Well Off The Beaten Path


On March 20th, with a hint of Spring here and there, it was time to go exploring again. By day’s end, the faithful Z4 and I had been to quite a collection of Strange & Wonderful Places in Southern Maryland. A great day, a great State, and a great car—what more could you ask for?

My tour began near Upper Marlboro, and I quickly arrived in (not so) bustling, (not so) downtown, Accokeek, MD. Christ Church was built there in 1745 and replaced a falling-down frame chapel from the late 1600s. It sits directly on the clay soil, without footings or a foundation, and the walls managed to survive a fire on Christmas Eve, 1856 that otherwise completely destroyed the church. If was occupied by the British during the War of 1812 and by Union forces during the Civil War. It remains in active use today.

Various roads past Accokeek take you to the Potomac River and the National Colonial Farm. It was an enchanting sight, even if it is a recreation.

The separate kitchen was especially welcome, with its nice warm fire. (It was a fairly cold morning, especially with the top down.   😀 ) On the day I visited, a film crew was there using the farm as a setting for a documentary on Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who went on to become a famous abolitionist and orator.

The farm featured hiking trails, exhibits, and various animals. Even pigs need love, it would appear…

Speaking of the Potomac, here it is. And what might the white building be on the far side of the river?

Yep, you guessed it—that’s Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington. It turns out that the National Colonial Farm was established in 1958 for the express purpose of keeping a nice view of the Potomac and the Maryland shore from the front porch of Mt. Vernon.

Continuing on, I soon found an old car in an old shed for some here to identify. Anyone interested in a restoration project??

I next went in search of Marshall Hall, which I’d discovered a few years ago on the mighty R1200GS (see Following the Footsteps of John Wilkes Booth). Along the way, I found this scenic Colonial swamp.

With some difficulty, I re-located Marshall Hall. It appears to have been quite a place, but, sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1981.

Whilst circling another old historic church, I stumbled onto a local airstrip. I was taken with this Robinson R-44 Raven II light helicopter. What a great way to travel!

And speaking of great ways to travel, how about this vintage luxury sedan. (Let the identification begin…)

Not far from Mattawoman Creek, and surrounded by its own State park, sits “The Retreat,” which was the home of General William Smallwood. The General served during the the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and later as the fourth Governor of Maryland.

General Smallwood’s tobacco barn still stands (although it may be like George Washington’s hatchet…). The Retreat and the barn were closed for the season, but I somehow discovered (ahem) that inside the barn there is a nice exhibit of Gen. Smallwood’s life. (Hey, can I help it if only the front doors to the barn were locked?)

Since I was touring on a Sunday, it was only proper to get a few more church pictures.

And despite the chilly temperatures, there were occasional Signs o’ Spring, including buds on trees and forsythia.

My next destination was a very obscure, tiny State park on the Potomac River, rumored to feature an obscure, tiny beach noted for its shells, stones, and fossils. Finding the beach involved hiking a quarter-mile or so and dodging the occasional horse and rider. Near the shore, there were signs of former habitation.

Soon enough, I found the narrow beach and was pleased to see that the tide was out. (At high tide, the beach pretty much disappears.) It was a pretty sight, with or without any fossils—and notice the cliffs…

During the Paleocene Epoch, this part of the U.S. was under an ocean. All sorts of aquatic life flourished. As the cliffs erode, any number of interesting stones and fossils regularly appear. Places like Calvert Cliffs are well-known for their fossils, but apparently they can be found just about anywhere along the lower Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay. To quote Calvin and Hobbes, “There’s treasure everywhere!”

Naturally I was looking for sharks’ teeth—and I wasn’t disappointed. I found this 60-million-year-old Sand Tiger tooth within the first 2 minutes of looking! Of course, it’s not that hard: Sharks shed their teeth constantly and replace them in as little as a week or so. There are easily billions of fossil sharks’ teeth in the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, and they’re found all over the world as well. A little-known fact is that Pliny the Elder thought that these objects fell from the sky (but only during lunar eclipses…) Science has come a long way.

Back on the road, I continued to look for other places to reach the river. “Riverside Road” sounded like a good candidate, and it soon led me to Wellington Boulevard—which turned out to be a faint path between tall trees, and it looked right out of a Hollywood movie. Crowded in by abandoned houses, scenic piles o’ junk, and encroaching underbrush, it was absolutely fascinating. Some of the houses appeared to be occupied, although I saw no people (living or dead) until a large fellow suddenly appeared right next to me, holding a chain saw…

Honest, I don’t make these things up. But he smiled in a friendly fashion. And started the chainsaw… Well, I waved in his direction (keeping my arm well inside the car!) and motored on. Soon, I had to stop for this picture. Note the nifty old spotlight on the cowl of the car.

Eventually, about 500 feet shy of the Potomac, the road more or less disappeared and turned into a muddy bog. By all accounts, I’d reached the fabled End of the Beaten Path.

Nearby, I spotted this former moving van off in the woods. I believe it served as someone’s home, back in the days. (Before the guy with the chainsaw got ’em?) It’s obviously fallen on hard times—or should I say that hard objects have fallen on it? The engine and front end have disappeared to parts unknown, but the voltage regulator, coil, and a few other minor bits remained. (Another project for JVB, I reckon.)

