Cambridge was authorized as a town site by the Maryland colonial government in 1684. Trading ships from London and Liverpool made calls at Cambridge in 1719. In 1745 the town was incorporated and by 1762 Cambridge had the largest tobacco warehouse in the region. Over the next thirty years Cambridge became the principal port of entry in Dorchester County and served as the center market for tobacco, seafood and muskrat pelts.
Cambridge became an important vegetable and grain port in the decades following the Civil War and an important seafood packing center in the late 19th and early to middle 20th century. Cambridge has a 600-building historic district.
Cambridge was Maryland’s second largest port after Baltimore. Lumber and canned tuna were shipped to ports around the world and corn to Nigeria before the port closed in 1991.
Shipbuilding was an early enterprise at Cambridge. The Cambridge Shipyard, located on the east side of the harbor dates from the colonial period and continues ship repair today. A shipyard dating from 1775 was operated by Captain Mitchell Sadrach. The yard was later sold to Lewis Ross; it closed in 1878. The Johnson Shipyard began operation in 1800 on the west side of the harbor on Market Street. Apparently there was a second location for this yard on Cemetery Avenue. This yard closed in 1850.
At nearby Sandy Hill, John T. Stewart built two oak brigs in 1849. James A. Stewart built several brigs and coasting vessels at the foot of High Street. William Hopkins and William Davis built a marine railway which was later sold to Joseph H. Johnson who added a shipyard. John Lowe built a wharf which later became a marine railway.
Col. James Wallace built one of the first – if not the first – wharf where vessels from England brought goods and shipped back tobacco.
The Albemarle began regular steamboat service to Cambridge in 1823 followed by the Paul Jones in 1839, the Osiris in 1845, the Cambridge in 1846, the Hugh Jenkins in 1850 and the Champion in 1851. The cost of a stage from Cambridge to Elkton with the Eastern Shore U.S. Mail Line during the summer of 1841 was $3.50. The stage left Cambridge each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 7 a.m. and arrived at Elkton the next day at 10 a.m. in time to take the “Cars” (train) to either Philadelphia or Baltimore. In 1868 the Cambridge and Seaford Railroad came to Cambridge. In the same year the “Cambridge Harbor Internal Navigation and Wharf Company” was organized. Baltimore loaned their “mud machine” which was used to remove by dredging a sand bar which had hindered shipping into Cambridge harbor since its development. With a deeper more accessible harbor, as many as 125 Bay steamers ranging from 100 to 300 tons traded regularly with Cambridge. Another 250 sailing vessels docked at Cambridge.
After 1868 the annual transport of goods included 250,000 tons of grain, 10,000 barrels of crabs, 600,000 gallons of oysters, half a million pounds of fish and 50,000 crates of peaches. In 1869, J. W. Crowell built a flour mill and sawmill on the waterfront. The sawmill cut Dorchester white oak for railroad cars built for the Central Pacific Railroad. They also cut white oak frames for ships which were shipped and built elsewhere. In 1884 the Lehigh Valley Railroad had a number vessels built in Cambridge from Dorchester oak.
By 1877 a substantial steamboat wharf at the end of High Street extended far into the Choptank River with an “L” at the end to accommodate loading of freight. A shipyard and marine railroad as well as the Todd & Hopkins Granary were located on the northwest side of the bridge at the inner harbor. Two steam operated sawmills, two steam operated grist mills, the O.P. Johnson Wheat and Oyster Packing Establishment, the J.W. Crowell & Co. steam saw mill and shingle mill, and a railroad depot with waterfront landing were also established by this time.
By the turn of the century nearly a million bushels of oysters were shucked annually in Cambridge, second in volume nationwide only to Baltimore. Several hundred oystermen as well as eight to nine hundred oyster shuckers (including men, women and children; many former slaves) worked in the twelve oyster-packing houses including: Cambridge Packing Company; Choptank Oyster Packing Company; Mace, Woolford & Company; I. L. Leonard & Company; Tubman & Mills; J. J. Phillips & Company; J. H. Phillips & Company; W.G. Winterbottom & Company; W. H. Robins & Sons; J. B. Harris & Son; Milford Phillips; T. M. Bramble & Company; George A. Hall & Company; Julius Becker , George W. Phillips & Sons, and William Blades & Sons. The oyster packing houses were the scene of scores of oyster dredge boats off loading their bounty. A similar number of workers were employed in the more than twenty crab-picking houses in Cambridge. In addition to these seafood establishments there was the Cambridge Shirt Factory and five large fruit and vegetable canneries: James Wallace & Sons; Roberts Brothers; I. L. Leonard & Company; T.M. Bramble & Company; and Woolford, Winterbottom & Lewis. There were also two steam mills for processing flour and a fertilizer plant.
Side Bar: Albanus Phillips (1871-19–) , Levi B. Phillips and W.G. Winterbottom formed the Phillips Packing Company in 1902. In 1914 they organized the Phillips Can Company. In 1907 Albanus Phillips formed the A. Phillips & Company oyster and fruit packers firm. These companies formed the largest fruit and packing firms in the Eastern part of the United States and the largest oyster packing firm in the United States. The tomato and catsup business became one of the largest food processing businesses in the nation. In the 1920s canned tomatoes and sweet potatoes were marketed throughout the United States as “Phillips Delicious.” Phillips supplied canned food for the Byrd Antarctic Expeditions becoming a close friend of Admiral Richard E. Byrd who named a mountain range and glacier after Albanus Phillips. The Phillips Company packed food for the military during World War I and II. During WW II the Phillips cannery became the largest producer of “C” rations in the nation. Phillips Company became Coastal Foods after 60 years of continuous operation. Phillips Seafood Restaurants was founded by descendants of Albanus Phillips.
The importance of Cambridge can be gleamed from the naming of four steamers after it. The first was built in 1846, the second in 1861, the third in 1890 and the fourth changed its original name fromAtlantic to Cambridge in 1915. Steamboats operated out of Cambridge from 1823 to at least 1921.
Side Bar: Annie “Little Sureshot Oakley” and her husband Frank Butler built a home on the banks of the Choptank River, Hambrooks Boulevard, Cambridge, where they lived from 1913 to 1915. They had come to Cambridge in the fall of 1913 touring with the Wild West Show and fell in love with the scenery as well as the abundance of wildlife, especially the geese and ducks on the river.
Prior to the Governor Emerson C. Harrison Bridge being built over the Great Choptank River in 1935 (the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at Kent Island did not open until 1947) ferries were used to cross the river. The opening of the Governor Harrington Bridge on October 26, 1935, which carries Route 50 over the Choptank River, was observed by the presence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard his yacht Sequoia which was the first vessel to pass through the draw bridge. The freight and passenger house at the end of Long Wharf was razed in 1935 to provide security for Roosevelt’s visit and his congratulatory speech. Long Wharf has since been removed and now is the site of the yacht harbor. A memorial to FDR and the smoke stack from his later Presidential yacht U.S.S. Potomac is located there. The Harrington Bridge was replaced by the higher none-draw Senator Frederick C. Malkus Jr. Memorial Bridge in 1987 (see Choptank River Bridge).
(Choptank River Cultural Resources Inventory, 1999-2002)