Tilghman Island (pronounced “TILL-man) is the place of ‘quiet pursuits.’ As one local put it, there’s a “soul sigh” visitors and residents feel when they cross the bridge. There’s very little to see or do if you’re just driving down for a road trip. But stay a bit, and the island opens up into a world of peaceful adventures.
Just over 800 people live on this island that was first settled in 1659. The island’s name kept changing depending on who owned it. It’s been Tilghman since 1752, after the family of Matthew Tilghman, a planter who became one of Maryland’s delegates in the Continental Congress in 1776. He voted for final approval of the Declaration of Independence but his term ended before it was signed so his signature is not on the document.
The island is just under three square miles at the end of a long peninsula sticking out in the middle of Choptank River where it empties into the Bay. Residents who’ve been there a long time say it’s less than two hours, and 20 years, from Washington, DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Newer residents say it’s more like 50 years from those big cities. But that’s the island’s draw.
“We’ll never have a McDonalds,” says Bob Zuber, co-owner of the Black Walnut Point Inn at the island’s farthest point. “(Tilghman Island) is not on the way to anything.”
Except for migratory birds and fish. “This point is in the middle of the Bay,” says Bob. “Anything that flies comes through here.” And swims, for that matter. Porpoises go by at the beginning of summer. Middle of summer, swallow tails. Late summer, purple martins. End of summer, it’s Blue Jays. Monarch butterflies stop through September-October. Then it’s raptors following the smaller birds in the fall. Osprey leave the island mid-September to head south. Tundra swans stay for the winter.
The island is known locally for sea glass that washes up on its shores. Being in the middle of the Bay brings all sorts of unique treasures washing up.
For a look at some of the more interesting items as well as the culture and history of the island stop by the Tilghman Watermen’s Museum (6031 Tilghman Island Road), started in 2007. “As the watermen retired, their stories and experiences were going with them,” according to Hall Kellogg, one of the museum organizers. “This is what we really set out to capture, their experiences as professional watermen.”
The museum houses artifacts donated by people who live on the island or visit. They’ve moved into a restored “W” house, one of 12 built on the island around the turn of the century. They’re unique to the island, according to locals. Only five are left on the island.
It’s also a popular cycling route from St. Michaels to the island and back, about 15 miles one way if you go to the end of the island. The highway is a bike route and has wide shoulders up to the island; traffic is relatively light.
Maryland has created a number of water trails around the island for kayaking and canoeing. The state has information about outfitters who provide equipment and guides if needed.
Go the farthest point on the island and you’ll find Black Walnut Point Inn, a private B & B located in a 52-acre bird sanctuary. Owners Bob Zumer and Tracy Staples call themselves “curators” of the historic farmhouse. It’s actually two houses that have been joined together over the the years. As the tip of the island fell into the bay, the houses kept getting rolled back on logs and were eventually connected. Island deterioration has been slowed by a rocky-outcrop installed using state and federal funds.
Bob and Tracy welcome visitors and will arrange lunch for cyclist groups who plan to use the peninsula as a turnaround point. Call ahead of time.
The inn is a popular wedding destination, so parking near the inn is reserved for guests. But there is some parking outside the gate for the public to explore the sanctuary. Boy Scouts have restored some hiking trails near the parking lot. The longest is about a half-mile through loblolly, pines and marsh.
The road to the Inn goes past the WWII-era Naval Research Laboratory. The tower is still in use.
Near the laboratory, the sometimes one-lane road widens into what looks like a parking lot. But there’s no beach or fishing pier. The asphalt was laid there by the state to help watermen dry and repair their pound nets.
It’s one of the last areas of the Bay still doing pound-netting, and just off shore are clusters of posts sticking out of the water that hold the nets. Basically, it’s a maze of nets that guide fish into a main holding area. Watermen dip into the trap and pull out what they want, then toss back the rest back into the Chesapeake Bay.
What could be called the downtown section of the island is the remains of what used to be three villages. In the 1940s and 50s, the island, with its packing houses, was the economic engine for Talbot County. They canned not only oysters, crabs and fish, but also corn, tomatoes and beans grown inland. The canned goods were shipped by steam engine across the country.
The middle village, Avalon, is the only one remaining. The barbershop became the community museum. The department store is a restaurant. The bank is a used-book store. The country market is still a market.
In that group is Two If By Sea (5776 Tilghman Island Road) a restaurant in the former general store — one side for dry goods, and the other side a hardware store. Henry Mill (Chef Henry) kept the interior intact and it’s worth a stop by to step-back in time.
The restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch Sunday-Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, Chef Henry gets creative with dinner until 9pm, using herbs and veggies grown in his garden in back of the store. His hits include Crabby Eggs Benedict for breakfast and unique sandwiches for lunch. However, he’s known for his Smith Island cakes sold at several of the island’s restaurants.
Just down the street a bit is the Tilghman Island Country Store (5949 Tilghman Island Road), owned by Patricia McGlannan and her husband. It’s a small, full-service market with a deli counter where visitors can buy sandwiches and sides for day tripping. The store is known for the what the locals call “the world’s best” carrot cake, made by Patricia’s sister-in-law.
“In our case, even though we’re just a country store,” says Patricia, “There’s more going on than you might realize.”
The store has a screened-in back porch where they stash the gourmet ice cream. And on Friday nights, it’s the gathering place for locals and visitors alike. A wine “rep” brings in a variety of bottles for weekly tastings. “I’ll have 20 people standing around drinking wine before they go out to dinner or entertain at home,” says Patricia. Even the watermen show up, in their work boots, swearing they don’t drink wine.
Nearby is Dogwood Harbor (21308 Phillips Road) with rows of watermen’s boats. These are working boats and may be one of the largest collection in one spot on the Chesapeake Bay. It’s also home to the nation’s oldest skipjack, Rebecca T. Ruark, built in 1886, a national historic landmark. She’s now used for tour sails. Another local charter is the former racing yacht, the Lady Patty, built in 1935. She’s docked at a marina by the Knapps Narrow bridge to the island. There are also lighthouse tours, kayak tours and sports fishing charters. All are available during sailing season, typically April through October.
The island has several ‘big’ waterfront inns with about 20 rooms each and boat slips, including the traditional Tilghman Island Inn (21384 Coopertown Road) and the renovated Harrison House (21551 Chesapeake House Drive). David McCollum, owner of Tilghman Island Inn, chucked life at Columbia University in New York City for island life and points out “The closest stop light is the other side of St. Michaels (about 15 miles away).”
For the more casual, there are a number of B&Bs and local houses available for rent. There’s also marina bars recommended by the locals where you can get crabcakes, cold drafts and as well as a fishing charter. They include Mike & Eric’s (6178 Tilghman Island Road) on the mainland side of the bridge and Bridge Restaurant (6136 Tilghman Island Road) on the island side.
There’s very little to do on Tilghman Island if you’re doing a day-trip drive-by. “Just popping in will not give you any idea of what there is,” says Patricia, the country store owner. “You have to hang out, park your car, and start walking around to see it.” And, you have to talk to the locals. Ironically, that can fill a weekend or a week.