Top 10 Cool Things to Do on the Delmarva Peninsula
Photo credit: destateparks.com
Delaware’s Silent Sentinels
Cape Henlopen’s strategic location at the mouth of the Delaware Bay led the United States Army to establish Fort Miles among the dunes in 1941. In 1964, the Department of Defense declared 543 acres on the Cape as surplus property and the State of Delaware established Cape Henlopen State Park. Remnants of the area’s military past remain nestled among the massive sand dunes; bunkers and gun emplacements were camouflaged deep in the sand and concrete observation towers were built along the shoreline to bolster America’s coastal defenses. Lookouts scanned the Atlantic Ocean for German U-boats during World War II and although the fort’s huge guns were never fired in battle, a German submarine did surrender here after the war. These silent sentinels remain scattered along Delaware’s beaches and one has been restored for visitors to climb in the park.
Home of the Monster Mile
Dover Downs opened in 1969 as America’s first multi-purpose sports complex, a distinction it retains today. Horses competed on the interior 5/8 mile oval and world-class auto racers dueled on the outside one-mile track where a new design principle – “variable degree,” which promoted a smooth transition from straights to high-banked turns, allowed drivers to reach unheard of speeds. Hence the Dover track’s nickname: “The Monster Mile.” Since 1971 Dover Downs has hosted two NASCAR Winston Cup stock car races each year. The two race weekends are by far the largest spectator sporting events in Delaware, with nearly 340,000 (equivalent to almost half the state’s population) fans in attendance. If you can’t squeeze in for the motorsports action, Dover Downs features some of America’s best pacing and trotting horse racing action from November through February.
Rockford Park is home to one of Wilmington’s most cherished and recognized landmarks – the 115-foot Rockford Tower. The Italian Renaissance Revival style tower, designed by Theodore Leisen, engineer for the Wilmington Board of Park Commissioners, was built on what was called Mt. Salem Hill, the highest point in the city at 330 feet above sea level and completed in 1902. The beautiful natural field stone tower encloses a steel water tank holding 500,000 gallons of water. The Observatory at the top was once a popular tourist destination but closed during repairs in 1972. For the tower’s centennial in 2002 the Observatory re-opened and visitors can once again climb the 132 steps to the top weekends from May to October.
One of the first resort hotels and spas in America was built in Brandywine Springs Park in 1827. A decade later the site’s recreational heritage was revived with the opening of a popular amusement park featuring a boardwalk, a dance hall in the middle of a lake and a rollercoaster. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (its picturesque wooded tracks are still there) brought thrill-seekers to the park from the city. The attractions are long gone but The Friends of Brandywine Springs Park have erected stations housing turn-of-the-20th century photographs to help recreate its heyday as a pioneering amusement park in the United States. Some ruins can still be spotted in the undergrowth.
“One of the finest seats in America”
George Read was a lawyer and signer of the Declaration Of Independence. His son, George Read II, followed in his footsteps but he was not the great achiever his dad was – he was not well liked and considered pompous. As if to prove his detractors correct, Read the Younger set out to build the largest house in Delaware in 1801. When completed the 22-room, 14,000-square foot mansion, considered one of the finest examples of Federal style architecture ever built, cost $11,000 – more than $2 million today. Operated now by the Historical Society of Delaware and open to the public, when you visit you will learn not just about the Reads but the 150-year old garden and the Prohibition days when the house functioned as a speakeasy. Illegal booze was unloaded from the wharf out front on the Delaware River and spirited into the wood-paneled basement bar.
42 The Strand, New Castle DE
Tastiest Tour In Town
In 1946, when he was 21 years old, young Jim Herr bought himself a potato chip company in Lancaster. In his early days sales averaged about 30 dollars a week. A decade later Herr’s pioneered flavored potato chips and today the company distributes over 340 products. You can see the Chester County plant in operation weekdays with a free factory tour which starts with a 27-minute film featuring Jim Herr and Chipper® the Chipmunk, a puppet animated by Jim Henson Puppeteers. You move on to watch the processing of more potatoes than you’ve ever seen before in one place before winding up at the snack bar to nosh on tasty free samples.
20 Herr Drive, Nottingham PA
The Elopement Capital of America
In the early 20th century, Maryland had no waiting period for issuing marriage licenses and couples from throughout the Northeast flocked to Elkton—the first county seat south of the State line—where they could be married without delay. Independent wedding chapels lined Main Street. In 1936, the town issued 11,791 marriage licenses. Two years later, the State adopted a 48-hour waiting period, but the tradition endured. As late as the 1970s as many as 6,000 couples were wed in “the elopement capital of the East Coast,” including actresses Joan Fontaine and Debbie Reynolds, singer Martha Raye, political figures John and Martha Mitchell, baseball great Willie Mays, and televangelist Pat Robertson. Stop in to see the last remaining Elkton chapel is a colonial stone building.
Little Wedding Chapel, 142 East Main Street, Elkton MD
Maryland’s Favorite Family Zoo
Ed Plumstead walked off the Yale University campus with a degree in fine arts and began his working life illustrating children’s books. He was restoring historic Cecil County homes when he rescued two whitetail deer from the side of the road in the 1960s. Plumstead slowly collected more animals on his family farm until he opened the doors to his private menagerie in 1986, named after an English park. Plumpton Park Zoo, which has been recently rescued as Plumstead moved into his eighties, displays over 200 animals in a relaxed rural setting not experienced in the big city zoos. Although Sis the Bengal tiger has recently passed on at the advanced age of 17, stars Freddie the donkey and Jimmie the giraffe still delight visitors at the zoo.
Rising Sun MD
Chester County’s Special Mineral
Nottingham Park, the oldest of Chester County’s parks, is home to the Serpentine Barrens, a seven-mile ridge of igneous rock that is one of only three such serpentine formations in North America. The early settlers called the area of scrub pine and oak “barrens” because they couldn’t grow anything in the low-nutrient soil. The distinctive green serpentine rock was a popular building stone and can be seen in many of Chester County’s historic structures, including several at West Chester University. By 1880 the Wood Mine dug to extract the mineral was 800 feet deep and the largest in the world. Chrome, asbestos and quartz were also mined here. An interpretive nature trail in the park describes the fast-draining Serpentine Barrens and visits abandoned quarries.
Spying America’s National Bird
When the Conowingo Dam, America’s longest concrete-slab dam, was completed across the Susquehanna River in 1928 it boasted the largest turbines and generators ever built to that time. It takes its name from the town of Conowingo that was submerged under the reservoir created by the impoundment. In addition to engineering fans birdwatchers also flock to the dam site. The star attraction are bald eagles, especially in the winter. The great piscivorous birds favor massive nests in the 100-foot treetops along the banks of the Susquehanna River from which they dive and pluck stunned and splattered fish from the spillways. Gulls and wading birds are always on display.
Port Deposit MD