Traffic jams on the Choptank River aren't what they used to be.
That's a good thing for canoeists and kayakers who paddle its curving path. But it signals a decisively new era-absent the steamboats, schooners, landings, train crossings and ferries that once marked the Choptank as a lifeline for community and commerce.
"Back then, the river was the interstate system," said Carl Scheffel, executive director of the Choptank River Heritage Center.
The Choptank is the longest river on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With headwaters in Delaware, the Choptank flows roughly 60 miles past towns like Greensboro, Denton and Cambridge, widening steadily to its mouth at the Bay.
Its scenic shores inspired the setting for James Michener's novel, "Chesapeake."
Trade is a major theme for the Choptank River Heritage Center, which operates the Joppa Steamboat Wharf Museum at West Denton, MD, and promotes the Choptank and Tuckahoe Water Trails, all of which are members of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
River trade started in the mid-1700s at what would later become Denton. Activity focused on exporting tobacco and grain. Over time, a series of wharves developed along the deep side of a river crossing, just west of town, where the road provided farmers with good access to the river.
"Farmers had to get their harvest to a wharf, and this was one of the major east-west land routes on the Eastern Shore," Scheffel said.
The river crossing took different forms through the years. A ferry operated in the 19th century, along with the first movable bridge to cross the Choptank. For many years, a causeway constructed with marshy soil linked Denton with the wharves.
But roads, in general, were more of an obstacle than an aid. Even in the late 19th century, as shipping and manufacturing reached their peak, interior roads were too rough to move goods efficiently. The Choptank, on the other hand, was an easy conduit to bigger markets and better prices.
"Groups of farmers would get together and construct a wharf, and whoever they traded with had to get to them," Scheffel said.
Smaller wharves and landings edged both sides of the river from its mouth at Tilghman Island to the upper reaches of navigation at Greensboro, more than 50 miles inland.
Boats sailed and then steamed their way up the Choptank. By the 1860s, the river was dredged regularly to help schooners reach West Denton and Greensboro. Still, the trip could take days. "You basically had to ride the tide," Scheffel said.
Steam power shortened the trip. The wharves at West Denton received a major boost when the Maryland Steamboat Company purchased property there in 1882. The company erected a large terminal on the waterfront that served both passengers and freight traveling to and from Baltimore. Among its fleet were the Joppa and the Avalon, which had the longest running presence on the Choptank.
The Joppa Steamboat Wharf Museum is a replica of the original 1883 terminal building. Inside are quaint rooms with beadboard walls-the passenger waiting room and the steamship agent's office-and a large beamed warehouse with sliding double doors that open to the water.
The warehouse now serves as exhibit space, where photos and artifacts depict the impact of trade on the Choptank and surrounding communities.
Steamboats at dock here would have dominated the scene. Approaching 200 feet in length, they extended the full length of the building and beyond its ends to a set of storage sheds. Goods and people were loaded on and off the boat with this fact in mind.
"Livestock was carried in the front, and offloaded into the storage shed near the bow," Scheffel said. "Passengers and clean freight used the middle, and came through the warehouse. The fertilizer was unloaded from the stern into the phosphate storage shed at the other end."
Fertilizer was big business on the Eastern Shore. Many farmers relied on schooners and steamboats to bring sacks of fertilizer to West Denton from processing plants in Baltimore. At the time, much of the fertilizer used on the Eastern Shore was made from condensed blocks of bird droppings, known as guano, found on Caribbean and South American islands.
"It was the equivalent of gold for farms in Caroline and Talbot counties," Scheffel said.
The wharves and local industry grew in tandem. Up to six independent wharves competed for business. Canning technology developed during the industrial revolution, opening enormous opportunities for exporting produce and seafood. According to Scheffel, Caroline County once had the highest number of canneries of any county in the nation. Downriver, Cambridge became second only to Baltimore in the oyster canning industry.
One of the West Denton canneries was owned and operated by Harry Roe, grandfather of former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.
Roe also owned the Nichols & Roe Shirt Factory, across from the West Denton wharves on Steamboat Alley. The factory produced men's blue work shirts at the site until a larger factory opened in Denton during the Depression.
Buttons were also a local product, carved from large shells imported from the Cook Islands of the Pacific. The peaks of the shells were sliced off to create buttons with an iridescent shine.
All of this maritime commerce meant jobs for the local residents. "West Denton was the working man's side of the river, and it was racially mixed," Scheffel said. "Most of the blue collar jobs were here. You'd live in Denton, but you'd work in West Denton."
The voices of residents who grew up here during the early part of the 20th century can be heard through an interactive display at the Joppa Steamboat Wharf Museum. A woman talks about the canneries, where all the women would turn out for work during the busy season and often bring young children with them. A man recalls working the wharves as a youth, unloading fertilizer from the steamboats. A couple relates crossing an earlier version of the Choptank bridge in the 1970s at the exact moment of its collapse.
Capturing these stories, along with centuries of Choptank history, has been Scheffel's mission for more than two decades.
Fascinated by the steamboat era, Scheffel attended a lecture on the topic more than 20 years ago that led to the creation of the Choptank River Heritage Center.
"I learned that there was really only one place where a steamboat landing still existed in a relatively undisturbed setting," Scheffel said. "It was here at West Denton, so I drove down to see it."
An engineer by trade and a resident of the Bay's Western Shore, Scheffel helped to galvanize the energy and talent needed to inventory the Choptank's historic treasures, fund the reconstruction of the steamboat terminal and launch the Heritage Center.
The effort also included the organization of the Choptank and Tuckahoe Water Trails. The Tuckahoe is the largest tributary to the Choptank and flows through Tuckahoe State Park.
A set of river guides, available in print or on-line, describe six distinct sections of the trails. Among the solace and the lazy curves of the river, paddlers can discover historic homes, the remnants of old wharves, and the marshy landscape that gave birth to American legends Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
The Joppa Steamboat Wharf also makes a great place to launch, or stop along the way.
"To really appreciate those times, to get a sense of the experience, you need an authentic environment," Scheffel said. "I like to look out from this wharf and still imagine a steamboat coming up the river."
Choptank River Heritage Center & Joppa Wharf Museum
The Choptank River Heritage Center & Joppa Wharf Museum is open noon to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Off-season visits are available by appointment.
Admission is free.
Directions: From U.S. Route 50 follow MD Route 404 East, or from U.S. Route 13 follow MD Route 404 West to Denton. From MD Route 404 (the bypass around Denton) at the west end of the Choptank River Bridge, take MD 328 south (to Easton), then turn left onto River Landing Road and follow the signs.
For information about the Choptank & Tuckahoe River Water Trails, visit www.riverheritage.org or contact the museum for detailed map guides.