ST. MICHAELS, Md. -- Boston wasn't the only place that had run-ins with the king's men. Tiny St. Michaels, now a sailing and resort center on the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore, calls itself "The Town That Fooled the British."
Settled in the 1670s along a broad inlet of the Miles River, the modest trading post grew into an important shipbuilding center by the late 18th century. Merchants and privateers alike prized its swift schooners, some of which provoked the ire of the British in the War of 1812.
St. Michaels was on "a hit list of little towns that the British were going to destroy on their way to Washington," said Kelley Cox, whose company, Dockside Express, operates sightseeing cruises and weekend walking tours. Local lore relates that when the British Navy attacked on Aug. 10, 1813, the harbor was shrouded in fog, and residents hung lanterns from ships' masts and tree branches to deceive the British into thinking that the town sat on a hill. Most of the attackers' cannonballs sailed overhead, sparing the village and the shipyards.
Not every building escaped unscathed, however. The tall, red-brick house on St. Mary's Square at Mulberry Street, built in 1805 by a shipwright, still bears witness to the assault. A cannonball pierced the roof and rolled down the stairs, leaving scorch marks visible to this day.
Still a private home, the Cannonball House is one highlight mapped out on a walking tour brochure. The route surveys the stately historic buildings that now share the leafy streets with colorful Victorian homes. Markers identify other spots of note, such as St. Mary's Square, the original town square where local history is encapsulated by a cannon from the War of 1812 and the Mechanics' Bell that once tolled the hours for the shipyard workers.
A church has stood on the corner of present-day Talbot and Willow streets since the 1670s, when the first church of the parish of St. Michael was built. The current Christ Episcopal Church, the fourth on the site, was built in 1878 with a wooden ceiling like an inverted ship's hull. "We know it was built by a bunch of boat builders," Cox joked. "They can't do anything straight."
Iron rings on the church exterior "were for tying up boats, not horses," said Cox, explaining that the church once sat on a cove. The cove gradually filled in, leaving the church landlocked on Talbot Street, the principal commercial thoroughfare where cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and antiques shops fill low-rise wooden structures.
In a nod to the succulent local oysters (which prefer the bay's brackish water to the saltier sea), most antiques shops have a few of the special plates that first became popular in Victorian times for serving oysters on the half-shell. Pennywhistle Antiques (408 South Talbot St., 410-745-9771) specializes in antique decoys highly sought by collectors, and offers reasonably priced bird carvings by local artisans. Calico Gallery (212 Talbot St., 410-745-5370) displays posters of the Waterfowl Festival (held in November in nearby Easton) along with images of lighthouses and sailing ships and Chesapeake Bay charts.
The charts are a reminder that, for all the charm of the town, the Eastern Shore is a waterworld. "You don't realize that this area is covered with water until you fly over it," said Ellicott McConnell, a guide at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. It's no wonder that bay-area residents raised shipbuilding to an art.
The museum's collection of 85 Chesapeake Bay watercraft ranges from log canoes to a Comet class racing boat. "A sailing skiff would have been your pickup truck," said McConnell, pointing to a simple, straight-lined vessel. "If you could build a shack in your backyard, you could build one."
The sail-powered skipjack, Maryland's state boat, was once the workhorse of the oyster fishery. "There's been a law on the books since the Civil War that you cannot dredge for oysters in Maryland with a boat with an engine," said McConnell.
The image of a low, sleek, wooden vessel with its massive leg-of-mutton mainsail and a broad jib unfurled lends an air of romance to a gritty industry. For a dose of reality, visitors can climb aboard the skipjack E.F. Collier on blocks in the Oystering on the Chesapeake exhibit hall. Mannequins toil at backbreaking tasks while a captain barks orders on a nonstop soundtrack. At a nearby wharf, museumgoers can try an equally arduous harvesting method by lowering a pair of long-handled tongs to muck an oyster from the harbor bottom.
The 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse, which still flashes a signal though it's no longer used for navigation, stands amid the vessels it once guided. When a replacement pole light was erected in 1966, the lighthouse was almost demolished, but the museum had it cut in half and barged to its present site. The unusual hexagonal "cottage" on iron pilings is now a favorite subject for painters and photographers as well as a window onto the lonely life of lighthouse keepers.
There is no shortage of ways to get out on the water. Dockside Express offers 90-minute environmental tours aboard the Express Royale, a 50-foot tour vessel. Cox is both a biologist and Chesapeake Bay native who knows the area intimately. In spring, she said, "You can expect to see mergansers, blue herons, osprey, lots of turtles, and maybe river otters, as well as whatever I can pull up in my eel pot." Morning cruises are most likely to encounter watermen at work.
Only about a dozen skipjacks remain in the oystering fleet, and one of them belongs to Captain Ed Farley, who offers two-hour cruises from St. Michaels (410-745-6080, www.oystercatcher.com, $30 adults, $15 under 12; call for times).
"Since I have a license, I can demonstrate dredging," Farley said, explaining that once the season closes, he has to return to the bottom whatever oysters he hauls up as part of the demonstration.
"When I started oystering in 1972 there were 36 working skipjacks," he said, referring to the last fleet of commercial fishing vessels under sail. "In 1963, there were 87," he continued wistfully. "I've had a love of working vessels for a long time."
Patricia Harris is a freelance writer in Cambridge.