling venues on piers over the Potomac, which is owned by Maryland, where gambling is legal.  Even today, the town's big casino is located over the Potomac.
The beach is pebbly, and the charming little places in town are so spread out among the run-down and vacant and seedy places that they lose critical mass.  This is a place that could benefit from a little zoning.
The most distinctive aspect of Colonial Beach is that the whole town is a golf cart community -- locals drive colorful and sometimes whimsical golf carts on the public streets, and road signs with Amish carriage symbols on them warn motorists to watch for slow vehicles.  (We never saw an Amish person or carriage, so we can only assume the signs refer to the golf carts, which are plentiful.)
In tribute to the rich oystering heritage of Colonial Beach, we ate a white tablecloth dinner at the marina's restaurant, which is located in an oyster house built in 1932.  Back then, the lower floor of the oyster house was used to shuck and pack oysters, while the second story provided housing for the oyster shuckers.  The house floated away in a flood in 1933, but mules hauled it back, and the owner anchored it more firmly on this spot, where it has remained since then. 

Mallows Bay ship graveyard

Sunday, July 22, 2007 
Colonial Beach, VA to Smallwoood State Park, MD (on Mattawoman Creek)
46 miles
Our cruise today took us past the watery grave of 200 ships that were sunk in the hope that their history of bureaucratic blundering would be buried with them.  We uncovered the story in a cruise guide, and add it to our ever increasing file of hidden American history revealed during our travels.  Here's the sorry tale:
When the US entered World War I, our shipyards were working overtime constructing steel ships.  The US decided we could use semi-skilled labor to quickly and cheaply build a fleet of wooden steamers to supplement the steel ships damaged in the war.  They figured they could build 1,000 wooden ships in 18 months.
When it took 8 months just to place the contracts for the first 300 vessels, they should have realized their plan was flawed.  A month later, they discovered the wrong lumber had been purchased for the keels and hulls, and the correct wood was only available from West Coast contractors.  The bureaucrats barreled on, initiating a parallel wooden ship construction program on the West Coast.  Infighting between the two programs was rampant, as anyone could have predicted.  The Navy refused to man the vessels, doubting their seaworthiness.  Design changes and delays followed.
When Germany surrendered, about 18 months after the program began, just 134 ships had been completed, and none of them had been deployed to Europe as planned.  The ships leaked and could not carry enough cargo to justify their operating expense, but, inexplicably, the government still kept building more wooden freighters.
After the war, most of the wooden ships were anchored with the ghost fleet on the James River (which we saw and wrote about on June 21). They weren't there long before it became clear that the wooden ships were useless and a challenge to keep afloat, so they were sold for scrap.  All told, about 200 of them were towed down the James and up the Potomac to Alexandria to be stripped of machinery and equipment, then towed down the Potomac to their final resting place at Mallows Bay, where they were burned to the waterline and salvaged for metal.
The story doesn't end here -- in the 1930s the ships were searched once more to recover any remaining scrap metal, which was sold to Japan, who returned that metal to us in the form of shells and other weaponry during World War II.

Smallwood's Retreat

We had our own little series of misadventures afloat today.  Our original cruising plan called for us to anchor out in Matawoman Creek and dinghy in to Smallwood State Park, where we would visit Smallwood's Retreat, home of Revolutionary War hero General William Smallwood.  Smallwood's Retreat is only open for tours on Sunday afternoons, and we timed our visit to arrive on Sunday afternoon.
Our first problem was that our dinghy sprung a leak yesterday, so dinghying in was not an option.  The second problem was that Matawoman Creek was so overgrown with weeds that our depth sounders could not give us a reliable reading, making anchoring near enough to the park dock to kayak in impossible. 
Thinking we might be able to tie up at the park dock, tour the house, then motor back out to a suitable anchorage, we radioed the park marina, where a very pleasant but not very knowledgeable employee told us she thought the water at the dock was deep enough for us to approach.  Lacking confidence, but somewhat desperate, we felt our way in through the entrance channel and fought the wind to dock ourselves, while the marina employee sat in an Adirondack chair on the front porch of the marina and watched us.  She, her companion on the porch, and a couple fishermen complimented us on our docking skills under the challenging conditions.  We wished they had decided to get up for a closer look while we were endeavoring to secure ourselves.
After learning about the cheap dockage rates, and considering the windy conditions, we ended up deciding to just get a slip in the marina.  There were abundant weeds floating near the dock where the marina employee said she put all the transients, and we feared that our engine intakes would get clogged with them, or that we might go aground, since the weeds would render our depth finders useless.  Dick begged to be allowed to use the "special slip" she gave a deep draft sailboat who visited regularly, but wasn't expected today.  Dick charmed her, and she relented to allow us to use the special space.
After all that effort, when we finally hiked up to Smallwood's Retreat, it was locked up tight, with no ranger or curator in sight.  You would think that when the park only opens the place for four hours a week, they ought to be able to keep it staffed.
We did get a nice walk through woods and fields, a geocache find, a ten minute visit to Mattawoman Creek Art Center's exhibit of the work of local artists and artisans, and a couple ice cream bars out of our stop in the park.  But, we were left wondering who administers this place, and does it bother them that the marina, built in 1990, is falling into disrepair, the campground only has two sites in use on a summer weekend, and the main historic attraction is unstaffed during advertised hours?  It bothers us.

