Sunday, February 5, 2017

W is for Whitehaven

W is for Whitehaven (click here for map.) A two hour drive along Maryland’s scenic Blue Crab Byway brought me to the oldest town located on the Wicomico River. Whitehaven is much more than charming - the town boasts something older than the State of Maryland. 
Additionally, this “something” is believed to be the oldest in the nation.  Today, I had the opportunity to step back in time and personally experience this “something”, which I will happily talk about later. 

The quaint, unincorporated town of Whitehaven is located in Wicomico County and has a population smaller than the roster of an NFL football team (42 residents,) a total land area of 0.37 square miles, and 0.36 square miles of water.  All but two of the 27 dwellings were constructed prior to the 20th century!  
Old Home in Whitehaven
Restoration is continuing on the oldest of the structures.  Initially, the town was developed as a land transportation hub.  Later, after the Wicomico River was dredged, the area became an official port.  Both the deep water location of the town and the presence of several roads made it an ideal location for a town.

The entire village has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The one historical marker in town reads: 

“Ferry operated here as early as 1692. Settlers were led by Col. George Gale of Whitehaven in the North of England. His first wife, Mildred Warner Washington who by previous marriage was George Washington's grandmother, lived nearby before her death in 1701. 'Whitehaven Company' of Somerset County Militia fought with the Maryland Line in Revolutionary War.”

Was Whitehaven, Maryland named after the town of Whitehaven in England?  It looks as if it was.  Research told me Col. George Gale remarried Elizabeth Denwood at Whitehaven, Cumbria, England in 1701.  In 1702, George and Elizabeth moved to America and founded a small settlement in Kent County, Maryland and called it Whitehaven (now in Wicomico County.)
I arrived to the town early ready to explore!  I quickly found I could only travel the one main road, which formed a ¼ mile loop through the Whitehaven Historical District.  Additionally, there were three small streets bisecting that loop.  Structures included the homes mentioned above, a church, a historical schoolhouse, 
Whitehaven Schoolhouse
and a marine railway.  However, there wasn’t any commerce – no gas station, no general store, not even a bank.  There was a restaurant (The Red Roost), but it was closed for the season.  I panicked – what about lunch?!  Oh, no!  Readers, I cannot tell a lie - I already knew what I was up against because I did my research.  I am giving you fair warning - if you decide to visit Whitehaven, be sure to pack a lunch!

The first item of interest was the Whitehaven Schoolhouse.  The Whitehaven Schoolhouse opened in 1886 as a grammar school.  It originated as a one-room schoolhouse (it was later expanded) and has significance as it is one of the few remaining in Wicomico County still located on its original site.  Prior to the construction of the schoolhouse, Whitehaven was served by schools roughly three miles away.  As the population of the village grew, it was evident a schoolhouse was necessary. 
Whitehaven Schoolhouse
In 1886, the present schoolhouse lot was sold for $1.00 to the County Commissioners.  The first room of the schoolhouse was built soon afterward and children in grades 1 through 7 were taught.  In 1908, the second room of the schoolhouse and a porch across the older section were built.  Children in grades 7 through 9 were taught in this addition.  In 1935, the little schoolhouse closed when students began to be bused from Whitehaven to the nearby village of Quantico.  In 1937, the Whitehaven Methodist Church acquired the schoolhouse and began using it for various social events such as church suppers and ice cream socials.  Sunday school classes were also taught here.  In 1975, it was refurbished and maintained as a “Country Store” and gift shop.  Those days were short lived as it was used as storage space several years later.

In 1991, the little schoolhouse once again gained importance in the community of Whitehaven as it earned its new title of Community and Church Hall.  In this capacity, the schoolhouse serves as a meeting place for the Whitehaven Historical Society, as an exhibition space for local artists, and as a repository for archived documents and photographs relating to Whitehaven’s history.  

Just beyond the schoolhouse stands the Whitehaven Methodist Episcopal Church.  Built in 1892, it stands as an unusual expression of Whitehaven’s maritime and boat building heritage.  
Whitehaven Church
In fact, according to the description of the church in the Maryland Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan Data:

“The most remarkable aspect of this church interior is the paneling which sheathes its walls and ceilings.  This paneling consists of diagonally placed strips of heart pine which creates a herringbone pattern against the [wall] and [ceiling].  Although the craftsman of this interior is unknown, the church is said this reflects the work of local shipbuilders who have long made their home in Whitehaven.” 

