COVE POINT BEACH: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
By Susan Denning
Cove Point Beach’s history stretches deep into a past the touches our lives today. Almost every day, residents of Cove Point walk the beach, heads down, skimmers in hand. They are reaching back 17 million years, searching for the remnants of life which existed here in the Miocene Epoch. Nestled in our sandy shore are fossils, sharks teeth, coral and bones. Over the course of millions of years, the margins of the sea fluctuated. After the last ice sheet slipped away, the present Chesapeake Bay emerged exposing the roughly 24 miles of the Calvert Cliffs. Spanning from Chesapeake Beach to Drum Point, these cliffs soar up to 100 feet. While the cliffs of Cove Point Beach have reached their angle of repose and are now forested and protected from erosion, much of the cliff range is collapsing into the water. As they erode, they shed hidden treasures that wash up in the tide.
Some residents have discovered arrowheads and artifacts, as well. These were left by the indigenous people who populated our neighborhood for over nine thousand years. Historians believe these Native Americans to be Algonquians, particularly of the Patuxent chiefdom. In 1608, John Smith may have encountered this tribe while mapping the Northern Chesapeake Bay.
The Patuxent tribe grew corn and tobacco. Their farm land became very attractive to the colonists who began settling the area between 1637-1642. Cecelius Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore, established Patuxent County in 1654, which was renamed in his honor in 1658. By 1670, four plantations were carved out in the Cove Point area. It is believed that one of these was “The Great Eltonhead Manor,” with 5000 acres which included our marsh.
The county was part of the Maryland Colony and benefited from the Maryland Toleration Acts, granting freedom of conscience to all Christians. This attracted additional settlers who were fleeing religious persecution from England. As their presence increased, the native population began to flee, freeing up land for the expansion of tobacco farming. The development of slavery combined with a navigable water way resulted in prosperity for our community. Cove Point became a port of call for freighters sailing up and down the Bay bringing goods to the residents and taking tobacco and other produce to the world.
In 1828, a lighthouse was built to mark the shoal extending out into the shipping channel. (The full story of the lighthouse is included in your packet.) Keepers and their families lived at the lighthouse keeping watch and exacting records which tell tales of shipwrecks, rescues and friendship. One story describes a ship captain who knew his lighthouse keeper friend enjoyed few luxuries. Once, upon passing Cove Point, he sounded his whistle and threw a whole stem of bananas overboard. The keeper rowed out to retrieve the rare treat.
While the nation erupted in violent conflict during the Civil War, Calvert County, which seemed to have no strategic value, passed those years in relative calm. However, the war posed a dilemma in our area. The State of Maryland was aligned with the Union, however, many farmers were reliant on slave labor and believed to have sympathized with the Confederates.
After the war, without slaves, the tobacco trade diminished. Consequently, so did the packet ships docking at Cove Point. While tobacco continued to be a large cash crop, residents turned to the fertile fishing grounds of the Chesapeake Bay. This led to the demand for ship building. By 1880, 500 vessels plied the waters around southern Calvert County and Cove Point.
In the early 1930’s Route 497, Cove Point Road, was completed. At this time, State Senator Joseph C. Webster saw an opportunity to develop a “high class” community along our shores. Webster purchased land and began developing housing. Knowing government workers enjoyed regular pay checks and higher than average salaries, he targeted US government employees with his marketing. Federal employees from Agriculture, Archives, Library of Congress and State responded.
The 1940s brought World War II and Cove Point Beach played an important role. Our community was transformed into an amphibious attack training facility. Our beach, with its sandy shore and forested cliffs, resembled the terrain at the French coastline making it the perfect spot to rehearse for the invasion of Europe. This effort required sacrifices from our residents. Fishermen abandoned their territories in our coastal waters. Residents leased their homes to the government and only visited their properties when permitted. They endured hundreds of military personnel overcrowding our community and endless shortages until victory arrived.
Cove Point Beach experienced another renaissance in 1953 when a geologist, Harold E. Vokes, discovered ilmenite sands, rich in iron and titanium, on our beach. The Titanium Ore Corporation was formed, a facility built and the ore was extracted. When the reserve was depleted, the land was sold to Columbia Gas.
Columbia developed a facility to receive imported natural gas during the 1970s. The plant fell into disuse until 1994, when it was transformed into a storage facility for domestic natural gas. In 2013, the current owners of the plant, Dominion Energy, proposed an expansion to export liquid natural gas. The plant will be sending natural gas to countries around the world.
Although the history is always with us, Cove Point Beach continues to change with the times. As a vibrant, ever-evolving community, we balance the changing weather and tides, the Critical Area restrictions, and ongoing development with the immense pleasure of living in our uniquely beautiful waterfront community.