Capt. John Smith brought the earliest Europeans to the shores of the Nanticoke River in 1608. Before long, he might also bring more customers to Millie's Road House in the town of Vienna, MD.
Millie Cusick, the restaurant's owner, couldn't be more pleased.
"This is a little homey town with beautiful waterways, but nobody knows we're here," Cusick said.
Four hundred years after his journey, John Smith may help solve this contemporary problem. If things go as planned, Vienna will soon transition from a hidden town to a stop-worthy destination on the new Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
U.S. Route 50, a main route to the Atlantic Ocean, once ran directly through Vienna at the base of a bridge across the Nanticoke River. When the state relocated the highway north of town and removed the bridge, businesses closed and the town fell quiet.
In 2002, the town's 250 residents worked closely with local officials to craft a revitalization plan that would promote Vienna's riverside assets.
"It became clear very quickly that the river is the town, and the town is the river," said Steve Hurst, secretary of Vienna's planning and zoning committee. "Now, with the John Smith trail, we've got a golden opportunity to put Vienna on the map and give us an environmentally sound, low-impact source of revenue for the town."
Congress approved the creation of the John Smith trail in 2006, just in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his 1607-08 travels around the Bay and among its native peoples.
While the trail's sites, features and educational resources are still in development, towns and business owners along Smith's route are awakening to potential tourism opportunities.
Many communities got a taste of this potential last summer. They experienced the surge of public interest firsthand when a small crew of modern sailors marked the anniversary of Smith's travels by landing at 28 cities and towns around the Bay in a recreated version of Smith's wooden shallop. Their landings drew crowds that totaled more than 250,000 people-and business came with them.
"You wouldn't believe the people that come out for that kind of thing," Cusick said. "They aren't just the locals. The food I sold-I'd gladly take one of those events every month."
Marci Wolff Ross of Maryland's Office of Tourism believes that the Chesapeake is already a prime tourist attraction and that Smith still holds much tourism potential for the state, even though the anniversary events have nearly ended.
"People know the Bay as a body of water, but they don't really know the multiple stories that come along with it," Ross said. "The John Smith story is an iconic story of the Bay and there is great potential to bring the Bay alive through this piece of history. Along with it is a second opportunity for an increased understanding of why the Bay is such a treasure."
Small communities like Vienna may especially benefit from the attention, by capitalizing on a rural landscape that still evokes connections to this critical time in history. Restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and outfitters will be in demand.
"We think the Smith trail will really enhance the growth of small tourism businesses," said Alisa Bailey, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corp. "And that's most of our tourism industry."
Virginia has already launched a John Smith trail along the James River that traces a portion of Smith's voyages on both land and water. A detailed website links visitors with a range of associated sites, events and services.
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Sultana Projects is leading Smith-themed paddling expeditions on the Sassafras and Nanticoke rivers. The nonprofit organization Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences (DLITE) is offering courses that will help others do the same. The first course was well- received, and three more are planned for 2009.
The courses target outfitters, bed and breakfast owners, and the staff and volunteers of area parks and historic sites who want to do a better job of sharing their natural and cultural heritage with visitors. John Smith is an important theme.
DLITE executive director Jim Rapp said not to underestimate the power of a good story.
"Smith is such a powerful tool for interpretation," Rapp said. "It's like a time capsule. You put yourself there."
While outfitters typically showcase the general beauty of the river, the story of Smith's encounter with the Bay and its native peoples adds a more meaningful layer.
"The 'lovely day' approach only takes you so far," Rapp said. "With an interpreter on board, you can weave the story together. It's engrossing. It pulls you in and helps develop a sense of ownership and stewardship."
Vienna has seized on the John Smith trail as a logical match for its long-
standing identity as a river town rich in natural and cultural heritage.
At the heart of the plan is the development of the Captain John Smith Nanticoke Discovery Center as a gateway to the river, the Smith story, the Native American experience and the town itself.
