This easily navigable waterway is a treasure trove of history and natural beauty
By John Page Williams
Over the years I have explored the Nanticoke River from Delmarva by canoe, skiff and trawler. The river is beautiful in the spring, and the communities surrounding it welcome drive-through tourists, but they also offer plenty of opportunities to walk scenic trails, cycle interesting roads, and explore undeveloped waterways. What interests me most are the ways Nanticoke’s natural resources have woven themselves with us humans over the past 1,000 years.
This river drains a large, heavily forested watershed on the west side of Sussex County in Delaware and within Dorchester, Caroline, and Wicomico counties in Maryland. Its two major tributaries, Marshyhope and Broad creeks, drain land to the north and east of the main arm respectively. The terrain is low, with the river and two streams flooding the lowland forests. They also cultivate vast tidal freshwater marshes filled with wild rice and other plants valuable to wildlife. The woods, marshes and waters formed a rich habitat for the Nanticoke for several millennia, first for nomadic hunting and fishing, but later for the Late Forest peoples, who began to settle there and to farm, fish and hunt.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, English communities sprang up at the head of navigation on the three arms of the Nanticoke: Federalsburg, Md., on Marshyhope Creek; Seaford, Del., on the main stem; and Laurel, Del., on Broad Creek. From the mid-18th century to the beginning of the 20th, local forest resources encouraged shipbuilding in the three towns, as well as near Bethel, Del., and Vienna, Md. Forestry and agriculture became the main industries in the region, as well as allied industries like sawmills and, after 1865, produced canneries. The schooners (many of which are built locally in Bethel) transported goods and people to Baltimore, Norfolk and Washington, D.C.
When exploring Nanticoke, use the towns as your real starting points. I like a route that starts in Vienna, Maryland. This classic Chesapeake river town is located in the highlands next to the deep waters outside of one of Nanticoke’s winding curves, making it a great jumping off point for paddle boats and small powerboats. The town is easy to find on route 50, halfway between Cambridge and Salisbury. It’s also home to Handsell, an outdoor museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places that tells the story of the native tribes, English settlers, and slaves who all lived here over the centuries.
To get out on the water, launch at Emperor’s Landing Park, named after the chief of the Nanticoke tribe, whom Captain John Smith met near here in June 1608. Watch for the powerful current sweeping through and look for the bigger boats, especially if you are paddling. The water is strongly tidal but barely brackish here. Regardless of the direction of the current, paddle upstream under the bridge and look left (north) for the mouth of Chicone Creek, flanked by wide marshes. Enter the narrow creek and follow its channel to the right, keeping an eye out for osprey, bald eagles and great blue herons. The creek becomes cooler upstream and enters a pristine woodland preserve owned and managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
In a motorboat you can travel up the river for a few miles to the junction with its great northwest branch, Marshyhope Creek. It is narrow and wooded but surprisingly deep. A quarter mile up Marshyhope on the left is Walnut Landing, an unassuming wharf on the outside of a curve to our left. Now owned by The Nature Conservancy, it was once used by notorious early 18th century slaver Patty Cannon, who used it to carry on her gruesome trade with her gang before her capture and death in prison. In a wry nod to justice, Harriet Tubman operated part of her Underground Railroad from here some forty years later.
As you move along the S curve, you will notice a small beach with a 20ft high sandbar on the right. This is Redbank, another landing stage once favored by the Nanticoke, but which for sixty years has been part of the Nanticoke Henson Scout Reservation. Near the shore, a depth sounder shows us 40′ of water. The Marshyhope drains a large watershed to the north, and “stream” or not, its flow is powerful. This current is part of what makes this tributary one of the Chesapeake’s few spawning grounds for the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon.
Of course, Vienna is just one option, and there are plenty of other launch points from which to explore Nanticoke. In Seaford, Delaware, depart from the new Oyster House Park just off Riverview Park. Built on the site of a former oyster packing factory, it offers a kayak launch and short-term mooring facilities if you want to take a stroll down the Riverwalk or visit the Seaford Museum, set up in a restored 1930s post office. Other phases will include an outdoor amphitheater, an art space in two reimagined oyster houses, and a Nanticoke tribal ring for riverside ceremonies.
In Bethel you can still see the old Broad Creek wharf timbers where so many schooners were built and launched. (The schooner Chesapeake Ram Chimes of Victory was built here in 1900 and still operates in Rockland, Maine as part of the Maine Windjammer Association.) You can learn a bit more about the shipbuilding industry at the Bethel Maritime Museum (call at ahead for hours) and at the nearby Bethel Store. makes great sandwiches. A few miles west of town is the recently expanded Phillips Landing boating and fishing access area, which features a three-lane boat launch, two floating docks and a boat launch for canoes/kayaks. It opens at the mouth of Broad Creek just before meeting the Nanticoke.
The stories along the river run the gamut from historic aboriginal tribes and Captain John Smith to 19th century steamboats and the DuPont Company’s first nylon factory in Seaford. Please understand, however, that while this sketch offers some focal points, exploring Nanticoke – whichever mode you choose – is at least as much about the journey as the destination, and more about discovery than “seeing the sights”.
When making your plan to explore Nanticoke, use the aforementioned towns and Seaford as focal points. Online, I particularly like Google Earth Pro for reconnaissance trips on land and water. Another great tool is the Chesapeake Conservancy Nanticoke Virtual Tour, offered in partnership with videographers from terrain360.com.
The Nanticoke and its tributaries remain largely natural, thanks to major efforts over the past fifty years by the Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance and the Chesapeake Conservancy. In an effort to preserve these resources, this team of partners worked with state and federal agencies to create a protected land corridor that conserves the value of its existing resources. To date, this partnership has protected 19,300 acres of the Nanticoke watershed, ripe for exploration and enjoyment.
For a basic perspective, read about the Sentinel Nanticoke Project landscape at chesapeakeconservancy.org.
For water route suggestions and maps, visit paddlethenanticoke.com.
For an overview of Nanticoke, Delaware, go to nanticokeheritagebyway.org.
For a modern, richly written and photographed look at this river gem, browse the Nanticoke: Portrait of a Chesapeake River by David W. Harp and Tom Horton.