Aerial view of Solomons Island, Maryland. Photo by author.
About halfway down the Chesapeake Bay’s main stem, where the Bay narrows to a blue band flanked by cliffs and marshy islands, the small town of Solomons protrudes into a bend at the mouth of the Patuxent River. Occupying a fishhook-shaped island of white churches, prosperous 19th century homes, a long promenade, bustling shops, and a signature museum, Solomons is a place that seems to have effortlessly transitioned from working waterfront town built on the oyster industry to a modern mix of savvy commerce and tourism seasoned with a deeply Chesapeake flavor.
Stained glass window at St Peter’s Episcopal Church, Solomons Island, Maryland. Photo by author.
The maritime roots of the town are clear. Cheek to jowl with the Patuxent River, local churches bear stained glass decorated with boats, not saints. Docks protrude like piano keys into the river. Adjacent to the long promenade, small runabouts are moored under the gentle curve of the Johnson bridge. Marinas, tiki bars, the Calvert Marine Museum and a nearby Naval Air Station all emphasize the commercial, educational and strategic importance of Solomons Island’s endless waterfront.
Sunset at Governor Thomas Johnson bridge, Solomons Island, Maryland. Photo by author.
Drum Point lighthouse at the Calvert Marine Museum. Source
Solomons Island seems remote today, when urban centers are the locus around which populations congregate. Historically, however, it was located adjacent to one of the richest oyster troves in the entire Chesapeake Bay. Alternately called “Bourne’s Island,” “Somervell’s Island,” or “Sandy Island,” from the 17th century through the 19th century, it was the name of the Baltimore entrepreneur Issac Solomon—who established a major oyster cannery on the island after the Civil War—whose moniker stuck. Solomon was a major investor in the island. He initially purchased 80 acres for his oyster cannery, worker’s housing, and support buildings. Solomon also invented a rapid sterilization process that allowed packinghouses to increase their production from 3,000 cans a day to 20,000- a boom that allowed packers like Solomon to turn an enormous profit. Thanks to this jump in production, the Solomons’ fishing fleet reached 500 vessels by 1880, and the little island boasted fine Victorian homes and a businesses all supported by the vast infusions of oyster money.
Solomons Island, ca. 1920. Images from the Library of Congress collections.
JC Lore Oyster Packinghouse, Solomons Island, ca. 1970. Image from the Library of Congress Collections.
Today, the J.C. Lore Oyster House is all that remains of Solomons’ oyster heyday. Now part of the Calvert Marine Museum, it represents the 60 year pinnacle of the Chesapeake’s once-might oyster fishery and the prosperity it brought to waterfront communities like Solomons Island. But while the decline of the oyster and crab industries spelled ruin for other maritime towns, Solomons’ story wasn’t over yet. World War II saw Solomons Island chosen as a staging area for amphibious invasion training. Between 1942-45, the population on Solomons Island grew from 263 people to more than 2,600— all of them requiring homes, utilities, stores and services. It shepherded in the next era of good fortune into the little island, which wasn’t so little anymore.
J.C. Lore Oyster House, Solomons Island, Maryland. Photo by author.
Today, Solomons Island, despite many transformations remains waterbound, bustling, and full of Chesapeake charm. Watermen still work on the river, and locals crowd restaurant patios on fine summer evenings. Built on its past, like a packinghouse on oyster shells, it sits at the tideline, timelessly.
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