Bay Journal

Museum lets visitors immerse themselves in life in, on, along water

  • By Lara Lutz on November 01, 2004
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Marsh periwinkle clings to vegetation along the marsh boardwalk at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD. The museum, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, immerses its visitors in life in, on and along the water. (Lara Lutz) The Drum Point Lighthouse is a distinctive waterfront sight at the Calvert Marine Museum. Decommissioned in 1962, it is one of only three cottage-style lighthouses that remain in the Chesapeake watershed. (Lara Lutz) Exhibits in the Patuxent Small Craft Center range from a traditional dugout canoe to a 45-foot draketail. (Lara Lutz) The Miocene white shark, also known as The Wm. B. Tennison is an 1899 vessel, with a hull formed from nine large pine logs, hollowed and fastened together. Originally used for oyster dredging, it now carries museum visitors on tours of Solomons’ inner harbor. (Lara Lutz)

The sound of the 1,400-pound fog bell comes from a small cassette player, but it makes a strong impression on everyone who tours the Drum Point Lighthouse at the Calvert Marine Museum. Even at its prerecorded level, the bell is loud. Very loud. And lasting. The low-toned vibrations never fade completely before the next round begins. Two strikes, every 15 seconds.

In days past, the lighthouse keeper shared intimate quarters with this enormous bell and its earsplitting tones. As a waterbound resident of this cottage-style lighthouse, there was no escaping it.

The bell hangs just outside a window on the middle floor of the lighthouse. The weight-and-pulley mechanism that controlled the strikes on the bell resides inside the window, in a small alcove.

A museum tour guide explains, “The ringing went on for two hours, nonstop. It took that long for the weights to fall back into place.”

Luckily, he adds, they didn’t get as much fog on the Bay as you would in an ocean lighthouse.

Drum Point Lighthouse is the centerpiece of the Calvert Marine Museum, located at the mouth of the Patuxent River in Solomons, MD. A member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, the waterfront museum offers a wonderfully textured experience of the human and ecological life that has shaped this pocket of the Bay across the millennia.

The Calvert Marine Museum is solidly grounded in a sense of place, and the “ground” that it stands on is water. Life in, on, and along the water have joined in such an intimate exchange that the museum itself is partly an aquarium.

Behind a thin wall of drapes, the museum’s resident artist has transformed line drawings on a curving wall into a richly painted scene of aquatic life. These paintings form the backdrop to a new exhibit, “Secrets of the Mermaid's Purse: Skates and Rays of the Mid-Atlantic.” Supported by a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, the exhibit offers visitors a chance to touch the swimming skates and rays and to learn about the squarish black sac—the “mermaids purse”— where the young develop. Special backlighting provides a glimpse of the tiny wiggling skates inside their embryonic sacs.

You’ll find all of the estuarine basics here, too. Fifteen aquarium tanks showcase sea horses, finfish, blue crabs, jellyfish and other creatures that enjoy the rich habitat of the tidal Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. A touch tank offers a close encounter with turtles, horseshoe crabs and oysters.

In an outside tank, next to a marsh walk, two young otters romp in a nonstop performance of motion and bubbles. These 1-year-old brothers, newcomers to the museum, are extremely curious about visitors. They race to study new faces, twisting through the water to follow children’s hands as they trace a light path against the glass.

The presence of ancient sea life resounds at the museum as well. Southern Maryland contains several locations where prehistoric Miocene cliffs have been exposed by erosion along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. These cliffs are the compacted remnants of a sea that covered the region 10 million to 20 million years ago. The cliffs are rich with fossils that tell its story.

Just one year ago, a new piece of the story emerged. Two visitors to the cliffs along the St. Mary’s River discovered an unusually large fossil.

Wisely, they left it intact and contacted experts at the museum. The find turned out to be the 8-million-year-old skull of a Miocene baleen whale.

In December 2003, the fossilized skull was excavated and brought to the museum, carefully preserved in layers of burlap and plaster of Paris. Sediment fills gaps between collapsed pieces of the skull, which is displayed in the museum’s lower gallery. Gashes from shark teeth are clearly visible, and many smaller fossils are lodged within it.

The skull is neither the oldest nor the largest in the museum’s collection. That honor goes to its 12-million-year-old cousin —the largest fossilized skull of a baleen whale in the Bay region.

The more recent find, though, drew special attention among scientists. This particular variety of whale was not supposed to exist here, where the ancient waters were presumably much too shallow for its habitat. The debate, and the study, continues.

Individual fossils from the Miocene cliffs are not always this large or significant. Considered together, though, their abundance and variety are remarkable. Shark and stingray teeth dominate the finds, along with a spectacular number of mollusks—more than 400 species of clams, oysters, scallops and snails. There are also bones from at least two dozens species of dolphins and whales, as well as remnants from fish, turtles, crocodiles, oceanic birds, seals and sea cows.

Although the cliffs were formed from a marine environment, parts of Miocene land animals such as camels, horses, and elephants, nevertheless make an occasional appearance.

The museum brings local paleontology to life by delving into the forces that shaped the cliffs, showcasing many discoveries that have been made there and answering questions about public access. They also assist the public with identifying their finds.

Another notable museum exhibit features a restoration of the gigantic Miocene white shark, endearingly known as “Megatooth” and “T-Rex of the Water.” Now extinct, this shark grew to a daunting 50 feet in length and 50 tons in weight. Only two examples of the Megatooth skeleton exist. One is at the Calvert Marine Museum. The other is a bit further away, in South Africa.

