Don’t let your GPS take you to the wrong place. It wants to guide you to the post office surrounded by a state college. Historic St. Mary’s City, the one that began in 1634, is on top of the hill overlooking the beautiful St. Mary’s River. That one is amazing.

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 is why it’s not on some maps.

The story of how it rose from the dead is nearly as fascinating as what was found.

A Bit of Background on Historic St. Mary’s City

Reproduction of the original Maryland state capitol building at St. Mary’s City with St. Mary’s River on the other side

The town was largely abandoned after the Maryland colony’s capitol moved to Annapolis in 1695. Over time, the abandoned buildings collapsed and were reclaimed by the land.

Amazingly, much of the waterfront property was owned by one family, which farmed the topsoil. That left 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 it.

What’s in Historic St. Mary’s City?

If you think Mt. Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, and Annapolis are somewhat cool, well, St. Mary’s City is about 100 years older.

However, buildings in St. Mary’s had to be reconstructed. It’s taking a lot longer than the originals.

The church is a prime example. According to diaries and letters, it took seven years to build the original church.

Brick Chapel of 1667

It took 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 have the 40-hour workweek and evenings off in front of the TV.

Rebuilt Catholic Church in historic St. Mary’s City

While the church is relatively new, more than 500 people were, and are still, buried under and around the church according to scientific searches. After nearly 350 years, they’re too long gone to track.

This was a Catholic church. Maryland started as a protected colony for Catholics who left England.

A half-mile away from the church, the Maryland state assembly passed the Act of Religious Toleration in 1649 to protect Catholics.

Catholics started to come down hard on Protestants who were also encouraged to colonize Maryland. When Protestants gained control of the Assembly five years later, the political climate flipped and Catholics had to practice their faith discretely with priests holding secret services.

These are just some of the stories you’ll hear at St. Mary’s City.

Local volunteers dress in period costumes and are happy to answer questions. They knowingly launch into what life was like and what it took to recreate it.

It’s an easy walk of about a one-mile round-trip through the experience.

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. ‘Tall-ship’ is what sailors call boats with tall wood masts and lots of sails.

The Maryland Dove sailing in St. Mary’s River

The path winds past a working farm, former tobacco fields, a print shop, and an Indian hamlet.

There is as much detail recreated 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 Farthing’s Ordinary (47414 Old State House Road), a re-creation of a colonial inn at the other end.

Farthing’s Ordinary is closed on Sundays.

To get an overall picture of the historical park, check out this interactive map of St. Mary’s City.

Outside Historic St. Mary’s City

St. Mary’s City continues down Trinity Church Road. The Post Office, surrounded by St. Mary’s College, is the official city center. But in and around that are some interesting places to visit, including the college.

Trinity Church in St. Mary’s

Next to the recreated capitol building is Trinity Episcopal Church (47477 Trinity Church Road) built in 1829 from the brick of the original statehouse.

The Trinity Church Cemetery is actually where the Maryland statehouse stood.

The cemetery overlooks St. Mary’s River and is an amazing, peaceful view. Follow the gravel road down the hill to get to the waterfront.

St. Mary’s College

Next to Trinity is the historic section 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.

Calvert Hall at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Near Calvert Hall is a gorgeous walk down to the St. Mary’s College boatyard.

Across the street from the boatyard is that post office. The official city center of the current St. Mary’s City.

In August, it’s the endpoint of the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race, from Annapolis to St. Mary’s City (the current state capitol to the first state capital).

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.

St. Mary’s College boatyard

For 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 dockmaster.

It can get busy on Friday, so call ahead to the dockmaster (240-895-4291). There are no electrical connections.

The main college campus is across Point Lookout Road. It’s a pretty campus with newer historic, brick buildings.

Shopping in St. Mary’s City

Despite St. Mary’s being a college town, there are no nearby restaurants or hotels. And very few shops.

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 to 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 during normal weekday hours and on weekends. During the summer: 10am – 3pm on Saturday, closed Sunday.

If you’re coming to St. Mary’s City by boat, be aware there is no grocery or supplies store nearby.

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