Don’t be surprised if your GPS doesn’t come up with St. Mary’s City. It hasn’t really existed since the 1700s except as a post office, but it’s well worth a visit.
St. Mary’s City is the site of Maryland’s first capitol. The National Park Service says St. Mary’s City is “probably the most intact 17th-century English town surviving in our nation.” Except it wasn’t intact exactly, which it why it’s not on some maps.
The story of how it rose from the dead is nearly as fascinating as what was found.
Historic St. Mary’s City
The town was largely abandoned after the colony’s capitol was moved in 1695 to the ‘happening’ city of Annapolis. The abandoned buildings collapsed and were reclaimed by the land. Amazingly, much of the waterfront property was owned by one family, which farmed the land, leaving the colonial town center foundations hibernating under the crops until found again by archeologists starting in the 1960s.
Residents of the local farming community joined forces with the state and got the area designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969. Since then, they’ve been excavating the city and rebuilding.
If you think Mt. Vernon, Old Town Alexandria and Annapolis are somewhat cool, well, St. Mary’s City is about 100 years older. Local volunteers dress in period costume and standby for anyone to ask a question. They knowingly launch into what life was like and what it took to recreate it.
The church is a prime example. According to diaries and letters, it took seven years to build the original church. It’s taken the non-profit group that runs the historic site 14 years to reconstruct the walls and roof. They’re still working on the interior. As the guide points out, the original builders didn’t know about a 40-hour work-week and evenings off in front of the TV.
And even though it was a Catholic church, and the community was mainly Catholic, there was a time when priests had to hold secret services, despite the Act of Religious Toleration passed in 1649 by the state assembly a half-mile away.
The graveyard outside the church doesn’t really mark the site of buried bodies. More than 500 people were buried under and around the church according to scientific searching, and after nearly 350 years, they’re too long gone to track. So the guy who made the signs put his name and names people he knew on the wood grave markers. The stories go on and are well told.
An asphalt-paved walk goes along a bluff overlooking St. Mary’s River, and down to a dock where the Maryland Dove, a tall-ship, is tied.
The path leads past the reconstructed state house, former tobacco fields, a print shop, a working farm, and an Indian hamlet. There is as much recreation detail inside as outside. Visitors step into the buildings as they were during that period; there’s no rope or Plexiglas barricade blocking your experience.
There is a fee to walk through. Pay either at the visitor’s center (18751 Hogaboom Land), at one end of the city, or at Farthing’s Ordinary (47414 Old State House Road), a re-creation of a colonial inn at the other end. It’s an easy walk of about one-mile round-trip. Here’s a rough map of the walk.
Outside the Museum
St. Mary’s City actually continues down Trinity Church Road. Next to the recreated capitol building is Trinity Episcopal Church (47477 Trinity Church Road) built in 1829 from the brick of the original state house. The cemetery overlooks St. Mary’s River and is an amazing view.
Next to that is the start of St. Mary’s College (18952 East Fishers Road), the real reason the post office still exists. The small liberal arts public college was founded in 1840 and now covers 361 acres.
Near the post office is the boatyard, normally a sleepy dock of mainly sailboats. In August, it’s the end point of the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race, from Annapolis to St. Mary’s City (the current state capitol to the first state capitol). It’s the oldest and longest overnight race on the Chesapeake Bay (2013 was the 40th year). It turns into a party on Saturday morning, as people wait for the sailboats to come in, then again in the evening when the crews awake from their nap after sailing through the night.
Much of the rest of the year, it’s available for day-trip docking – sun-up to sun-down – no overnight stays. Just tie-up and check in with the dock master.
The main college campus is across Route 6 (Point Lookout Road). It’s a pretty campus with historic-looking brick buildings, and new brick buildings built with a colonial take.
The St. Mary’s City museum’s shop, The Shop at Farthing’s Ordinary (47414 Old State House Road), sells colonial recreations – pottery, housewares, colonial games, as well as nautical gifts. (open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm). You can also get your Historic St. Mary’s City pass there.
St. Mary’s College campus store, located in the Campus Center (18952 East Fisher Road) has the standard college clothing and merchandise. Next door is The Daily Grind, a coffee shop and convenience store where you can get beverages and snacks. They’re open normal weekday hours and on weekends. During the summer: 10am-3pm on Saturday, closed Sunday.
St. Mary’s City is toward the end of a peninsula. There are two highways to chose from: Route 5 is a two lane highway which goes past the post office, through the college, and on through the city. And paralleling Route 5 is 235, a four-lane highway. Route 5 is scenic. Route 235 is sensible.
St. Mary’s City is on St. Mary’s River near the mouth of the Potomac River, just before it reaches the Chesapeake. Go past Saint George Creek on the port, Milburn Creek on the starboard and you’ll sail by St. Mary’s City Historic Park on a bluff to the right. Just past that is St. Mary’s City dock on a point. Starboard side of the river.
St. Mary’s River Center is the boat yard owned by the college. It allows boats to tie-up at the dock during the day, no overnights. No electricity. It can get busy on Friday, so call ahead to the dock-master (240-895-4291).