Dredging up the past and present of St. Jerome Creek
Imagine that it is June 16, 1608, during John Smith’s first exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. The date was probably one of Smith’s longest day’s runs during the whole voyage—at least 56 miles—a remarkable passage given their heavily laden barge of 3 tons. His men were too weak to row, and were still recovering from illness and exposure in the open boat during adverse wind and weather that had caused them to turn southward from the upper Bay for Jamestown.
This must have been a stiff breeze, given the miles they were able to cover, an average of nearly 6 knots in their heavy barge. The wind must have come from the northwest, the weather brisk and the skies fair. The tidal currents ebbing down the Bay were accelerated just two days before the maximum flows around the time of full moon on June 18, 1608.
With the correct timing, these advantages would sweep them down through the narrows between today’s Kent Island and the Severn River, difficult to pass with either opposing wind or tide. They would have then sailed the long harborless stretch that Smith previously named Rickards Cliffs—today’s Calvert Cliffs.
This run was accomplished and, having breasted the flood tide which turned against them after about Herring Bay, a second ebb tide that afternoon spurred their small vessel onward.
Seeking to get as far south as possible, they ran on past the Patuxent River, where a favoring tide south in the Bay often means the ebb current opposes entering this hospitable river.
Smith was headed for the mouth of what the natives called the Patawomeck, today’s Potomac and the Chesapeake’s second largest river. They likely had a strong northwest wind on their starboard quarter, and kept a course inshore to gain the lee of the land, and ease steering in what could have been a white-capping chop. June northers can be strong and persistent.
Ahead lay a point of land around which they expected to enter the Potomac but as they approached, the land clearly fell away farther to the west and, more distant, was another point marking the end of visible land. This elbow in the Bay’s long western shore—appearing to be a true promontory—would later confuse mariners leaving the Potomac northbound, and it became known as Point No Point.
On their starboard hand, though, a creek opened in the shore under this false point, and the explorers moved in closer to inspect it. Smith’s famous chart of the Bay shows this opening but only such a sketch as could be seen from the entrance.
Despite Smith’s insatiable curiosity, it is not surprising that he didn’t explore more here, because if indeed he was riding that second ebb tide of the day, the vigorous flow out of this creek would have taken great stamina to row against and enter. They might well have stopped, and I can envision the bow of their shallop nosed ashore on the sand spit which nearly blocks this entrance. They sketched in the journal the northerly bent of an apparent single channel, backed their sails and continuing south to round into the river. Smith named this feature Sparkes Poynt, which is known today as Point Lookout.
It would be 26 years before English colonists settled this part of the Chesapeake’s Western Shore: Father Andrew White’s flock of Roman Catholic settlers under the leadership of Leonard Calvert, who was sent to govern on behalf of his brother, Cecil, Lord Baltimore, who had to remain in England. It was only then that this creek would receive a Christian name—St. Jerome Creek—and its Native American name would be forever lost to us.
The Catholic colonists at St. Mary’s City bestowed names significant to their faith upon many of the landscape features in Southern Maryland. Jerome Hawley, second in command of this expedition to settle Maryland on behalf of Lord Baltimore, was also the brother of the governor of Barbados, where the sea-weary expedition stopped en route to the Chesapeake and had received very good treatment.
Thus, one of the Bay-facing creeks across the peninsula from St. Mary’s was named St. Jerome Creek, after Hawley’s patron saint, with whom he also shared a name.
Jerome, or Eusebius Hieronymous, was born about A.D. 342 in Dalmatia and studied in Rome, where he was baptized a Christian. At 32, he went into the Syrian desert of Chalicus to live as a hermit for four years, and was ordained a priest the year after he emerged.
Heironymous fought the Meletian schism at Antioch, served as secretary to Pope Damasus and led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he settled in Bethlehem. There, he spent 30 year translating the Hebrew Bible into its first Latin edition. His work, the Vulgate translation, is still in use. Hieronymous was canonized as St. Jerome and is one of the four Latin Doctors of the Church. [The Roman Catholic Church honors individuals noted for both their saintliness and ecclesiastical writing with the title of “doctor.’]
Augustine Herrman’s 1670 map of Maryland shows a small creek system indenting from Chesapeake Bay into the Western Shore just a bit north of today’s Point Lookout. It has the notation, “Hieroms” for Hieronymus, which was later anglicized to Jerome.
