Thirty miles up from the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, the passage between the Bay’s Eastern and Western shores is a scant 12 miles. Though the water depths reach more than 50 feet in the main channel, Wolf Trap Shoals ripple out from Virginia’s western shore off Mathews County.
Here, the English naval vessel, HMS Wolf, ran aground in 1691 while combating piracy in the Bay on behalf of the English crown. Local residents helped float the ship off the shoals, but the ship’s master refused to compensate them, giving rise to the name “Wolf Trap.”
Sandwiched between the Piankatank River and Mobjack Bay on the middle peninsula of Virginia, Mathews’ connections to the water have always been strong, the result of 200 miles of shoreline, a filigree of coves, inlets and rivers.
Today, it is a paddler’s paradise, with 15 public kayak launch sites and more than 100 miles of water trails that weave through backwaters and marshes, past historic wharves, and between protected harbors and wider rivers. The Mathews Blueways Water Trails, one of the first to be recognized by the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails program, encompasses six separate water trails, each with its own character and points of interest.
One of the put-in sites closest to the Bay proper is White’s Creek Landing, protected from open water by Rigby Island, a low barrier of sand inhabited only by nesting ospreys. It’s a remnant of a string of barrier islands that once extended north and south along this stretch of Bay coastline. Other launch sites are on the numerous creeks and inlets that drain this small Virginia county bound on three sides by water.
To the north and west of Gwynn’s Island, the Piankatank River winds inland to its farthest reaches at Dragon Run. Indian Chief Powhatan is said to have charged the Piankatank Indians with safeguarding the island for hunting and honoring the “Great Spirit.”
Capt. John Smith explored the Piankatank River in 1608, but not before a near-fatal encounter with a stingray off what has since been called Stingray Point. Fearing his death from the excruciating pain, he ordered his grave be dug on Gwynn’s Island. But Smith lived, and went on to continue to explore the Chesapeake in the voyages now celebrated by the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Mathews County officially separated from adjacent Gloucester County in 1791 and got its name (and unusual spelling) from Brig. Gen. Thomas Mathews, a Revolutionary War veteran and speaker of the House of Delegates of Virginia’s General Assembly. Colonial settlement followed a predictable pattern — trees were cleared for farm fields, but settlers from the start relied on abundant fish and shellfish off the county’s shores.
From the earliest colonial days, shipbuilding was a cornerstone industry. During the 1700s and 1800s, more than 2,000 seagoing vessels were launched from Mathews County shipyards, many served by sea captains and sailors from the area. Almost every harbor and creek had at least one shipyard. From 1802 to 1844, the East River, which slices north from Mobjack Bay into the lower county, was an official port of entry for the registration and enrollment of ships. During that same era, more than 10,000 vessels reported to the Port of East River.
Today, the Mathews Maritime Foundation chronicles the county’s rich maritime heritage from a small house near the center of Mathews. Ship models, binnacles, spyglasses and merchant marine papers collected from local families are among the varied artifacts artfully displayed. The foundation hosts family boatbuilding weekends and a winter speaker series, and collects oral histories and memorabilia from county residents and their descendants. Many watermen turned to the merchant marines as local industries declined, serving on seagoing tugs and commercial lines.
World War II was hard on the small community. “More men were lost at sea from Mathews County per capita than any other county in the U.S. during WWII,” said Nancy Lindgren, the foundation’s president, while giving a tour of the foundation’s collections.
Just up the street is the small town center of Mathews Courthouse, where the Mathews Visitor and Information Center lives in what was once Sibley’s General Store, dating back to 1898. It’s a one-stop shop for everything to do and see in the county.
Across the main street is the Halcyon Building, where two local entrepreneurs have turned the former department store into offices, meeting space and a theater for a local film society. Stretching the height of the three-story brick building is a mural made of mirrors and bits of local tiles and shells depicting a boat sailing through the waves. The artwork is the brainchild of Kat Sharp, who created the mural as a community project several years ago.
This kind of creativity is not unusual in Mathews. “It’s the kind of community where, if you have a good idea, you can pretty easily make it happen,” Sharp said.
