It’s been tagged Maryland’s last “wild river.” Providing habitat for a wealth of wildlife and plants, the Nanticoke River glides through Dorchester and Wicomico counties before emptying into the Tangier Sound.
The Nanticoke twists back and forth alongside hardwood forests, freshwater marshes, cypress swamps and miles and miles of lily pads. Halfway down the 40-mile waterway brings you into Vienna. Tall marsh grasses are bowed in the stiff bay winds. A two-block walk takes you into the charming village of 300 residents, where visitors get a real sense of history in this once-thriving port town on Maryland’s Eastern shore.
Four hundred years ago, Capt. John Smith made his way up the Nanticoke River at the helm of a 28-foot shallop. Searching for a way to the Orient, instead the English explorer found the Chesapeake Bay and her deep and beautiful tributaries. Just north of present-day Vienna, Smith met a group of Native Americans, traded with them, and learned about the geography of the region.
It was another century until Vienna was formally founded in 1706. In the decades that followed Vienna flourished through successful trade in lumber and tobacco and was soon competing with a new town called Baltimore.
During the Revolutionary War British soldiers blitzed through the town five times, destroying Colonial ships and swiping provisions. The Brits were back again for the War of 1812 raiding the thriving waterfront village. To protect themselves, Vienna’s citizens built a wall from stones used as ballasts on the ships that anchored on the Nanticoke. Remains of this wall can be seen southeast of the Customs House located on the corner of Water and Church Streets.
During the Civil War blockade runners from the South made their way up the Nanticoke River, where Confederate sympathizers from the town outfitted them with vital food and supplies for the beleaguered rebels.
These days Vienna hasn’t changed all that much. A historic crossroads village, the town has managed to preserve much of its charm, quiet lifestyle and historic homes for over three centuries. Careful restoration by Elise and Harvey Altergott brought back the simple elegance of The Tavern House. It was the home of the ferryman and originally built in the mid-1700s. The stark white “lime, sand and hair” plaster accents the original, authenticated colors and detailed carvings of the woodwork, as it did when The Tavern House first offered shelter for colonial travelers.
Pick up a walking tour map and guide of the town at the Vienna Heritage Museum or download it ahead of time. A brisk trade in tobacco and white oak lumber kept the port busy and the Customs House office in use until after the Civil War. The grand three-story brick home with a seven pillar front porch on the west side of Church Street is the Nanticoke Manor House. St. Paul’s Episcopal church is a splendid white-clapboard church with red doors and a snazzy bell in its steeple.
Millie’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill is the most popular eatery serving up inexpensive, homestyle meals spotlighting steaks and the local seafood catch. It’s home to town folk and packs of fishermen swapping stories. Miles of flat country roads allow for enjoyable bicycling. It’s a ten-mile trek over to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge that fronts Blackwater Lake-- a 12-square mile tidal pool-- attracts 165,000 visitors a year.
They come to see the winter home of 35,000 Canadian geese, a squadron of 15,000 snow geese and tundra swans, thousands of ducks and loons-even white pelicans. It also is the year-round home of more than 130 bald eagles, while tens of thousands of migrating birds make the refuge a stop on the Eastern flyway. The refuge has hiking trails and three marked water trails for canoes and kayakers who want to explore deeper into the marsh. You might even discover a heron staring through the surface of the water, looking for lunch.
Speaking of exploration, Capt. John Smith is back in the news. To honor the nature and history of Smith’s exploration- the region has launched the first national historic water trail in the nation. The 3,000-mile Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail traces the course of the explorer’s journeys between 1607 and 1609 from Jamestown, Virginia, throughout the Bay.