In 1683, The Advancement of Trade act was passed, which decreed that several towns, satellites to the hub at St Mary’s, should be established along the Patuxent, Potomac and Chesapeake Bay. One of these, presumably on the lands there patented to Jerome Hawley, was to be St. Jerome’s Town. This village was never built; the five or six planters in the area generally preferring to trade directly with ships in nearby tributaries, without the watchful eye of government or Customs.
The name was still firmly enough planted that it stuck on this creek, which was likely envisioned as a shipping port. A.D. Bache, in his 1856 drafts for a subsequent U.S. Coast Survey map, shows a Pierce’s Mill at this site. I wondered if they used the strong tides to run a gristmill.
Although I’ve entered St. Jerome Creek before, this spring I experienced what I imagined to be the exact conditions that Smith had. My yawl, Nimble, traveled along on a southerly course, certainly over the same bottom Smith had passed. The wind was stiff west to northwest blowing at 16-24 knots but gusting to 31, 32 and once 34 knots, a moderate gale on the Beaufort wind scale.
Like Smith, I was glad to be in the lee of the land, not far offshore. The gusts tore water from the caps of Nimble’s bow waves and spindled spray aboard. I thought this a bit too much wind and considered turning for home but the strongly ebbing tide had swept me out of the Patuxent and across Cedar Point on Smith’s likely course. It was too good sailing to waste and Nimble reached along, sometimes at 7 knots.
To my starboard were the complex works of Patuxent Naval Air Station, radar domes, antennae and their electromagnetic pulse array. I passed a modern oceanographic data buoy transmitting the conditions I experienced to a shore station.
To port, down a few miles, a marked circle contained targets for training warplanes. I have seen jets on other trips swoop down, release a missile, then deafeningly cut in their afterburners and vault up into the sky, while the fired rocket completed its trajectory to the target and plunged into Chesapeake Bay. Decades ago, when the targets were mostly used for aircraft heavy machine guns, there was a fine bronze fog bell on the piling array that held the target, which was riddled, torn and distorted by armor-piercing, .50-caliber bullets. It vanished one year, and I only hope someone responsible salvaged it as an artifact of this practice war.
St. Jerome Creek is not obvious; one must be pretty far inshore to discern its opening, closely skirting the shoals behind Point No Point’s 19th century caisson lighthouse, with its now disused garderobe outhouse still overhanging the Chesapeake. To find this creek, Smith’s eye had to catch the subtle change in shading of the tree line and shore that signals a small inlet. He’d passed and mapped scores of them by the time he got to this point.
As for me, the favoring tide had now expired and was beginning to flood into the creek’s narrow mouth, which is nearly cut off by a sandbar fed by eroding banks and currents moving sediment southward from the coast up the Bay. This narrowing creates a venturi tube effect, scouring sand to a depth of 8 feet at the inlet mouth while the approaches are largely bounded by shallows only a yard deep. Nimble was literally sucked in by the rising tide, much faster than I’d like to have traveled, and with good reason.
Inside the creek, the jet of clear waters from the open Chesapeake spreads out, velocity decreases and the scoured sand drops to the bottom, forming what is called a flood tide delta. The currents also fan widely toward various arms of the creek (more than Smith could see from outside the mouth). Because of the tide, my course was not where I pointed the bow and deep water turned out not to be where the fixed U.S. Coast Guard markers showed it should be. Almost immediately I heard the telltale crunch of Nimble going aground, with the current setting her sideways onto a hidden shoal.
I should not have been surprised: As I entered the channel, a big commercial dredge was working off to one side, and large conduit pipes snaked out from her to a spoil site at some distance. I could hear the Chesapeake sands and gravels hissing and rattling through these pipes as the dredge’s cutter-heads swung back and forth, like a hidden elephant’s trunk, deepening the channel.
My grounding was not serious. I’d entered at as low an idle as Nimble’s diesel would permit, and when it was wound up to speed in reverse, I slid off and continued to feel my way slowly deeper into St. Jerome Creek. Neither would this grounding have fazed Smith and his explorers; he had already and would soon again on his voyages ground the barge…and get into serious trouble with both Native Americans and Chesapeake stingrays.
