Tales of the Chesapeake – 5 topics that you may not know about:
Shipwrecks, civil war, pirates, ghosts, and more: for your enjoyment we’ve compiled a list of fun facts that you may not know about the Chesapeake Bay. The bay is not only a boater’s paradise, but it is also rich in history and interesting folklore!
1. Chesapeake Bay facts and figures
- Name origin: The word Chesepiooc is an Algonquian word referring to a village “at a big river”. The name may also refer to the Chesepian or Chesapeake people, a Native American tribe who inhabited the area now known as South Hampton Roads
- Length: The Chesapeake Bay is approximately 200 miles long
- Width: The Bay ranges from 3.4 miles wide near Aberdeen, MD to 25 miles wide near the mouth of the Potomac River.
- Depth: The average depth is 21 feet, but the deepest part of the bay, “the Hole,” is located off Bloody Point (southeast of Annapolis) and is 174 feet deep.
- Age & Formation: Deep beneath the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Cape Charles lies a giant crater from a bolide, a speeding meteorite, that impacted 35.5 million years ago. It measures 50 miles across, and 1 mile deep. It is believed that the Chesapeake Bay initially formed 18,000 years ago, when giant, frozen glaciers gradually melted and carved the bay from the river basin of the Susquehanna River. The bay assumed its present dimensions about 3,000 years ago.
- Origin: The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary; a body of water where fresh and salt water mix as brackish. Half of its water volume originates from the Atlantic Ocean. The rest drains into the bay from an enormous 64,000-square-mile watershed, fed by 48 major rivers and over 100 tributaries. It is because of this hospitable salinity that we have such diverse and unique marine life.
Now to the interesting folklore – like shipwrecks, pirates and ghosts!
2. Civil War
- From the beginning of the Civil War, the Chesapeake Bay was one of the most important waterways in America. The capitals of both the Confederacy and the United States were located next to convenient Chesapeake Bay rivers.
- Large armies prowled around Maryland and Virginia throughout the entire war. Forces were able to receive shipped goods, quickly transport troops from one point to another, and threaten the enemy with stealthy strikes, deep into their territory.
- A prison camp at Point Lookout is one of the darkest chapters in Chesapeake Bay history. In July of 1863, the federal government started housing thousands of Confederate troops captured in the Battle of Gettysburg at Camp Hammond – Point Lookout’s official name.
- The prison’s isolation from the mainland offered little chance of escape for the Confederate prisoners held here during the Civil War.
- Prisoners at the camp were kept in the “bull pen,” a 1,000-square-foot area surrounded by a 14-foot-high stockade with guard posts. The prisoners endured squalid conditions with contaminated water, mosquito infestations, and only thin tents for shelter. When high tide came, the low-lying bull pen would flood, often creating knee-deep mud and swamp-like conditions. Of course, mosquitos were an ever-present threat.
- The prison population ballooned from 9,153 in December of 1863 to about 20,000 by June of 1865 – more than double the number that the camp was designed to hold. It’s estimated that by the end of the war, over 50,000 Confederate men had been confined to the camp. Over 4,000 were buried in the marshes, victims of starvation, typhoid, smallpox and brutal weather. Many believe that the camp is haunted today, and the lighthouse is considered to be one of the most haunted in America. Ghostly figures are said to have been seen running from the camp on dark and foggy nights.
3. The Ghost Fleet
- In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson approved the greatest shipbuilding program in history: an order for 1,000 300-ft long steamships, to be built in only 18 months.
- For the time, this was an incredibly expensive venture; each ship would cost taxpayers almost one million dollars.
- Rushed deadlines contributed to faulty construction, and the war’s inevitable end rendered the fleet obsolete and useless.
- In the early 20th century, hundreds of these U.S. vessels were decommissioned, then scuttled in Mallows Bay, just across the Potomac River from Quantico Marine Base.
This is the largest shipwrecked fleet in the Western Hemisphere, half-sunk and decomposing. To this day the remains of dozens of ships can still be seen rising from the shallow water.
4. Bloody Point Lighthouse
- The Bloody Point Bar Lighthouse (built in 1882) is located just off the southern tip of Kent Island, marking the entrance to Eastern Bay.
- The lighthouse wasn’t always red – it originally started out as a white lighthouse.
- Though the lighthouse stands in about seven feet of water and warns mariners of shoals near Poplar Island with a red sector, it is also close to one of the Bay’s deepest shipping channels dubbed “The Hole,” which is estimated to have a depth of over 174 feet.
- Besides marking the entrance to Eastern Bay, the new Bloody Point Lighthouse was also a useful because mariners could make a straight run from Bloody Point to the Sandy Point buoy, or the reverse, thus avoiding Thomas’s Point Shoal and its lighthouse, which was vulnerable to ice and storm damage.
- According to legend, the nearby point has been the scene of a number of violent events throughout history:
- In the early colonial days, groups of Indians were reportedly enticed to the area by English colonists, who then butchered them.
- In 1635, contentious and conflicting property rights granted by King Charles I, led to bloody battle of ships between colonists, William Claiborne and Cecil Calvert, leaving three sailors dead.
- Another tale tells of a murderous pirate who was tried, then left to hang as a skeleton in irons for several years.
- Severe storms during the winter of 1883 caused the lighthouse to permanently lean 5 degrees to the northwest.
- The lighthouse was gutted by fire in 1960 and is now operating with solar power. In 2006, the lighthouse was auctioned off to a private owner.
- In the 1600s, as settlements grew near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, pirates also started seeking refuge along the bay’s protected shores and hidden waterways where there was much lucrative trade. Many colonists secretly encouraged piracy because of the rebellious stance against England and the Crown. Additionally, these rebels fed contraband into the local black market, offering goods that were not commonly available to settlers.
- The infamous pirate Blackbeard, (possibly named Edward Teach, Thatch or Drummond; c. 1680 – 22 November 1718), ventured to the Chesapeake from the high seas in the 1700s, his long black beard braided with ribbon and embedded with fire sticks for the cannons. He cut a fierce figure, brandishing a cutlass, several daggers, and 6 pistols around his waist. In all truth however, Mr. Teach was much more the romantic figure – he was well educated, from an affluent family, and purportedly in his short time at sea as a pirate (1716-1718), he held a “wife” in every port. Shipmates jested that he tallied 14, and this ultimately was the root of his undoing. Toward the end of his life, Blackbeard fell in love, married legally, renounced piracy and received a royal pardon, but eventually found himself back at sea, where he was savagely killed by authorities. In his career, there is no record of his ever killing anyone. It seems that his reputation preceded him.
- Another pirate, Theophilus Turner, also sought his fortune in the Chesapeake. After leaving Captain Kidd’s ship in Delaware, Turner boarded a sloop headed for the bay. He hoped to settle in the Tidewater area with his treasure. Instead, while his ship was anchored in the Severn River, a Maryland official boarded the boat and arrested Turner, who was then sent back to England for trial.
- As late as 1807, a large ship from Liverpool, the Othello, bearing between three and four hundred thousand dollars was captured by French deserters and pirates at the mouth of the Patuxent River between Drum Point and Sharps Island. Three private vessels with a volunteer militia were dispatched to seize the Othello, recapture its bounty, and collect the pirates. Records of those who were captured perished when the British burned the Prince Frederick courthouse in 1812 – but that is another story, for another day!