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Visiting Solomons Island

On the Corner of Chesapeake and Patuxent

Sometimes, "the future ain't what it used to be." Over and over, this Yogi Berraism has been true for Solomons Island. The Bay's birth is evidenced nearby in the exposed seam of Miocene fossils, including oysters, at Calvert Cliffs. As the first hunter-gatherers roamed the area, empty oyster shells became a sign of their presence. English settlers arrived in the early 1600s and delighted in the plentiful shellfish. But, until after the Civil War, Solomons Island had only a couple buildings and some cultivated land. More change was coming. And Solomons was the little island that could.

Solomons at a Glance

GEOGRAPHY: Solomons, Maryland, is just over two square miles in size. The 38-acre island portion to the south, known as Solomons Island, is connected by a bridge which locals refer to as the "Solomons Island Bridge."

LOCATION: Solomons sits in the north side of the mouth of the Patuxent River. The U.S. Patuxent River Naval Air Station is located across the Patuxent on the river's south side.

POPULATION: 1,881 (as of 2010, up 22% since 2000).

AKA: Solomons Island was originally named Bourne's Island in 1680 and changed to Somervell's Island in 1740. It wasn't until 1870, after businessman Isaac Solomon brought a sucessful oyster-packing facility to town, that the island became known by its current name. Solomon's home still stands on the front of the island.

Oh, those delicious oysters. Isaac Solomon, the Baltimore businessman for whom the island is named, opened the town's first oyster cannery soon after the Civil War. The commercial seafood industry flourished there. And so did the shipbuilding needed to support the fleet.

By 1900, the island itself had 91 households. The most common occupations were oysterman, fisherman, and ships carpenter. But even then there was a small tourism presence in the summer when visitors would come by steamboat. Expansion followed on the mainland to the north, called Avondale.

Although quite self-sufficient, as were many communities during this time, the river kept Solomons connected and accessible for commerce. Twice-weekly steamboats from Baltimore brought supplies. On-island entertainment included ice skating in winter, local theater, and the island's own traveling baseball team.

In the late 1920s, oyster and fish harvests were declining. Watermen were looking for work elsewhere. Shipyards closed as the need for workboats diminished.

The Great Depression took even more of a toll on Solomons' economy. And a devastating storm in 1933 added insult to injury, destroying oyster beds and canneries, washing away the steamboat wharf and many boats, and flooding half the island.

Although the harbor has been a center for marine activity since Joshua Barney's flotilla gathered there to protect the Bay from the British Navy during the War of 1812, activity escalated during World War II when three naval facilities came to the area. With them came more people and new jobs. Solomons' population soared from 263 in 1942 to more than 2,600 in 1945.

After the war: a new era. Recreation boats, shopping centers, and new development marked the post-war "good life." Most military personnel left the area, but the still-present Patuxent Naval Air Station continued to attract Solomons' residents to cross the river by boat for work. Shipbuilding continued but was now focused on the production of family cruisers that were marketed nationwide.

The 140-foot-high Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge was built in 1977, connecting Solomons to St. Mary's County and the Patuxent Naval Air Station. In 1978, after a nearly century-long run, the last oyster house, J.C. Lore & Sons, closed its doors. Easier to access, the island became a travel destination with inns, restaurants, and gift shops. Water-oriented Solomons now provides visitors with many recreational opportunities: fishing, crabbing, boating, and strolling.

Exploring Solomon's Today

We say the Bay is "where we live," "where we work," and "where we play." Don Baugh, CBF's Vice President for Environmental Education, reminded me recently that it's also "where we learn." And, Solomons' Calvert Marine Museum provides a rich and engaging place to do just that. It was our first stop the day my daughter Helen and I visited Solomons.

Drum Point Lighthouse and Marsh Walk at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. Photo credit Calvert Marine Museum

Tour the 1883 Drum Point Lighthouse which was moved to the Calvert Marine Museum grounds in 1975. Photo credit Calvert Marine Museum

Established in 1970 and moved to its current site in 1975, the museum's 29,000- square-foot building is loaded with history: artifacts; old photographs; and exhibits on American Indians, the War of 1812, tobacco farming, and the waterman trade. Outside attractions include a marsh walk; an otter enclosure; and the Wm. B. Tennison, a 60-foot bugeye, available for tours.

Sherrod Sturrock, the museum's Deputy Director, led us through much of the indoor area, even taking us behind the scenes to see the workings of the many aquariums that mimic the Bay's progressive change in salinity. Four full-time employees care for these critter exhibits that include jellyfish breeding and a skate hatchery.

After visiting otters Bubbles and Squeak, we toured the on-site Drum Point Lighthouse with Education Assistant Lori Cole. The 1883 cottage-style lighthouse was moved to the museum property by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1975. Above the supply deck, the structure's three stories are outfitted with period furniture and once housed a family of five.

We took a break to eat and tour the island proper, attached by a barely noticible 25-foot bridge—the distance narrowed over the years by tons upon tons of oyster shell.

We sank into relaxation at the wellknown Solomons Pier, literally sitting over the Patuxent, admiring the stunning view. The gentle clanking of boats was interrupted when a military jet flew overhead reminding us that the Patuxent Naval Air Station is just across the river.

We couldn't wait to get back to the museum. This time, we toured with Jim Langley, the museum's Curator of Exhibits. Jim has a 30-year history with the museum, first apprenticing for his late father Pepper Langley, a talented wood carver, model boat builder, and founder of the museum. "My father was such a dreamer," he said. "My mom said he would let the house fall down and work at the museum for free."

Pepper left quite a legacy. We'll be back. I could have spent at least another full day at the museum. And Helen is already asking to visit Bubbles and Squeak. Maybe one day, as Bay restoration progresses, we'll even tour a working oyster house.

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