Helen and I walked in the footsteps of
sailors, slaves, and adventurers who lived
and worked on this historic waterfront
during the eve of the Revolution. The 45-
minute, audio-guided tour, “History on the
Waterfront: A Journey into Chestertown’s
Past,” begins and ends at the circa-1746
Custom House—home of the
C.V. Starr Center for the Study
of the American Experience at
The audio continues describing the area’s
rural landscape and the flocks of ducks and
geese so dense they sometimes darkened
the sky. Of interest is the fact that the population of the surrounding Kent County is
almost the same as it was at the first U.S.
Census in 1790.
Washington College, a small (1,400 stu-
dents) private liberal arts college founded
in 1782, is the 10th oldest college in the
nation and a prominent fixture in the
town. Helen and I were able to witness
firsthand some of the environmental work
the college is doing with some very spe-
cial students. LOREN ANNE BARNETT/CBF STAFF
Custom House staff outfitted
each of us with an iPod,
a map, and instructions.
Through our earbuds, Adam
and the Center’s Director—
welcomed us with a smooth
Every fall, a select group of 12
students with a variety of
majors are immersed in Bay life
through the college’s Chesapeake
Semester. Their studies focus
on “the complex history, ecolo-
gy, and culture of the
The first stop is behind the
Custom House at the water-
front. Life in 18th-century
Chestertown is described, com-
plete with sound effects and
actor interjections, as a busy
trade center where goods like
fruits, sugar, and rum arrive from faraway
places like Portugal, Barbados, and
Antigua—where tradesmen fit the
schooners and brigantines for travel into
the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.
Doug Levin, Associate Director of the Center for Environment and Society at
Washington College, leads the select group of 2012 Chesapeake Semester
students in a discussion of sediment samples collected during a recent
exploration across the Bay watershed.
Although most of Chestertown’s residents
at that time were laborers and slaves, some
merchants came into great wealth supplying wheat and other products to Europe. It
was Britain, however, that was reaping the
bulk of the riches, and soon the colonies
This area is known as Tidewater for the ebb
and flow of the river. The Chester emerges
from its forested headwaters to the northeast and widens through a patchwork of
peaceful farmland before it proudly reflects
the historic waterfront of Chestertown,
nestled along its shore.
The day of our visit, the group
was debriefing following the
second of their four explorations. They had spent the last
10 days crossing the watershed from west to east. Doug
Levin, Associate Director of the
Center for Environment and
Society, started the discussion
with an exercise. Bags of sediment they had collected and laid out on
the table told the story of their travels,
from the coarser, darker sediment of the
mountain streams to the lighter, sandy
sediment found near the coast. While they
conversed, the slide show playing in the
background was a testament to their balance of work and play.
To protest British taxation, the town instituted a ban on buying or drinking tea. So,
in May of 1774—less than a year after the
Boston Tea Party—when the Getty arrived
laden with tea, residents were outraged.
Legend says that they boarded the ship and
tossed its cargo into the river.
The walkable historic district has become a
popular tourist destination with its quaint
shops, galleries, and restaurants. Annual
festivals—Taste of the Town in April, The
Chestertown Tea Party in May, the Sultana
Downrigging in October—and the regular
Chestertown Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market
are also a big draw for visitors.
The tour proceeds up Cannon Street to the
Hynson-Ringgold House, a beautiful specimen of 18th-century American architecture. George Washington’s diaries document that he both slept and ate there.
Today, the house is the residence for the
President of Washington College.
The students were thoughtful in their
observations. Topics ranged from the
changes in the earth’s layers visible in the
Susquehanna riverbeds to the blending of
state and federal government at the
Cooperative Oxford Laboratory to the “
personal data” that influences the science and
faith of the people of Tangier Island. They
paddled the Cypress swamps of the
Pokomoke River and filled their stomachs
with memorable meals of oysters and crabs.
This act, the Chestertown Tea Party, is
immortalized every May aboard the
Sultana—a replica British schooner most
often used as a floating classroom.
The tour continues across a foot bridge. On
the other side is Chestertown’s only waterfront restaurant, The Fish Whistle, where
Helen and I enjoyed lunch earlier that day.
We finish back at the Custom House with
a peek at Washington College’s Public
Archeology Lab in the building’s basement.
Chestertown not only provides a rich view
into our past, but also a bridge to our future.
Back at Washington College, they are given
the tools and time to formulate and nuture
their ideas—and a little push to make a
new history for themselves and the Bay.
Loren Anne Barnett—CBF’s
Director of Creative Services
and Editor of Save the Bay
magazine—grew up on
Maryland’s Severn River.