This twice daily rush of clearer and clean water from the open Bay into the creek makes it a tempting site to grow oysters, and a “farm” of many moored rafts, permitted by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, was on the western side of the creek, directly in front of this tidal jet.
Oysterman Bud Wilde had tried this method for growing our troubled Chesapeake oysters many years ago and found that they grew faster and with less disease mortality than bottom-raised oysters in the quiet creek where he lived near Shadyside, MD.
At the time, Bay scientists had pooh-poohed him as eccentric. Now, commercial growers and Bay Savers alike grow oysters on rafts or in trays all over the Chesapeake, trying to purge nutrients and as well as MSX and Dermo, which have driven these prime shellfish into declines that would have appalled John Smith.
I anchored Nimble as the winds fell to nothing at sunset, and I enjoyed a cool, beautiful Chesapeake dusk. At least nine ospreys cried and circled above their nests and the creek, signaling that they were finding abundant food. Smith must have seen them here, too, at almost the same season. I’m sure I had a much better meal, and more comfortable sleep in my bunk with a stove, icebox and window screen impervious to biting gnats than John Smith experienced in the cramped barge.
Hauling anchor the next morning in this relatively unspoiled creek, I found the chain coated with a sticky tube of Chesapeake clays and mud, much as it would have been in 1608. In many urban or developed creeks, these muds are now stinking black, reeking of hydrogen sulfide from the decay of organic matter leaked from human society. While this was a mess to clean off my chain, it was at least gray and with the fresh smell of the natural nitrification process. Small clams, which had inhabited the bottom and were adhering to the muddy chain, fell back into the water.
I got on my VHF radio as I headed out:
“Cottrell Dredge, Nimble.”
“Go to (channel) 13, captain.”
“Nimble on 13. Is the inlet passage clear? I’m constrained by draft.”
“Come close by the dredge…I’ll put the control boom over my anchor.”
“Roger, Thank you Cottrell. Nimble standing by 13.”
Nimble did not touch bottom this time, although my depth sounder indicated just 3.5 feet both inside and outside the inlet. It also indicated a lot of fish here under the water, and there were many smaller fishing boats out to catch them. No fish were breaking the surface, and would thus have been invisible to the passing explorers of 1608, although clouds of skirling terns would have known better.
One arm of St. Jerome has a dredged channel serving a basin full of commercial and sport fishing boats. These are the ones who agitated for the maintenance dredging then in progress. The morning was almost dead calm; my sails hung like slack, sun-drenched sheets on a clothesline. Smith and his voyagers would have been rowing.
The tide, flowing up Bay now, would have helped Smith up the Potomac on his previous evening in 1608, and it would help me up the Bay toward home. But drifting there, I could measure its speed drawing me along the coast at 1.5 to 1.7 knots. Smith’s men, rowing moderately at 3 knots, could have made progress of 5.3 knots and over a full tide, could have covered 23 miles before the next slack water. This is how they managed their way around the Bay, using the resources that moon tide and climate provided for them; a challenging but not impossible feat.
Biting black flies plagued me aboard Nimble that morning, surprisingly, not a problem that Smith would have been encountered. These vicious pests, Stomoxes calcitrans, were among the myriad unfortunate imports that European colonists would later be responsible for. The flies have prospered beyond all reason along our coasts. Fifty in Nimble’s cockpit successively whirled by pairs in the complex flights I associate with mating and the females’ search for a blood meal…me!
I could see the islands of the Eastern Shore far across the Bay this morning, just the tips of the higher tree-covered hummocks, their images doubled in mirage by reflection from disturbed air that had been warmed by the sun just above the cooler water’s surface. These consolidated as the day progressed into several land masses and later, a complex chain of islands all low and marshy as Smith said: “the land behind woody so far as we could see.”
Smith would have had flies on the Eastern Shore, the native “Greenhead” Tabanus sp., the bane of marsh walkers, fishermen and bathers at the seashore. Because much habitat is available to them on these islands, these flies are more abundant on the Eastern Shore than the Western Shore.
I thus departed from Smith’s path of near 400 years ago, my view to the east still his…until a U.S. Navy frigate steamed southward, forming a tableau with the Point No Point Lighthouse, reminding me I was in a different, less sanguine Chesapeake.
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