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Seeing the Sights (the Ones Above Water, at Least) for an Afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay

Natural beauty, colorful history, a huge bridge, a restored island and even a leaning lighthouse. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Shirley Griffith. This week on our program, we take you to the East Coast for a boat trip on the Chesapeake Bay.



Ten passengers ease themselves carefully from the wooden dock into the sightseeing boat. They have come to learn about the bay, or maybe just to enjoy an afternoon on the water under a bright blue sky.

The Chesapeake Bay is about three hundred twenty kilometers long. It passes through Maryland and Virginia. These along with four other states and the District of Columbia all have rivers and other bodies of water that flow into the bay.


The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. An estuary is a coastal area that has one part that opens to the ocean and contains both saltwater tides and freshwater. The Chesapeake opens into the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia.

Some of the rivers that feed the bay have American Indian names like Potomac, Susquehanna and Rappahannock. The bay supported native societies for thousands of years. The name Chesapeake comes from an Algonquin Indian word often defined as "great shellfish bay."


The sightseeing boat this afternoon is called Sharp’s Island. The captain is Mike Richards. As he pilots the boat away from Tilghman Island in Maryland, it glides by beautiful homes near the water. Some of the homes have yachts and other very nice boats tied a short walk from their back door.

The sun is warm but the water is cool. A young man laughs as he leans over the side of the boat into the wind and gets wet.

PASSENGER: "Just one, just one wave got me!"

The boat is moving quickly now. The wind, the motor and the sounds of the water against the sides are loud but also calming.

Ducks and Canada geese call out. Cormorants and blue herons raise their wings against the afternoon sky, then settle on wooden posts in the water. Some of these large birds are ready for a meal. Rockfish hang from their mouths.


Someone on the boat comments that these are the same waters that Captain John Smith sailed long ago. Next year will be the four hundredth anniversary of when the British explorer mapped this bay.

The first mate for today's trip, Kate Richards, daughter of the captain, points at a long, empty piece of land. She identifies it as Poplar Island. Several passengers say they cannot see any poplars -- or any trees.

The passengers listen carefully as she explains that the island had been falling into the bay. Wind, storms and tides destroyed it.

KATE RICHARDS: "You will notice that there are no trees on Poplar Island at all. And that’s because this is brand-new."


In nineteen ninety-six, government agencies approved a twenty-five-year project to save the island. An agreement directed the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild Poplar Island. Many other agencies and the state of Maryland are also taking part. So are many volunteers.

The project is costing hundreds of millions of dollars. The federal government agreed to pay seventy-five percent of the costs.

To rebuild the island, workers bring sand and other dredge material from the bottom of ship channels leading to the Port of Baltimore. The entrances to the port are being deepened, so heavier ships can come and go.

Today, Poplar Island is home to turtles and birds. The island has gained new life as a wildlife refuge. Eagles, herons, osprey and egrets have their young there.


Poplar Island has a colorful history. A settler named Daniel Cugley is said to have kept pigs on the island in sixteen thirty-two. Five years later, Indians killed the family of another settler, Richard Thompson. He was away at the time, traveling to trade fur.

The early eighteen hundreds were comparatively quiet, although British troops occupied the island during the War of Eighteen Twelve.

Next to occupy the island were black cats. In eighteen forty-four, a man bought the island to keep one thousand cats there. Historical records say he wanted to trade in black cat fur. Happily for the animals, the bay froze over in December. The cats escaped to the mainland.


In the nineteen twenties, during the Prohibition era, the United States banned alcohol. Poplar Island was used to produce it illegally. But this did not last. A local lawman poured the alcohol into the bay.

By this time, a lot of Poplar Island had dropped into the bay. The erosion formed a small island that was named Jefferson Island. A clubhouse was built there. During the nineteen thirties it became a favorite weekend place for Democratic Party politicians and businessmen. The clubhouse burned down in nineteen forty-six.

The visitors to Jefferson Island included presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.



A passenger on the sightseeing boat catches sight of something floating in the distance. It looks huge and bright orange. A sea monster, someone jokes. No, a ship. When the ship is close enough, the sightseers read the company name: Wallenius Wilhelmsen. Captain Richards confirms it.

CAPTAIN RICHARDS: "Yeah, Wallenius Wilhelmsen. The ship is designed specifically for carrying automobiles. That ramp falls down and they drive them off six cars abreast."

So thousands of shiny new cars are on their way to the Port of Baltimore. And the ten passengers on the sightseeing boat are on their way to see more of the Chesapeake Bay.


They get close looks at several lighthouses. One of them, within a kilometer and a half of shore, is called Bloody Point Bar Light. It was first lit on October first of eighteen eighty-two. Very soon, however, it began to lean to one side. Repeated attempts were made to balance it.

In eighteen eighty-five, for example, workers dropped hundreds of tons of stone around the tower. But even today, it looks a little like Italy’s leaning Tower of Pisa.


In nineteen sixty a fire at the lighthouse nearly killed two members of the Coast Guard. They escaped. But the whole structure exploded. The fire began in an equipment area and reached the gas tank for the light.

Later, the light was redesigned to operate by itself. It still shines without the need for a human keeper. In the winter, it also sounds a horn to warn about fog, so ships do not get too close to the shore.

Over the years, time and nature have made changes to the lines of the Chesapeake shore. Humans also had an influence on the bay as Indian settlements grew into the cities of today. Pollution from farms and factories also found its way to the great Chesapeake.


From the water, the steel of the bridge over the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland, glows like silver in the sunlight. The bridge is officially named the William Preston Lane Junior Memorial Bridge, after a former Maryland governor. But most people call it the Bay Bridge.

It joins the eastern and western shores of Maryland. The bridge is about seven kilometers long. It was the largest continuous over-water steel structure in the world when it opened in nineteen fifty-two.


The Chesapeake Bay is also known for something that the sightseers this afternoon will not be able to see unless they dive into the water.

The bay is famous for its fish and shellfish, including oysters and blue crabs. People come from far away to enjoy it fresh. Scientists come to study the rich marine environment. The bay has three hundred fifty kinds of fish alone.

But pollution and too much fishing have led to restrictions on the watermen who work on the Chesapeake. They are still known as watermen even though they include women.

Many people are interested in the future of the Chesapeake, and not just the watermen. A big program is working to clean up the bay.


Last spring, twelve history fans set out to repeat much of John Smith’s travels on the Chesapeake four centuries ago. Their four-month trip took place in an open wooden boat like Captain Smith’s.

The hope is that in another four hundred years, the bay will still be beautiful and productive. That means future generations will still be able to enjoy an afternoon of sightseeing on the Chesapeake.



Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Shirley Griffith.


And I'm Steve Ember. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in Special English.