Starsong at Mount Vernon's wharf

Monday, July 23, 2007 
Caught in a Snowstorm on the Way to DC
31.2 miles
We got an early start, because we planned to stop at Mount Vernon on our way to DC today, and without a dinghy, our ability to visit was dependent on snagging a spot on the dock.  This time, all went according to plan, and the dock was empty at 9:30 when we got to Mount Vernon.
When George Washington inherited Mount Vernon from his half brother, it came with 2,000 acres of land.  George made many improvements and additions to the house, and eventually built its landholdings to encompass 8,000 acres, including five farms, a fishery, and a distillery. 
His heirs didn't have much business sense, it seems -- by 1853 the house was a wreck, with old ship masts holding up the sagging back verandah roof.  Amazingly, neither the state nor the federal government wanted anything to do with Mount Vernon.  Scandalized by the state of our founding father's estate, Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina founded the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to purchase and preserve George Washington's home and tomb, and they acquired the house from John A. Washington, Jr. in 1858.  Today, nearly 150 years later, the Ladies' Association still owns and administers the house and 800 acres of grounds around it.  Using inventories made after Washington died, they have meticulously renovated and furnished the house with original and period furnishings, renovated its outbuildings and recreated the gardens.  Beyond that, they have built an impressive education center and museum out of the sightlines of the house, and have purchased land across the Potomac from the house to preserve the wooded view as it would have looked in 1799, the year of Washington's death. The scope of their work is astounding.


We walked up a steep trail from the waterfront wharf to the bluff on which Mount Vernon sits in stately splendor.  It felt like we walked the full 800 acres of the estate to get from our boat to the entry point where tickets are sold, and it was a beautiful walk.  Armed with audio tour players and maps, we made our way to the house, where the staff efficiently led groups of 25 through rooms painted in astonishingly gaudy colors chosen by George Washington.  According to our guide, it was the fashion back then for the man of the house to choose the colors and decor, so we can only conclude that George Washington was partial to a cool palette -- he chose shades of deep turquoise, bright Irish shamrock green, and a 1960s eyeshadow blue for the main entertaining rooms on the first floor.
Martha chose the decor for their bedroom.  It was creamy white with very pale blue trim, a relaxing respite from the loud colors of the public spaces and guest rooms.  From this we might conclude that Martha and George had very different aesthetic tastes.  Since George spent a lot of time away from home pursuing his military and political missions, I wonder if Martha ever had the urge to surprise him with a decorating make-over, or if she liked living with his colors as a reminder of him while he was away.
After we toured the house, we used our audio guides to tour the many outbuildings on the grounds.  We visited George and Martha's tomb, where their stone sarcophogi are visible to visitors during the day, and protected by a heavy door and three padlocked metal gates at night. 
The estate has farm animals, which we skipped, vegetable gardens, an orchard, and a beautiful walled flower garden beside a brick greenhouse. 
Our next stop was the education center and museum.  The education center has a bunch of theatres with multi-media presentations of significant episodes in our nation's history where George Washington played a starring role.  We watched several, but the most memorable one had to be the presentation about Washington leading the troups in the Revolutionary War battle where they crossed the Delaware.  Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the battle, because I was overwhelmed by the memorable special effects -- our chairs shook and violent orange strobe lights flashed as the battle was waged, and real snow actually fell on us, right along with Washington and his men, as they crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day whatever year it was.
We were also impressed with Washington's false teeth on display in the Education Center.  They were made of a motley array of dingy yellow and brown human and animal teeth set in grey lead gum plates.  I am not sure why anyone would find them to be more attractive than bare gums.  Perhaps he only wore them as an aid to eating, rather than as a cosmetic accessory.
By now the afternoon was wearing on, and we were getting concerned about arriving in DC before the Capital Yacht Club staff went home for the night.  So, we made one of our fastest tours through a museum ever, using our audio guides to lead the way to only the highlights in each of the seven artifact-filled galleries.
We turned in our audio guides, grabbed a quick late lunch of ice cream at the food court, and hiked back to the boat, agreeing that we had seen enough of Mount Vernon to do it justice, but that we could have stayed until closing time, and still not seen everything that interested us here.
And, yes, we made it to Washington DC before the Yacht Club staff went home.  We can see the Washington Monument looming above the bow of our boat.  We are looking forward to a week of grand adventures in our nation's capital -- enjoying our tax dollars at work.

Click here to continue to Washington, DC.