The estuary of the Susquehanna River.
I don't have time or space to describe my entire life to you, and so
you will have to be satisfied with the most superficial of impressions
of what the Chesapeake Bay means to me, along with a few geographical and
Time spent with my father as he taught us to pursue the Bay's fishy
denizens. Long hours of relaxation as we drifted through calm, summer
sun-lit waters, dragging our lines behind us. Times of being cooped up
in the cabin, venturing out into the rain if a rod wiggled suddenly.
Going after rockfish on New Year's Eve, 1981, the day before
the moratorium began. Terrifying moments running through the 10-foot waves
brought by a sudden thunderstorm. Dipping blue crabs out of the
water as they swam by. Looking down at the immense vista from the top of the Bay bridge. Looking up at the Bay Bridge.
With 3,237 square miles (8,384 square kilometers) of open tidal water,
the Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States, and is surpassed
in size by only six or seven others in the world.
The estuary stretches about 200 miles (~320 km) through the Atlantic
Coastal Plain from Conowingo Rapids (replaced by Conowingo Dam) on the
Susquehanna River in Maryland to the Atlantic Ocean, between Cape Charles
on Virginia's Eastern Shore to Cape Henry in Virginia
Beach. In between are countless bays, coves, islands, inlets,
necks, marshes and points. There are so many
place names associated with the Chesapeake that I have created a separate node just for them.
The Bay splits Maryland in half, and slices a chunk of Virginia
away as well. The Eastern Shore of the Bay is, culturally, a world
apart from the Western Shore. But the Bay's influence extends
far away from tidewater; its 77,000 square mile drainage basin includes
a large chunk of New York, most of Pennsylvania and Virginia and
almost all of Maryland, with a large part of West Virginia, and some
of Delaware (and a tiny bit of North Carolina, if you include the Great
50,000 years ago there was no Chesapeake Bay at all. This was
in the middle of the last Ice Age. The southern fringes of the
great Wisconsin Ice Sheet lapped over into the northern part of the Susquehanna
River Basin. The river itself flowed out of the Appalachians and
across the Coastal Plain, several hundred miles more of which had been
exposed by a drop in the level of the Atlantic Ocean.
The river flowed across a broad valley, and eventually into the shrunken
Atlantic. It deposited its sediment on the Plain. and frequently
shifted its course in much the same way that the Mississippi does in its "Delta" today.
As the Earth's climate warmed, a certain amount of glacial meltwater
was carried directly down the Susquehanna to the sea. However, the
greatest effect on the area came from the expanding Atlantic Ocean, which
filled the lower parts of the river valley as its level rose.
The flooded area crept slowly northwards, until the eastern side of the
river found itself separated from the western side by as much as 20 miles
of open water.
The Susquehanna, as well as smaller tributaries like the Potomac,
continued to pour fresh water into this salty Bay, forming a brackish
continuum, from nearly-fresh water at the northern end to ocean-like
conditions at the southern end. No longer able to carry its
sediment out to the Ocean, the river dumped it in the Bay. Unique conditions
at the other end also brought in sediment from the Atlantic, making the
bay a sediment trap. Only a rising sea level
kept it from filling in; as the water rose, erosion kept making the Bay
wider and wider. The tides which rise and fall like clockwork out in
the ocean were made incredibly complicated by the Bay's countless nooks
Around the same time as the Bay's formation, the first humans moved
into the area. The Bay provided a much easier way of life than was
found out west, with abundant fish, shellfish, and crabs. Later
on, the land would prove itself well-suited to agriculture. By
500 years or so ago, The Susquehannocks and Lenni-Lenape lived in the
North, the Nanticokes on the Eastern Shore, and Powhatan ruled the
Western Shore near the Bay's mouth.
One of these peoples had a name for the Bay from which its modern name
derives. Some say this word was "K'tchisupiak," meaning "people
of the great salt water." Others say it was "great shellfish bay".
The truth is obscured, for a different tide was about to sweep in from
the Atlantic, to the woe of the people already living there.
Giovanni Verazzano visited North Carolina's Outer Banks as well
as New York Harbor, but appears to have completely missed the Chesapeake.
Spanish sailors appear to have sailed up the James River to gather provisions
and water, and Sir Francis Drake appears to have paid a visit.
In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted one of her more
adventurous courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, a charter to settle and exploit
the area. Raleigh claimed the entire North American continent and
named it Virginia in Elizabeth's honor. The first settlement in
Virginia was on Roanoke Island behind the Outer Banks (an area
that a later king would have named after himself). The
failure of this colony (and Raleigh's loss of
his own head) could not stop Enghish settlement, and another attempt was
made further north, in the Chesapeake Bay area. In 1607, Captain John
Smith planted some settlers on an island in the James River, and then
sailed up the Bay to chart it. Many of the names we have come from
his first map. Smith must have been in a foul mood as he approached
the upper bay, as he gave out names such as Bolus River,
Damn'd Quarter, and Maggoty River.