After European settlement began in the 17th century, Solomons became the home of tobacco farms positioned to capitalize on rich land and Chesapeake water routes. The area remained relatively tranquil, despite the surrounding turmoil of the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

In 1865, Baltimore businessman Isaac Solomon bought an 80-acre tract known as Sandy Island. He renamed it Solomons Island and established a cannery operation, along with housing for workers and associated services. Life at Solomons changed forever.

Business boomed. With an ideal location on the deep Patuxent River and the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay, Solomons soon became the commercial center of Calvert County. Activity centered on harvesting seafood and building ships. The Solomons fishing fleet boasted more than 500 vessels, many of which were locally built. A local captain owned the largest private fleet in Maryland.

The bounty of the Chesapeake and the accessibility of its waterways gave Solomons residents little reason to look inland. Their ties were to the water. They made their living on it, and filled their tables from it. They swam in it, skated on it, and traveled to school and neighboring communities on it.

There were few roads and those that existed were often impassable in bad weather. The high mark of entertainment came by water as well, when the James Adams Floating Theatre tied up at the dock.

By the late 1920s, the harvesting heyday was beginning to take its toll on the ecosystem. Fisheries were in decline, and so were the jobs that supported them.

Solomons began a slow transition toward supporting recreational boat building and seasonal visitors. The 1930s marked the production of yachts that won international acclaim, while the community struggled through the Depression and a storm that submerged and devastated the lower half of the island.

Another major change came with the outbreak of World War II. The U.S. Navy established its first amphibian training base at Solomons in 1942. Waterways were again the defining factor. Solomons offered deep water, sheltered anchorage, and beaches and cliffs that were ideal for training troops in the new challenges of combat. The population of Solomons increased from 263 to more than 2,600 within four years. In 1944, more than 10,000 people were stationed on its bases.

The Navy brought new jobs and wealth, but local watermen suffered further from the loss of land and water access caused by Navy activities. The torpedo test division also wreaked havoc with aquatic life; by 1945, the Navy was firing 600 practice torpedoes per month into local waters.

The Calvert Marine Museum celebrates this diverse heritage through exhibits packed with artifacts and demonstrations. Interior galleries highlight shipbuilding, the seafood industry, recreational boating and naval exercises. Through December 2004, the museum is exhibiting a collection of antique outboard motors. And the Discovery Room, with two floors of hands-on fun, should not be missed by for the young and young-at-heart.

The museum’s offerings spill beyond the main exhibit hall, into the grounds and beyond. The striking Drum Point Lighthouse dominates the waterfront. Guided lighthouse tours provide full access to the beautifully restored structure, which was decommissioned in 1962.

At its base, the Wm. B. Tennison leaves the dock daily for a leisurely sail through Solomons’ inner harbor. During weekends in the fall and spring and throughout the summer, museum interpreters demonstrate oyster tonging, crab pots and fishing techniques in the boat basin.

There are a number of outbuildings to visit, too. The Patuxent Small Craft Center houses 19 historic, small watercraft, ranging from a dugout canoe to the 45-foot draketail, Penguin.

Visitors to the Woodcarving and Model Boat Shop can see the museum’s master craftsmen at work. Members of the Patuxent Small Craft Guild pass on their craft at the Boatbuilding Skills Preservation Center, where traditional boats such as crab skiffs, log canoes, and punts are built, sailed and interpreted.

And if that’s not enough, the museum offers three off-site locations that are well worth the visit:

  • The J.C. Lore and Sons Oyster House, within a mile of the main museum, is a 1934 seafood packing house listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The Pound-Net Fishing Camp at Flag Pond Nature Park, 10 miles to the north, includes a fisherman’s shanty known as the “Buoy Hotel No. 2” that dates from the 1920s.
  • The Cove Point Lighthouse, still in operation by the United States Coast Guard, has been acquired by the museum and is accessible by shuttle bus from the museum.
  • If one lesson speaks clearly at the Calvert Marine Museum, it is this: The marriage of life in the water and life on the land cannot be dissolved. Both give and both take, changing each other through time in irreversible ways.
  • The people of small waterside towns like Solomons have joined in this dance more intensely than most. The Calvert Marine Museum details the many rich aspects of their experience and invites us to share it with them.

Off-Site Museum Attractions

  • Pound-Net Fishing Exhibit at Flag Ponds Nature Park: Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day, and weekends year-round. Admission: $6.
  • Cove Point Lighthouse: Open to the public 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays, May through September and daily June through August, via shuttle bus from the museum. Admission: $3.
  • J.C. Lore & Sons Oyster House: Open 1–4:30 p.m. daily June through August, and weekends only in May and September. It is included with museum admission.

Calvert Marine Museum

The Calvert Marine Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, when it is closed. On Concert Days, the museum closes at 3 p.m.; check its web site or call for dates.

Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for ages 55+ and $2 ages 5–12. Children younger than 5 are free.

Cruises on the Wm B. Tennison leave at 2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, May through October. Cruises are also scheduled on weekends in July and August and some holidays. Cruise admission is $7 for adults and $4 for ages 5–12. Children younger than 5 are free when accompanied by an adult.

The Calvert Marine Museum is located on Maryland Route 2 in Solomons, Calvert County, MD. The museum can be reached by water, on the western shore of Back Creek north from the Solomons inner harbor on the Patuxent River, two nautical miles from the Chesapeake Bay. Dock facilities are free to visitors, although no overnight stays are permitted.

For information, contact the Calvert Marine Museum at P.O. Box 97, Solomons, MD 20688; 410-326-2042; or www.calvertmarinemuseum.org

To learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz

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