Pickering Creek, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Talbot County
I was born and raised in the Chesapeake Bay region. Well, actually, I only wish that I were (try suburban Philadelphia). After almost 25 years since moving to the Washington DC area, I now fully understand just how much there is to love about the Chesapeake and the communities surrounding it. The region (on the Delmarva peninsula, part Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) has a body of water everywhere you look (not limited to just the Bay): there are lots of creeks and rivers, and many are navigable. You’ll see pristine open fields planted with soybeans, corn, or nothing much at all, next to charming towns with quaint traditions and lovely old architecture. The history of the Chesapeake dates back to the early 17th century, and present day locals are usually warm and welcoming (unlike the DC area, lingering a half second at a traffic light after a red light turns green probably won’t result in car honking). And I can’t forget to mention what attracts many visitors: fresh seafood, including blue crabs, oysters (there are a few left) and rockfish. It just can’t be beat as a place to visit or live.
About 2 years ago my husband Bob and I accomplished the latter, although on a part time basis: we bought a weekend home in Easton, MD in Talbot County:
My home in Easton, MD
A 1953 Cape Cod in reasonably good condition (i.e. major renovations not needed, just minor ones) has provided us with not just an escape from honking red light motorists, but an opportunity to explore places like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge outside of Cambridge, MD:
The Chesapeake region is a highly desirable place - I’ll certainly verify that. But the Chesapeake Bay involves two shores – both an eastern and a western - is there really a difference between them? And is one side better than the other?
Let’s start with a definition of the Eastern shore. Wikipedia says it’s “composed of the state's nine counties east of the Chesapeake Bay. They are Caroline County, Cecil County, Dorchester County, Kent County, Queen Anne's County, Somerset County, Talbot County, Wicomico County, Worcester County.”
Map of Maryland’s Eastern Shore
But to define the Eastern shore only as a collection of nine mostly water bound counties in Maryland doesn’t begin to give you a flavor of what the area is about.
To better understand Eastern shore culture, let’s consider the phrase which might also serve as its underlying philosophy: “There is no life west of the Bay”. It’s a slogan that can be seen on bumper stickers and t-shirts throughout the Eastern shore and elsewhere. It seems like Eastern shore residents feel that once you have ventured west of the Bay, over the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bay Bridge linking the eastern and western shores, your quality of life suffers considerably. Some speculate that the Eastern shore developed as a separate culture because it was so isolated from the rest of Maryland before the Bay Bridge was built in 1952. Eastern shore natives are a very different group of people, not necessarily better or worse, the theory goes, but certainly different, and they really take pride in the difference that isolation often brings. While I have found Eastern shore residents to be genuinely very friendly, there is also an undercurrent of being a "from-here" vs. a “come-here”. My husband and I are come-heres, a designation that will probably remain unchanged no matter how well we are accepted by the natives and how long we live in our Easton, MD home.
And if you shop at Wal-Mart in Cambridge, MD, you might just get a personal demonstration of this Eastern shore philosophy. Two years ago I stopped there to buy some landscaping gravel for our house in Easton. A Wal-Mart employee, helping to load it in my car, noticed I wore a t-shirt from a Solomons Island (western shore) crab house, and assumed that was where I was from.
“It’s not just a bumper sticker ma’am, it really is true”, I was informed, and for a good 5 minutes that followed. I didn’t have the guts to tell him I lived most of the time in suburban Washington DC , which he would probably have considered one of the lower rungs of hell. A year later a repairman came to our Easton home to address an uncooperative air conditioning unit. Upon learning that we were only weekenders, he asked where we lived the rest of the time – and then winced when I told him. That was followed by a look of pity and pure sympathy. And questions on how we deal with the congestion, noise, traffic and pushy rude people (“no offense, ma’am”).
But not everyone loves the Eastern shore. At least not during an election campaign, that is.