There are two interesting facts about this church.  
Whitehaven Church
First, the interior can be read as an archive of Whitehaven.  This is because throughout the years, inscribed memorials of deceased family members were donated by members of the congregation.  These memorials include:  art glass windows, the bible, a picture of Christ,
chancel cross, and an organ. 

What is the second interesting fact?  Religious services are only held four times a year.  Additionally, the church is available for special events, such as weddings and funerals.

I left the church in hopes of finding the next item on my “To See” list.  I read the town was home to a marine railway, but I was unsure of what I was looking for.  Was it a building?  A set of train tracks?   Whatever it was, I was hoping it was not on someone’s personal property because most of the town had “No Trespassing” signs affixed to posts around driveways and piers.   

Random boat on Wicomico River - not built by Shipyard!
According to this link, Shipbuilding had been a part of the economy of Whitehaven since the early 19th century.  The marine railway was built as part of the operation.  The earliest evidence documented suggested there was large-scale shipbuilding in Whitehaven in 1808.  19th century shipbuilding in Whitehaven morphed into ship repair during the early 20th century.  The types of vessels repaired at the shipyard represented a wide cross section of the types of boats operating on the Wicomico River and throughout the Eastern Shore.  They included bugeyes, schooners, scows, skiffs, launches, bateau, flattie, canoes, yachts, pungy, and skipjacks.  Shipyard operations in Whitehaven ceased in the 1970s as the Whitehaven Shipyard moved to another location. 

I rounded one of the bends for what seemed like the 20th time, 
Marine Railway
and off in the distance was a house with some VERY large cogs attached to its backside.  Could this be the marine railway?  There was not a “No Trespassing” sign in sight, so I ventured over to the area.  As I approached the house, I was able to see the cogs up close.  They were enormous!  The house was of 20th century design, which was unlike the other homes in town.  Extending off the cogs was an elevated single slipway leading to the edge of the shoreline, but not into the water.  
Marine Railway
I did not see any metal track or rails inside of the walls – the area was filled in with grass/weeds.  I assumed this was the railway, but nothing told me I was correct.  I really needed to find someone to ask.

Whitehaven has been host to “ships passing in the night” – literally.  One of these ships was the famed Chinese junk ship - the Mon Lei, which sailed through Whitehaven on its way to nearby Salisbury one evening in June 1942.  Over a three year period, the “floating museum” equipped with 800 square feet of canvas reinforced by bamboo bracings traveled thousands of miles from China visiting numerous American ports.  Stories about the ship’s origins vary.  Some accounts reported the Mon Lei was built as early as 1890 while others claim it was built in 1939 by a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.  It is also not clear when and how the famous “Believe it or not” Robert Ripley bought the ship in Baltimore.  Ripley had become taken with the exotic ship and invested significantly in his prized possession.

You are probably wondering when I will be visiting the “something” older than the nation.  All in good time, good readers….all in good time…….

From what I assumed was the marine railway, I wandered over to the Whitehaven Hotel.  The Whitehaven Hotel is an 8-bedroom Bed and Breakfast.Built in 1810, The Whitehaven Hotel was first constructed as a two and a half story road-house or private home.  In the late 1800s, the Village of
Whitehaven was a vibrant riverfront community with shipyards, a canning factory, a new school and church, and several stores.  To meet the region’s burgeoning demand for lodging, the building went through its first major expansion in approximately 1877 and opened as a hotel.