The Discovery Center will evolve from a red, weathered building that was once the Nanticoke Inn. This waterfront property at the north end of town, is easily accessed from Route 50.
Cusick once owned both the Nanticoke Inn and the Road House, but closed the inn because there wasn't enough business to sustain two locations. Now, her short-term loss may help sustain Vienna and support her remaining restaurant.
"The benefit of what this will do for the town is 200 percent better than anything another restaurant could bring here," Cusick said.
In August, Maryland approved the use of funds from Program Open Space to assist Vienna with its purchase of the three properties, including the Nanticoke Inn and surrounding grounds.
An outfitter and bicycle rentals will be on site, along with a dock, boardwalk, paths and lookout tower to give guests an immediate experience on the Nanticoke River or along the town's waterfront park.
The John Smith trail gave new momentum to the town's comprehensive plan and brought state and federal partners to the table. As an official trail head, the town will benefit from its association with the National Park Service, with quality signage, exhibits, educational materials, and a well- recognized logo. Highway signs may once again draw business from Route 50.
Vienna residents are enthusiastic about plans for the Discovery Center because they fit in with their town's identity rather than threaten it.
The local community of native Americans-the Nause-Waiwash (nah- soo WAY-wash) Tribe-also welcomes the Discovery Center. The Nause-Waiwash are descendants of the Nanticoke Confederacy that held wide influence on the Delmarva peninsula when Smith and his crew arrived. Several important tribal sites are located in the Vienna area, including the seat of their "chief of chiefs." The town itself is thought to be the location of the feasting grounds.
The contemporary tribe, led by Chief Sewell Fitzhugh, is working closely with Vienna to incorporate the Nanticoke experience in the new riverside center. "We are Maryland's first people, but we are forgotten people," Fitzhugh said. "I am hoping this center will be able to show the vastness and richness of a culture that managed to live in harmony with its surroundings, and to show the world how the culture, government, religion and way of life here was forever altered."
Inviting tourism in a way that respects and conserves the setting is often described as ecotourism. But the John Smith trail, and others like it, broadens that concept to include past and present cultural heritage-which combine for a strong "sense of place" and high-quality experience for the traveler.
Professionals refer to this as heritage tourism or geotourism.
"Heritage tourism is one of the biggest drivers of tours in the commonwealth," said Bailey of the Virginia Tourism Corp. "We're realizing that this whole notion of not just preserving and sharing nature, but also the preservation of culture, has it all. The idea is not to be a Disney, and just plop things down, but to develop tourism in a way that is sensitive and sustainable."
Bailey points to the success of the Crooked Road music trail in southwestern Virginia, which has steadily increased the tourism footprint and led to a new hotel in the town of Floyd. Cultural Heritage Tourism is a web- based clearinghouse of information that profiles more than 30 examples of heritage tourism across the nation, including the Sea Way Trail that links dispersed rural communities in upstate New York and has boosted their collective economies.
A regional approach will be critical for the John Smith trail. "Tourists don't care where the geographic boundaries are, and communities need to realize that," Bailey said. "The larger you can get your region, the more opportunities you can build, especially in more rural areas that don't have a lot of resources. Some destinations might not fill the weekend, so you need to make it easy for the consumers. That's why a trail is important. It's the thread that leads them to the next place."
Defining the trail is the next great challenge. The rivers, the towns, and some heritage attractions already exist-but filling in the gaps, adding interpretation and consistent public access are key.
During the coming year, the National Park Service will be designating official trail locations and developing resources for both communities and visitors. They will host eight public workshops around the Bay during September and October to explore the visions and ideas that communities may have for sites along the John Smith Trail. Another series of public workshops will take place in 2009.
"How do I get on the trail? Where do we find it? We need to answer those questions and develop the visitor experience before we can start marketing," Ross said. "Then we'll have the opportunity to attract all of the visitors that we would like to bring into the area."