The Choptank River Heritage Center plays a unique role among Chesapeake Bay region museums in documenting and presenting the role of skipjacks
and other Bay sailing vessels as river traders.
Most residents and visitors to the Chesapeake Bay are familiar with the famous skipjacks of the oyster dredging fleet.
Few are aware that during the off-season, many skipjacks captains took their shallow-draft vessels into the Bay’s tidal rivers to supplement their income by carrying trade goods between farming communities and the large cities of the Bay.
Skipjacks and other sailing vessels carried manufactured goods, oyster shells for paving county roads, bricks, fertilizers, and other bulk
materials to Denton and other small rural towns. In return, they carried watermelons, tomatoes and other produce, and grains from farms to city markets.
These shallow-draft river traders were descendants of ocean-going schooners, like the Omega, that sailed from Gilpin Point and other tobacco,
corn, and wheat from Choptank plantations and farms on the Choptank and returned with wines from the Mediterrean and sugar from the Caribbean.
Even after the turn of the 20th century, after the rise and decline of the Chesapeake steamboats, river landings were still visited by sailing
vessels. A descendant of George Martinak (the benefactor of Martinak State Park) recalled sailcraft on the Choptank near the Martinak cabin the 1930s:
“Sailing vessels came [up the Choptank] ... I never saw one under sail on that part of the river. The single-masted ships would laze their
way past the bluff on which the cabin perched, pushed along by yawl boats lashed to their low sterns. Their single-cylinder engines could be heard for a half-hour
before they hove into sight. So slowly did they progress, it seemed to me their skippers had the whole summer in which to reach port at Denton, 2 miles upstream.”
The Center preserves this memory and presents the life and times of these sailing river traders through several exhibits and activities.
- The skipjack F.C. Lewis has been restored and preserved and is displayed on land as “climb aboard” exhibit of life for crewmembers living and working on bay and river skipjacks.
- The skipjack Flora Price will ply the Choptank River between Denton and Cambridge with students, paddlers, and volunteer crew onboard, pushed along the twisting, narrow course of the river by her yawl boat.