The Whitehaven Hotel was also known as a “Drummer’s Hotel.”   The Hotel accommodated travelers during Whitehaven’s boom years (the 1880s through the 1920s) when the town was a stopping point for people traveling between Vienna and Princess Anne.  The Hotel also provided overnight stay for visitors who had booked passage on steamships to Baltimore.  Many of the Hotel’s guests were “drummers” - salesmen from Baltimore who would try to “drum” up business by selling household goods that ranged from soap powder to mattress ticking.  Drummers would pay a quarter a night and sleep four to a bed.  However, during the 1940s, engineers dredged the Wicomico all the way up to Salisbury (a town located about 20 miles northeast of Whitehaven.)  The ships bypassed the town, local canneries closed, and Whitehaven seemingly stopped in time. 
Front View - Whitehaven Hotel
World War I provided a boost to Whitehaven’s shipyards, but river traffic and commerce eventually shifted to Salisbury. During prohibition, the "Whippoorwill Gang" was said to operate nearby.  A secret door in the Hotel store is thought to have been used for passing liquor to customers who had first been given the once-over.  As the village’s fortunes declined, the Hotel became a private residence and closed shortly after World War II.

In 1995, the Hotel was saved from the wrecking ball through the cooperative efforts of local residents, the Maryland Historic trust and by those captivated by its charming location.  In 1997, restoration began to reverse nearly 50 years of neglect and bring this jewel of the Eastern Shore back to its stately appearance.  It remains in its original form as one of the last buildings in a long-gone network of points between steamship routes connecting small waterfront towns and islands in the Chesapeake Bay to commercial ports as far away as Baltimore.
Side View - Whitehaven Hotel
When I reached the Whitehaven Hotel, I was immediately captivated.  The Hotel was located on the banks of the Wicomico River at the end of a road and it had the most amazing view of the river and surrounding marsh.  The grounds of the Hotel were so peaceful I felt instantly relaxed.  The front porch was generous and I could imagine myself just sitting in one of the rocking chairs viewing a wonderful sunset and native birds and waterfowl.  The ambiance of the Hotel’s interior must have been as equally incredible!  I was really excited about visiting this place as the reviews written by people who stayed here were nothing short of stellar.

Looking around the parking lot, I became concerned as there was only one vehicle visible and it was a maintenance vehicle.  I tried the door handle on the Hotel, but it was locked.  I called the contact numbers provided on a sign on the door, but could only leave a message.  Disappointed, I decided to move on.
My last stop on the “To See” list was what you have been patiently waiting for – my experience on the nation’s oldest “something.”  Just what was this “something?”  Well, it was the Whitehaven Ferry.

My experience began as I approached the ferry operator (Captain Bobby Bean) and asked if I could just sit and talk to him as he worked.  He happily nodded.  I took a ride into history as I crossed the Wicomico River on this car ferry.  I did not want to take up room on the ferry with my car, so I parked and walked on the ferry. 

The first ferry began operating in 1688 and is thought to be the oldest continuously operating ferry in the United States.  The ferry is docked in Wicomico County and can carry up to 3 cars and 6 people.  The cable ferry journeys 900 feet across the Wicomico River ending up on the other side in Somerset County.   
Ferry's Cable
The ferry ride is free and takes 4-5 minutes per crossing.  To get to the same location by car, it would take 40-45 minutes.  Each county pays half of the expense to keep the ferry operating.

Bobby told me he is one of only two full-time operators.  He has been captaining the ferry for 26 years.  What did I find to be the most interesting fact about this particular job?  Not only is the job older than the State of Maryland (7th State to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788), the job is older than Wicomico County (created from Somerset County and Worcester County in 1867) AND the job is older than the United States (founded in 1776.)
Cable Mechanism
I stood in Bobby’s little cab for about 1 ½ hours talking with him.  Remember I mentioned it took only 4-5 minutes per crossing?  I can’t tell you how many times I crossed the river in that 1 ½ hours, but Bobby makes close to 150 crossings per day.  Bobby explained to me how the cable worked and  showed me the mirrors forward and aft so people who ride the ferry know how far to pull up so three vehicles can fit on board.  Bobby knew the regular passengers – who is going to work and who is coming home from work.   He pointed out the ones who are not regular passengers (like me) because he doesn’t recognize the cars.  Bobby told me there is a ferry hotline, but most do not use it (I did before I drove to Whitehaven.)  The hotline offers information on ferry closures due to weather, tide, repairs, or other reasons.  He says people tend to get mad if the ferry isn’t open, which makes Bobby wonder why they don’t use the hotline more often. 

