The Other Annapolis
The familiar skyline of spires, domes and water tanks appeared across the horizon as we rounded Tolly Point. And as if on cue, we encountered the same weather phenomenon I remember from years back–the one that seems to greet me whenever I sail to within sight of America’s Sailing Capital. From lazing along, sheets eased, we were all of a sudden strapped in hard and bounding into that gusty northwesterly that whistles out of a clear sky and whips down the Severn River. We flew along in the sparkling, exhilarating combination of flat water and stiff breeze that brings sailors in droves to Annapolis. Only this time, we weren’t going to Annapolis–that is, not the Annapolis beneath the golden dome of the tourism brochures.
Our destination was Eastport. Yes, strictly speaking, Easport has been part of the city of Annapolis since it was annexed in 1951, but in culture and spirit it’s a place apart, a place that bears its own rich maritime history, which it leavens with a generous measure of light-hearted anarchy. In other words, it is a place separated from its older, dressier sister not only by the narrow body of water that is Spa Creek, but by a sense of ubiquitous camaraderie and fine sense of humor.
This wasn’t my first visit to Eastport, but my trips had always been part of a larger visit to Annapolis in a general destination sense. This time I wanted to see Eastport under its own colors, so I steered Almost Crazy, the Sabre 34 my wife Melissa and I had chartered from Hartge Chesapeake Charters, toward Back Creek, which, along with Spa Creek and the Severn River, forms this narrow peninsula’s water boundaries. As we drew close, Eastport raised its leafy canopy, obscuring the capitol dome, the last visual reminder of Annapolis proper, and drew our attention to its own more modest landmarks.
Just inside Back Creek, and flanked by a few modern office buildings and marinas bristling with Eastport’s ever-present sailboat masts, is the McNasby Oyster Company building. McNasby was the last to close of more than a dozen oyster-packing houses that once crowded the Eastport waterfront. Now the building, spared from the bulldozer but nearly destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, lives on as the Annapolis Maritime Museum, created to preserve the memory of a once thriving industry and to portray the lives of those it supported. The fate of McNasby Oyster Company and the others has been the fate of traditional watermen in Annapolis as well. First elbowed out of Annapolis across the creek, they were then eased out of Eastport, as late 20th century attitudes changed about what constituted the “best use” of water-front real estate. Helping to close the door behind them was the decline of the oyster and crab fisheries throughout the Chesapeake Bay.
For 200 years, from the time it was first settled to the mid-19th century, the Eastport peninsula remained largely farmland, while across Spa Creek, Annapolis accumulated the trappings and population attendant to its status as state capital of Maryland. In the 1860s, houses began to rise on plots laid out around a gridwork of streets, which also provided access to the creeks for watermen. In 1870, the first bridge was built to connect the growing community with Annapolis. The name Eastport, along with its first post office, appeared in 1888. The annexation of Eastport in 1951 enabled the city to maintain a commercial connection to the Bay while keeping the working-class Eastport citizens, begrimed with the mud of the Chesapeake and the sawdust of shipbuilding, at arm’s length.
We tied up at Eastport Yacht Center, not far from McNasby’s. From our berth there, a scan of the shoreline through the intervening screen of masts revealed modernist office buildings abutting boatyards abutting modest duplexes of indeterminate architectural provenance abutting once identical cottages now expanded into mini McMansions.