Meanwhile, Jamestown, on a swampy, mosquito-infested island, almost failed.
Soon after, King Charles granted one of his supporters a large plantation
in the north of Virginia, to be named "Maryland" after Charles's queen,
The settlers found little actual gold beyond the trade goods they took
from the local natives. Soon, tobacco would be all the rage in
England, and in order to exploit this market, vast numbers of trees would
be cut down, vast fields would be planted with the weed. Tobacco
is a labor-intensive crop, but a program of transporting convicted criminals
as indentured servants didn't provide enough return on investment,
and so the planters had to import captives from Africa. Money from
tobacco and stolen lives turned Virginia and Maryland into profit centers,
at least for the factors back home in England, and soon, other colonies
were founded, emulating them.
There was still little need for roads in the Chesapeake Bay area --
there was a big, watery highway for everyone to use. Because of this,
the Bay has a rich maritime tradition to draw upon. Countless numbers
of boats and ships were built along the Bay's coves and inlets; several
styles of boats were developed here, such as an elaboration of the dugout
canoe called the 'shallop' as well as the Baltimore Clippers, workhorses
of maritime trade, and several types fo work boats, including the graceful
skipjack. The best-known museum dedicated to preserving the Bay's
maritime heritage is in St. Michaels, Maryland.
The Bay remained a larder for its residents, as well as the rest of
the country -- countless fish, terrapins, crabs, ducks, Canada
geese, oysters, muskrats, and the like created were pulled out of
the bay and sent to the big cities of the Northeast, creating the conditions
for Ralph Waldo Emerson to proclaim Baltimore 'the gastronomic center
of the Universe' (a position which, it is safe to say, it has since relinquished).
The British retained a tight grip on Virginia for most of the Revolutionary
War, but the final decisive battle of the war occurred on the Chesapeake,
as French Admiral Jean François de Grasse kept the British from
reinforcing Lord Cornwallis' garrison at Yorktown.
The War of 1812 saw the British return, sailing up the Bay and marching
on Washington to burn it. Baltimore was a
haven for so many privateers empowered by the United States government
to harass British shipping that the British called it 'a nest of pirates'.
The British attack on Baltimore was repulsed, however; a night-long naval
bombardment of Fort McHenry provided the inspiration for a song that would become the country's national anthem.
When war broke out between the states in 1860, the Bay area became
one of its principal theaters. The first bloodshed of the war occurred
in Baltimore; the first real battle occurred along Bull Run, within hearing
distance of the capital. The bloody, decisive battles of Antietam
and Gettysburg occurred along its western tributaries, and the patterns
of the Bay's tributaries in Virginia determined the course of the early
campaigns, as well as the long, final bloody campaign through Virginia
down to capture Richmond and Robert E. Lee's surrender
at Appomattox Court House.
The cities along the Bay shared in the industrial and shipping boom
that followed the Civil War, if not quite as much as places farther north.
Factories darkened the skies of Baltimore and Norfolk, and paddlewheel
steamers now plowed regularly between Baltimore and Norfolk, and ferries
carried people back and forth across the bay.
The twentieth century saw a steady increase in population and development
around the Bay. A few events have a special importance in changing the
The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was dug to connect the Chesapeake and
Delaware Bays. While this provided a much shorter route for ships
to reach Baltimore, it mixed salty water from Delaware Bay into the almost-fresh
upper Bay, restricting and destroying some of the Bay's environments while
The construction of Conowingo Dam in 1926 provided cheap electric power
to Philadelphia but wiped out several species of fish (especially the hickory
shad) that bred in the upper Susquehanna.
The development of the automobile finally caused overland travel to become
more important than over-water travel. The Susquehanna was bridged
in several places early on, but after World War II, two bridges were built
across the Bay itself, one in Maryland near Annapolis
and the other in Virginia, connecting Cape
Henry and Cape Charles. These bridges provided automobile and truck access
to the Eastern Shore, put the ferries and steamboats out of business, and
opened the way for millions of tourists seeking the ocean.
The introduction of foreign species such as Nutria, phragmites reeds,
and the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo have dramatically affected the
bay's environments, competing with and sometimes wiping out many native
species. The Bay has been overfished by watermen and recreational
fishermen. But even more, industrial and agricultural pollution,
as well as the sewage of fourteen million people, have reduced the Bay's
formerly vast bounty so much that watermen find it difficult
to make a living. Attempts by the Federal and State governments to
remedy the situation, no matter how necessary, have made that living even
harder to make. Nowadays, the blue crabs you buy in Baltimore were most
likely shipped from the Gulf Coast, or even Venezuela.
The various states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, operating upon widely
differing political philosophies, have found it difficult to agree upon
what, if anything, should be done to save the Bay. Even so, some
progress has been made.
Nevertheless, the Chesapeake Bay still survives. Despite the fact that
we've dammed it, polluted it in all sorts of nasty ways, overfished it,
and taken it for granted, it is still the source of almost everything good
in Maryland, and, I assume with great confidence, Virginia.