From it’s founding in the early 1700’s until the mid-1950s. The Wharf was a commercial hub for Centreville. Aside from the downtown area, commercial hubs developed where transportation facilities existed, such as the Corsica River waterfront and the areas around railroad stations. That is, until autos and trucks became prevalent and an adequate highway system was developed. The Wharf was a village unto itself with major commercial activities supported by an extensive residential community and providing recreational opportunities – one mile from the Town center.
Two of the most prominent merchants/entrepreneur/ship captains were Captain John Ozman and Captain C. M. Clash. Both owned major warehouses at the Wharf and provided shipping services to Baltimore and Norfolk. Sail powered schooners brought various raw materials, fuels, farming supplies, and general freight, and left with grain, fertilizers, tomatoes, fruits and vegetables, lumber and tobacco. Sail power was replaced by the combustion engine. Steamboats hauled freight and passengers on a four hour trip to and from Baltimore, stopping for patrons at various “landings” such as Booker’s Wharf and Spencer’s Landing (now Grey Fox Farm) Horse drawn wagons and surreys met all boats and conveyed the passengers and freight to the final destination.
Coal was a major fuel import for a period of time. In later years it was replaced by petroleum fuels. For many years there were fuel oil and gasoline storage tanks, served by tanker vessels, at the corner of Front Street and Corsica Neck Road.
The last major barge activity occurred in the mid 1950’s - it was slag aggregate from the Bethlehem Steel plant in Baltimore to be used for the bituminous concrete (blacktop) resurfacing of Maryland Route 213 from Centreville to Chestertown.
A general store, now the Draper residence, existed on Front Street, and, in later years, a general store existed at the intersection of Watson Road with Chesterfield Avenue. A blacksmith shop occupied the site which is now Doc’s Restaurant. Mr. Chaney Clough sold his fresh catch from the waters of the Wharf – white and yellow perch, catfish, eels and crabs – from his cart at the corner of the Courthouse Green opposite the Centreville National Bank.
Captain Clash owned the land upon which the new parking lot has been constructed. The site comprised a cluster of warehouses and other buildings, including his residence. The property was purchased by the E. S, Valliant & Sons Fertilizer Company. The buildings were used for material storage, mixing and bagging, and a sales office. The manager lived in the old Clash residence. Another fertilizer warehouse existed at the site of the present Barton residence.
THE FLOATING THEATRE
The annual visit by the James Adams Floating Theatre was eagerly awaited and thoroughly enjoyed by the local folks. This theatre, which primarily served the small towns and rural areas along the Atlantic Seaboard in North Carolina, Virginia and Chesapeake Bay area, made a one week annual visit to Centreville beginning in 1914. Its last visit was in October 1939.
The vessel resembled a large rectangular box with a few random windows. Because it had no means of propulsion, it was towed from site to site by a tugboat, generally from Baltimore. It contained a kitchen, eating areas and living quarters for staff and cast, offices, and a large auditorium with stage, orchestra pit, a large sloped seating area and a balcony. It could accommodate an audience of nearly 400 persons. There was no air conditioning, only a few fans but, it was heated.
Six or eight new shows were produced each year – most of which were written by the production staff –and included comedies, mysteries, musicals, and melodramas. The actors and the musicians were all very professional, talented, innovative individuals. Admission was 15 cents and 25 cents in the early years but increased over time. Friday nights drew the largest audiences. It was not unusual for the tide to rise during the show and the people would have to wade through water upon disembarking. Frequently the orchestra would transform itself into a marching band and lead a parade through the Town to promote the arrival of the show boat.
The Adams Floating Theatre was well known and highly regarded. It attracted a large and varied patronage. Pulitzer Prize author Edna Ferber spent some time on the theatre in 1924 and her observations provided the background for her very popular book, “Show Boat”. She boarded the Theatre at Crumpton just after it had left Centreville. In 1930 it was visited by financier John J. Raskob, the owner of Pioneer Point Farm near Centreville. His guest on this visit was his very good friend from New York, Alfred Smith. Al Smith was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928, and was Mr. Raskob’s associate in the funding and construction of the Empire State Building.
Swimming, fishing, crabbing and ice skating – all impromptu – provided the most recreation. The river froze often, for long periods of time, and quite thick. One could skate all the way to Gunston School – a distance of over a mile. Some adventurous folks even drove their auto out onto the ice. Farmers cut big hunks of ice and stored them in sheds for the summer. Some implements used for this activity can be seen at the Museum of Eastern Shore Life. Boys frequently played at a spot on Gravel Run, near the present Sewage Treatment Plan called “Yellow Banks”. The stream banks were very high, well vegetated, and vines enabled one to swing across the stream. There was very little boating – they weren’t affordable. The most impressive boat was a wooden yacht built by Carroll Wilson, the grandfather of prominent farmer Robert (Bob) Wilson. And there was the annual visit of the floating theatre.
The oldest, largest, and most prominent dwelling in the area is the “River House”, which is located at the intersection of Watson Road and Chesterfield Avenue. Built in 1771, it is an excellent example of colonial architecture and is very well preserved. Another very fine colonial building is Paschall’s Chance, located across the river from the wharf area. At least twelve of the smaller houses were built by Captain Ozman on lots he acquired in the mid 1800’s, just after the Civil War, to house his employees and sailing crews. These included several houses existing on Front Street and the better known “Captain’s Houses”. The Captain’s Houses consist of four small, identical, independent, two-story houses facing the Mill Stream east of the Corsica Neck Road Bridge.
Not all residents were involved in wharf activities. Alfred Rothwell and James Dorrell and his son Jim (nicknamed Hard Times) were excellent carpenters who worked for Mr. Alfred Potts, a prominent builder in the Centreville area. ‘Their houses still exist – the Rothwell house on the corner of Creamery Lane and Corsica Street, the Dorrell house on the corner of Creamery Lane and Wharf Lane, and the Potts house on Chesterfield Avenue. Harry Moore was a blacksmith, and his residence stands adjacent to Doc’s. Families were usually large and long term residents such as the Dorrells, Cloughs, Sparks, Dills, and Middletons. Genevieve Sparks Norris has lived at the wharf for her entire life and is its longest resident
The bridge carrying Watson Road over the mouth of Gravel Run was known as “Long Bridge” because it was a timber structure. When it was reconstructed, it was replaced by earthen embankment approaches and a short timber bridge over the channel. It is owned and maintained by Queen Anne’s County. The bridge carrying Corsica Neck Road over the Mill Stream was a short timber bridge and was known as “Short Bridge”. It was replaced with a composite steel/concrete bridge. It is owned and maintained by the State Highway Administration. Both bridges were and are popular fishing sites.
written by Walter E. “Woody” Woodford