From top of bluffs to its marshes, Elk Neck commands one’s attention
Fannie Mae Salter was not a woman to take no for an answer. When her husband C.W. "Harry" Salter died in 1925, she thought she would stay on as keeper of the Turkey Point Lighthouse in the Upper Bay.
But the Lighthouse Service had other ideas. Citing her advanced age (she was in her 40s) they planned to give the job to someone else. So she appealed to her senator and — ultimately — the issue went to the president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge personally intervened on Salter's behalf, and she was allowed to keep her husband's job of maintaining the light that marked the entrance of the Elk River, which connects the Bay with the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
She was following in the footsteps of others: Salter was the fourth woman to operate the lighthouse.
Turkey Point is known for having had the most female lightkeepers of any lighthouse on the Bay. "A lot of times the husbands would die and their wives would take over," said Christina McCullough, area manager for Maryland's Elk Neck State Park, which is now home to the lighthouse.
Salter's campaign to keep her job meant that for the next 18 years, until the light was electrified, she climbed the winding 31 steps, and then a short ladder, to the top of the lighthouse several times each day to keep the light fueled with kerosene and operating.
Today, when one climbs to the top of the lighthouse, they get a sense of why Salter may have wanted to keep the lonely job at the end of the Elk Neck peninsula.
The nine-sided light room atop the tower provides a spectacular panorama of the Upper Bay, with the mouth of the Susquehanna and Havre de Grace visible in the distance on one side, and the Elk River on the other. Straight ahead, one looks down the Chesapeake as far as the eye can see.
Other lighthouses may be taller than the 35-foot Turkey Point Lighthouse, but few can claim a more commanding view of the Bay. Perched atop 100-foot-high bluffs on the Eastern Shore of the Upper Chesapeake, only the lights at Cape Charles and Cape Henry at the mouth of the Bay are higher above the water.
"The lighthouse is a big draw," McCullough said.
But it is hardly the only attraction at Elk Neck State Park, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. The park occupies a 2,188-acre tract on the tip of a peninsula that separates the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay and expands to its tip at Turkey Point.
A cross-section of the peninsula would look like a wedge. The side facing the Bay is largely defined by high, multicolored clay cliffs that reach above the water. From there, the land generally slopes downward to meet the Elk River on the other side, where the shore is marked in many places by low-lying marshes.
In between is land dominated by second-growth forest and patches of meadow.
Capt. John Smith mapped the peninsula during his 1608 exploration of the Upper Bay. A few decades later, another explorer, Cyprian Throwgood, reported finding "many deare and turkies but caught none." Throwgood named Turkey Point and Elk Neck for the abundant wildlife he found there.
One of the reasons they "caught none" of the wildlife was because they were anxious to explore the Elk River, which "we verily believe joineth upon Delaware Baye."
In fact, the Elk River does not connect to the Delaware Bay, but it does come close — within 14 miles. In the 1820s, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was dug, linking the two bays via the Elk River. The digging of the canal, in turn, led to the need for the Turkey Point Lighthouse to help ships navigate from the Chesapeake into the river.
Meanwhile, the land was transformed into a series of tobacco plantations and small farms. Further up the neck, the forests were cleared so the wood could be made into charcoal.
By the 1930s, with many industries in the area in decline, local officials began promoting the idea of developing a state park on the peninsula, hoping to stimulate tourism.
A number of landowners donated portions of their properties for the park, and in the late 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived to plant trees and build cabins, roads, trails and other facilities for the park.
A 1939 article in the Baltimore Sun declared the park "promises to become one of the State's most popular vacation areas."
Today, it attracts about 300,000 visitors a year. Its 258 camp sites and 15 cabins — including eight rustic cabins originally built by the CCC on a bluff overlooking the Elk River — are filled most weekends.
The park's busy boat launch at Rogues Harbor fills the water around Elk Neck each weekend with kayaks, sailboats and powerboats — which mix with the occasional cargo ship.
A beach on the Chesapeake Bay side of the neck gives people a chance to wade in the water with little chance of encountering the Bay's notorious jellyfish because the water here has low salinity.
Elk Neck is far from being a wilderness experience — a subdivision even divides the main section of the park from the tip of the peninsula with the Turkey Point Lighthouse. Huge container ships that traverse the Elk as they pass between the Bay and the canal often dominate the view of the river.
Nonetheless, it is easy to get a sense of solitude and grab sweeping panoramic views from trails along the cliff tops— all within about an hour's drive of the urban centers of Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia.
Some of the best views come along the winding White Banks Trail, a 3-mile out-and-back hike along the cliff tops which mixes views with some stiff climbs. White Banks is one among the roughly 14 miles of trails in the park that are popular for both hikers and mountain bikers. (Mountain bikers should note that many of the trails are technical.)
The elk for which the area was named are long gone. But visitors can see deer, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons, river otters, bald eagles and other species. A walk around the Beaver Marsh Loop trail guarantees a view of beaver lodges — if not the beavers themselves. It's also a popular spot for birders, who can see everything from warblers to herons to bald eagles.
The Lighthouse Trail is an easier 2-mile loop to visit the Turkey Point Lighthouse. The trail winds mostly through forest until reaching the clearing at the tip of the peninsula, which gives one a sense of the lonely life of the lightkeepers who maintained the lighthouse.
The lighthouse, which was built in 1933, is one of the few around the Bay that still operate, but using technology Fannie Mae Salter likely never envisioned. It flashes every five seconds at night thanks to a battery that is charged using solar power.
On weekends from spring through fall, visitors, 42 inches or taller, can still climb the winding steps and ladder Salter used to carry kerosene to the lantern at the top. The views are still spectacular. It's said the light can be seen from 13 miles away.
Outside, there are more views along the cliffs. But the house the lightkeepers lived in is gone, a victim of vandalism, and so are the 137 steps that Salter and other lightkeepers used to carry supplies from boats at the base of the cliffs. "it was a pretty intense hike," McCullough noted.
At her retirement in 1947, Salter said she didn't mind the work, but it did take a toll. "Oh, it was an easy-like chore, but my feet got tired and climbing the tower has given me fallen arches."
Even then, she didn't truly leave. She retired to a home just six miles away — still in sight of the light.
Elk Neck State Park
Elk Neck State Park is located about 14 miles south of the town of North East on Route 272.
The park is open 9 a.m. to sunset daily. Some activities are permitted outside regular park hours, such as fishing and the use of the boat launch. Those planning to engage in an activity before or after park hours should check with the park office before their visit.
Access to certain parts of the park, including the beach, require the payment of a day use fee of $3 per person for in-state vehicles, and $5 per person for out-of-state vehicles.
The boat launch fee is $10 for in-state residents and $12 for out-of-state residents.
The Turkey Point Lighthouse Trail is located at the southern tip of the Elk Neck peninsula. Visitors can climb to the top of the 35-foot lighthouse 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from May through September, when volunteer staffing allows it. There is no fee to access the lighthouse trail or the lighthouse.
For information, visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/elkneck.asp or call 410-287-5333.
For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network visit www.baygateways.net.
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