Tag Archives: historic

Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

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One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

crab roll

Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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The Congressional Cemetery Offers a Reflective Look at DC’s More Ordinary History

Washington, DC had an interesting beginning, founded not by pilgrims or pioneers, but by an act of Congress in 1790 to establish a “federal city” that would be the seat of government.  Over time, the new city found its character, but almost entirely lost to history are the stories of the people who helped build it into a real, thriving place where everyday life occurred.  Luckily, the Congressional Cemetery preserves theses narratives, and many more.

The cemetery, tucked between the Potomac Avenue and Stadium Armory metro stations along the Anacostia River, has been called “America’s first de facto national cemetery.”  Founded in 1807 as the Washington Parish Burial Ground, the need for a close graveyard was a sign that the young capital had grown into its own.

Today, the Congressional Cemetery, which is still open for new burials, is the final resting place for approximately 55,000 individuals, who lie in 30,000 burial sites and under 14,000 headstones.  Famous figures interred at the site include J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa.  Others include Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Robert Mills, designer of the Washington Monument; and Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 was either the first or second woman to run for president (apparently there is debate on this topic, see here).

A number of more “ordinary” interesting characters buried at the Congressional Cemetery who have added their unique flair to DC include Mary Ann Hall, a high-end brothel owner; Marie Claire Fuller, a once famous silent film actress who died forgotten in a mental institution; and Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism who covered the Civil War.

All of this and much more history can be learned during free Saturday tours at 11am, March through October.  Additionally, Civil War tours are held once a month on the afternoon.

In addition to the vast history that the Congressional Cemetery provides, the 35 acres of grounds are a serene haven in the midst of the bustling city.  Many nearby residents walk their dogs in the park, and birds and squirrels are easily observed in the large oak trees.

Whether you are a history buff or just curious to get a glimpse of the past, the Congressional Cemetery will offer you new insight into both our city and our nation.

To visit:  1801 E Street SE, (202) 543-0539, a few blocks from the Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue metro stations, and close to the 96 and other bus lines.  Open every day from dawn until dusk.

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High-Brow Living at the Brewmaster’s Castle

The Brewmaster’s Castle, located in the heart of Dupont Circle, is the historic home of Christian Heurich, a German immigrant and beer baron who was one of Washington DC’s most successful 19th-century businessman and landowners.  His gorgeous home was only recently restored and opened to the public, and now is one of the most intact and original late-Victorian homes in the country.

The only way to see the Brewmaster’s Castle is by way of a tour, which are offered Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for a suggested $5 donation.  And going with a tour is a good thing, because Mr. Heurich had a number of fascinating quirks that the guide is more than happy to divulge.  For example, he became deathly afraid of fire after two of his breweries and one of his houses burned down.  Consequently, the house is the first “fireproof” house in the city, meaning that wood is sparingly used and instead the frame of the house is made with reinforced steel and concrete.  Decorations in the ornate interior also echo this fear, such as flame-retardant curtains and intricate fireplaces that were never used.

The home has many elegant details that are sure to keep you oohing and aahing, including hand-painted ceilings, rows and rows of china, and magnificent wood furniture.  But the best is an antique Steinway that was made especially for the house and features the same inlays as the wall behind it.

The Brewmaster’s Castle came very close to not existing at all.  From 1956-2003, it functioned as the headquarters of the Washington Historical Society.  But the Society put the house up for sale, and was on the brink of selling it to a developer and restaurateur.  Coming to save the day, the Heurich family stepped in to re-purchase the house, and used cash for much of the transaction in order to ensure a quick deal.  Renovations are still continuing to this day, funded by public donations.

It is very interesting to compare the visits to Heurich’s house as compared to Hillwood Estate, Marjorie Merriweather-Post’s self-tribute and gift to DC (Heurich and Post were friends and both incredible philanthropists).  Whereas Hillwood is sweeping and full of millions of dollars worth of art and artifacts, the Brewmaster’s Castle is a more sober and realistic peak into how a family—albeit a very wealthy one—actual lived in our city 100 years ago.

To visit:  1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW.  202-429-1894.  Five minutes from the South Dupont Metro stop, and off the 42 and L2 buslines.  Easy!

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