Lines for the ferry form at a stop sign in front of the Whitehaven Hotel. 
Sometimes there’s a line of cars waiting for the ferry, and since only three vehicles can fit and a maximum of six passengers are allowed to ride at one time, that involves waiting for more than one trip.  Those who want to ride the ferry must expect the possibility of encountering a line and plan to arrive before the last trip.  If the “Ferry Closed” sign hangs across the ferry, latecomers have no choice but to drive around the river.  When the ferry’s closed, it’s closed.  Bobby quotes one passenger as saying, “The ferry is a gift, not a given.”

During my many trips across the river, I asked Bobby if the house with the cogs attached was the marine railway.  He nodded.  He asked if I had been to the Hotel yet.  I told him I was there before I got on the ferry, but nobody answered my knocks or my calls. 
He immediately got on the phone and called Cindy, the Innkeeper.  She answered and told him she was in town buying food for the guests arriving later that evening and wouldn’t be back for a couple of hours.  I thanked Bobby for making the call and decided I would have to visit Cindy at a later date.

I made the decision to finally ditch my sea legs and head home.  Riding the ferry was definitely an experience to remember.  As I disembarked the ferry, I thanked Bobby for his time and for keeping history alive.  He smiled and told me never before had he heard anyone put his job in that perspective. 

Aside from the fact I could not eat lunch in the town, I found Whitehaven to be extremely enchanting.  I became smitten with this small town based on its unique history and serene views.  Without a doubt, I could easily come back to relax and “get my chill on.” 
View from Behind Hotel


  1. I can't thank you enough for your kind review! Very much appreciated!

  2. I live at the original Whitehaven in North West UK - West Cumbria/Lake District. Our town was the one raided during the War Of Independence by one of the founding father's of the US Navy - John Paul Jones - whose tomb is at Annanapolis Naval academy. Captain George Gale's first wife, Mildred Warner Washington Gale is buried here in the churchyard in the centre of our town. There are 2 memorial plaques to her there. Her daughter and her black servant Jane are also buried with her. President George Washington's family came back here to go to school - Appleby Grammar School. His family lawyer came from here via our port which was once the 3rd largest port in UK as we had merchants trading sugar and tobacco with Virginia. Some of the original residents of Williamsburg were from our town. We have recognised pottery and travelling trunks in museums in USA that were made in our town. So many links to the Old Country!

    1. Fantastic information, Helen! It's clear I need to visit again and see everything you just mentioned. I really appreciate you posting this!

  3. Helen, I sincerely apologize for my delayed response! Wow! I am "blown away" by all of the history you just told me about. Thank you for giving me more insight to your wonderful town. I would love to visit one day and see all of the links/ties to Whitehaven, Maryland. It sounds amazing and thank you so much for sharing! :D Very much appreciated.

  4. Hi Helen
    Was Whitehaven UK named after the White family? My last name is White and have been tracing family history . Looking for a Elijah White died 1837. My family lives in Hebron near Whithaven.

    1. No. It's a corruption of White Harbour.

    2. No the consensus of opinion of historians of our town was that the Irish would arrive in Whitehaven in the Middle Ages to trade and send out coracles to travel down the main river through the then village and after meeting at the local moot/chief's meeting place and trading for goods, they would also collect a lot of willows for making more coracles and many other bent wood goods back home and Whithofthaven - the earliest name was what they called the area from Willow Whithies (long branches for making things from) which was what the town was known as by the monks of St Bees just south of the town who had the big monastic establishment that owned the fishing village of Whitofthaven until Henry the 8th - Tudor KIng dissolved the monastries in favour of owning all their land in England himself as the self-created head of the Church of England in defiance of the Pope in Rome. Henry gave WhitoftHaven & St Bees to a favoured knight who married into the Lords/Earls of LOwther and Lonsdale who employed the Gales - minor aristocracy - as land & mine agents as the Lowthers were mostly kept in London working for the Admiralty. From the Gales family came Colonel George Gale, merchant who was a founder of Whitehaven Maryland. There is nothing white about our harbour or the land around it - It was the source of red sandstone including the paler sandstone flooring at Mount Vernon -George Washington's home on the Potomac

  5. Your comment is very much appreciated! Visiting these towns was so much fun and extremely memorable!