Regular readers know by now that my work colleagues, Cathy and Kim, are staunch Baptists. They are always interested in the Baptist churches that I run across on these trips, and urge me to be more diligent in seeking them out. Well, here are three (count ’em, three!) such noble houses of worship. In order of appearance, they are (i) King James Baptist, (ii) Nanjemoy Baptist (with its 75-foot tower), and (iii) Zion Baptist. Notice in the last shot that I took care, this time, not to park in one of the handicapped parking spots in front of the church. Even if it’s only temporary, and church is not in session, Cathy tells me that it’s still a bad practice…

Of the three churches, incidentally, I liked the Nanjemoy one the best. It was built in 1820, and early church records show that the rules for parishioners were strict: Members were brought before the church for such offenses as “drunkenness, slander, and disorderly conduct”—but the principal offense was “attending dances.”

I also liked Nanjemoy Baptist because, right across the street, was the home and headquarters of the Wright Racing Team! It looked like a fun place to hang out.

Meanwhile, continuing the theme of “off the beaten path,” I somehow ended up on the front lawn of this abandoned home. Its vine-covered chimneys, sagging roof, and general haunted-house appearance were interesting enough, but I was also curious about the little stone tower out in front. Could it be an old well?

“Well,” yes, that’s exactly what it was. I didn’t check to see whether any gold or pesky mothers-in-law had been stashed away at the bottom.

The Old Durham Church was built in 1732, replacing a log chapel from 1694. Remember General William Smallwood? Well, not only was he a member of the vestry here, he even constructed a road from The Retreat to Old Durham—a distance of about 7 miles—which is now named Smallwood Church Road.

As I mentioned, amidst all the leftover brown winter blight, there were occasional signs of Spring.

This little canal-like stretch of water is one of several ponds on this farm, as I discovered by following St. Clair Drive to its distant end. Beautiful country.

My next stop was the town of Chaptico (“deep water”), which was founded in 1634. It was once a major port for ocean-going vessels, but Chaptico Bay has since silted in so thoroughly that it is now only a salt marsh. Christ Episcopal Church in Chaptico is another of the many early-1700s churches in this area and is believed to have been designed by the English architect, Sir Christopher Wren. The semi-circular apse shown here was part of the original structure; the tower at the front was added in 1913. The church was heavily damaged by the British in the War of 1812 but lived on to become one of the oldest parishes in continuous service in the entire country.

While I was traipsing around the church, the patient Z4 was happily parked next to a further sign of Spring.

When I plan these trips, I keep an eye out for roads with names like “Covered Bridge,” “Manor,” “Upside-Down Schoolhouse,” or anything else that sounds like there might have been something interesting there at one time. This time, I took Manor Road in search of “Bachelor’s Hope,” a farmhouse built possibly as early as 1668 (but more likely sometime between 1753 and 1793). Sure enough, across a still-active farm field, I found it—right where it’s been for the last 218 to 343 years.

Bachelor’s Hope is considered one of the most unusual houses in all of Maryland, with a design that combines a “jerkinhead” roof, single-story additions with hipped roofs on either side, a “great hall,” and (just barely visible in the photo) an inside staircase to the second floor with walls that are exposed above the front entranceway. If you’re into this sort of thing, there is a wealth of information available on the Maryland Historical Trust website at Bachelor’s Hope.

The Library of Congress was able to furnish a picture or two of the great hall (originally called the “Hunting Room,” it seems). Note the unusual, quarter-round shelves. The property was lovingly restored to its original configuration and appearance in the mid-1950s—a process that took 20 years. And the current appearance of the Hunting Room is available from the Historic Homes website. What a place (sigh…)

Reluctantly continuing on, the next farmhouse I encountered had not fared quite so well. I doubt that it has a great hall or nifty quarter-round shelves, but then it’s probably not $1,850,000 either.

These various treks off the beaten path had left me on an obscure dirt road, with the sun beginning to set. It was time to head back North.

Along the way, I naturally encountered a few more stately properties. (I mean, this part of town was practically lousy with ’em!) This is the modern home that replaced Bushwood Manor when it burned in 1934, taking its ultra-rare Chinese-Chippendale staircase with it. The bricks from the original manor were used to build the replica of the first Maryland Statehouse in St. Mary’s City. As best I can tell, the original home caught fire while it was being used as a convent by a group of nuns… (No kidding!) The photo of a Chinese-Chippendale staircase, incidentally, is from Sotterly Manor, a restored plantation that is open to the public and which is located not far from Bushwood Manor.

Another semi-planned detour took me to Cobrum’s Wharf, in the hopes of getting a nice photo of St. Clement’s Bay. That didn’t work out, but I did run across the historic Cobrum’s Wharf Farm.

As I backtracked to Oakley Road, I couldn’t help noticing this long dirt driveway, leading toward what appeared to be an abandoned house.

I couldn’t resist investigating, naturally, and along the way found this not-long-for-the-world barn…

…and what subsequently proved to be the rest of the abandoned Stone Farm. It was a sad sight. The farm sits less than half a mile from the Cobrum’s Wharf farmhouse, which has been kept in great shape. One survives, one doesn’t, and I could only wonder about the curious mix of good and bad fortune that has been at work.

A quick stop at the well-known St. Thomas Parish Church from 1745, and it was time to put the top up and beat a hasty retreat back to Catonsville.

Stopping only briefly, of course, for a photo of this abandoned house before it is completely swallowed up by vegetation.

And again, not so briefly, sigh, for a this pair of photos portraying the sunset of the small American farm.

The trip was fun- and fact-filled, and it was also a blast to drive the Z4 briskly from one site to the next, enjoying the early signs of Spring and admiring the almost limitless possibilities for off-the-beaten-path exploration in this area. May we all stay on the “prospering” side of the ledger.

Rick F.


Written by Rick

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