William Donald Schaefer, former Maryland governor during the 80’s & 90’s was, according to the New York Times, “a politician given to the acerbic remark but not to contrition”. Apparently the Eastern shore did not vote for the governor in his 1990 re-election campaign, and did so in overwhelming numbers. The Governor, following his successful re-election made what he later described as a "terrible mistake" when he referred to the Eastern Shore as an outhouse. Outhouse was not the actual word he used… but you can probably guess which version he chose. Needless to say, that comment didn't go over real well on the Eastern shore. In response, a collection of a few dozen Eastern shore residents, some driving cars loaded with bags of manure and outhouses, drove to the state capitol in Annapolis (on the western shore). Wisely the governor’s response this time was far more carefully considered: "The Governor needs the Eastern Shore and the Eastern Shore needs the Governor," he said.
So if this characterizes the eastern shore, what is the western shore like?
First, a western shore definition. Generally it is considered to include Anne Arundel County, the cities of Annapolis and Baltimore, Baltimore County, and Harford County, including the towns of Aberdeen, Edgewood, and Havre de Grace
According to the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network The Bay’s “other” shore offers its own bounty of natural attractions and cultural gems. Big-city Baltimore, with its Inner Harbor, and historic Annapolis with its maritime traditions are its best-known urban destinations. But plenty of rural farmland, forested parks, and scenic rivers remain as well: state parks, wildlife refuges, and urban greenways all help to define the western side of the Bay. And among the historical attractions are museums, working archeological sites, Chesapeake sailing ships, Colonial architecture, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner.
“As the buildings of downtown Baltimore reach toward the sky, agricultural fields in southern Maryland stretch toward the horizon. As low, wooded hills roll through central Maryland, swampy wetlands spread out around the mouth of the Patuxent River. “Here, too, is the astounding maritime heritage of the Bay, on display in Annapolis, the city that ranks both as Maryland’s political capital and ’s sailing capital. Both of the western shore’s main cities, Baltimore and Annapolis, serve today as key entry-point destinations for Bay visitors and as major centers of Bay commerce, just as they have for centuries.”
I spoke with Brad Sulima, Manager, Travel and Yacht Charter Programs for BoatUS and long time Annapolis resident and boater, to get his perspectives on western shore living, and some insight on why the two shores are considered so different.
Key differences between the two shores include population density. While both shores are substantially removed from the big city chaos of Washington, DC and Baltimore, it is much more rural & agricultural on the Eastern shore (characterized by farms practicing crop rotation and chicken farms, along with small town living), and more urban & developed west of the bay. More than once I have heard fears (expressed by Eastern shore residents) about the “Anne Arundelization” of the Eastern shore. Anne Arundel county, home to Annapolis, is part of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. And about a half million residents. Although the Eastern Shore comprises more than a third of Maryland's land area, its nine counties have, by comparison, a population of only about 420,000.
This difference in population leads to some conveniences and opportunities on the western shore that the Eastern shore doesn’t enjoy, at least not to the same extent.
These include good access to top health care facilities, greater employment opportunities, and public transportation, including proximity to a major airport. Less critical but still important are shopping opportunities, like the Annapolis Mall, or Trader Joe’s, fine dining at seafood restaurants and those offering other cuisines, and entertainment outlets such as major league sports, and multiplex movie theaters showing newly released films. Of course you can still see a movie, buy clothes, see a doctor and find employment on the Eastern shore, but don’t expect the number of options you’ll find west of the bay. And as I have learned over the past two years, many Eastern shore residents are willing to “cross the bridge” to take advantage of these opportunities, in particular health care.
A love of recreational boating is certainly something both shores share. The Chesapeake offers great opportunities to visitors to and communities on both sides to cruise and sail the bay and its many tributaries. But boating life on the Western shore is rich with marinas, repair facilities, sail makers, paint facilities, boat & equipment retailers, you name it. According to Sulima, the options are almost endless in Annapolis to get his boat serviced – and if he can’t find something related to his boat that he wants or needs, “it’s just not made.” So the western shore caters not just to people, but to boats as well.
So if you ever wondered about the eastern side of the bay vs. the western, this will provide some insight into the differences between the two shores of the Chesapeake Bay region. But you’ll have to decide for yourself if one side is better.
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