Mathews was named “One of the Smallest Cool Towns in America” by Budget Travel magazine in 2014. Downtown Mathews is an eclectic mix of small-town restaurants, a bakery, antique stores and an art center. There are no traffic lights here — nor anywhere in the county. There are also no hotels, though campgrounds, B&Bs and numerous rental cottages and homes provide options.
On the banks of the East River is Poplar Grove, an 18th century porticoed mansion, where Sally Tompkins, the only female commissioned officer in the Confederate Army, was born. Owned briefly by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the estate is being refurbished by its current owner — including the restoration of the tide mill located on its waterfront. Once the grist mill for the area, it is one of only five remaining tide mills in the United States.
The Mathews Maritime Heritage Trail is an online project that maps the location of historic wharves and shipyards, plantations, and fish – and crab-packing houses that hark back to the days when water was the source of power, means of livelihood and the link to the wider community.
But you don’t need a boat to experience Mathews. With a maximum elevation of about 42 feet above sea level, Mathews provides a flat, easy ride for most cyclists. Every May, the county hosts the Tour de Chesapeake road event, where hundreds of cyclists get a glimpse of Mathews’ past through forests and marshes on roads that dead-end in public landings, wharves and beaches.
The Bethel Beach Natural Area, preserved by Virginia because it is home to the endangered tiger beetle and piping plover, is another step back into time. Layers of peat, formed from decomposing marsh grass, rim the beach, which is studded with loblolly pine stumps, the remainders of a maritime stand of trees that once stood at the water’s edge.
Farther down the coast, a raised walkway and observation deck overlook the sweeping marshes and maritime forest of The Nature Conservancy’s New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preserve. The lighthouse was one of the first built for navigation up the Bay. Now dark, it served as a sentinel for mariners of our growing nation for two centuries. Here, wimbrels peck along the pock-marked mud of a falling tide. Swallows sweep the early evening air for insects, swooshing back and forth under the walkway.
One the Bay’s most versatile and passionate naturalists, Gilbert Klingel, made his home on Gwynn’s Island. His nighttime and underwater explorations of the Bay were chronicled in essays written for the Baltimore Sun and National Geographic. His well-known book, “The Bay,” is one of the first modern natural histories of the region’s watery ecosystem. Describing a Bay that few today would recognize, Klingel wrote with “the endless patience of a true naturalist,” said Rachel Carson in her 1951 New York Times review of the book.
After working in a Baltimore shipyard during World War II, Klingel returned to build more than a dozen steel boats launched from the Gwynn’s Island Marine Railway.
The railway and boatyard are now the home of Eric
Hedberg’s Once and Future Boats boatbuilding shop. His workshop in the tall building, with two-story garage doors at either end, opens to Ferry Road and the Piankatank River on one side and to the docks on the other side of the slim isthmus just north of the Gywnn’s Island Bridge. Hedberg is just as welcoming of the breeze off the water as he is the curious visitor who might wander in from the road.
Hedberg, a master shipwright, has spent much of his career building and restoring traditional wood ships — replicas of the Susan Constant and Roanoke Island’s Elizabeth II, among others. He has also discovered and perfected methods to build and repair boats using cellular PVC.
“It cuts and shapes just like wood,” Hedberg said. “It doesn’t rot, it doesn’t wear out, and it doesn’t need to be painted.” He points to a 16-foot sharpie lying quietly at rest alongside the buy-boat Miss Peggy, looking as bright and white as a freshly painted boat, but made entirely of the PVC product.
Hedberg’s vision goes beyond using unusual materials to build traditional craft. He’s hoping to start a boatbuilding school that will revive the local working waterfront and help the community become interdependent in positive ways.
Mathews County is not on the way to anywhere but the water. It’s the kind of place you must choose to visit, and it’s the kind of place that honors its past while at the same time welcoming been-heres, come-heres and those just visiting.
Explore Mathews County by land, water
A good place for visitors to start is the Mathews County Visitor & Information Center at 239 Main Street, Mathews, VA 23109. Information is also available at visitmathews.com or by calling 804-725-4BAY. Other sources of information include:
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on November 17, 2015.