Near the mouth of the broad Choptank River, Cambridge is a quaint town with a distinct maritime character. The history of this place is entwined with water-based trades like oystering, crabbing and boatbuilding.
Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913), the best-known Underground Railroad “conductor” was born into slavery close to Cambridge. After escaping in 1849, she made many daring returns to the Eastern Shore to guide some 70 enslaved people to freedom.
You can visit numerous sites around Dorchester County on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, like the extraordinary visitor center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
The national park is within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a huge marshy expanse on the route of an epic waterfowl migration in fall.
1. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death in 2013, 480 acres of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge were designated a National Historical Park.
The $22 million visitor center here opened in 2017, in a series of four buildings designed like barns, reminiscent of the places where Tubman slept during her expeditions.
Windows allow you to ponder a landscape that has changed little since Tubman’s time, and the buildings are clad with zinc, which will dull over time to signify the ongoing healing process that has occurred since the Civil War.
The main exhibition inside has interactive stations devoted to themes like the Underground Railroad, how Tubman’s efforts are relevant today, and Tubman’s family, faith and early years against the backdrop of the Choptank River.
2. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Cambridge is the gateway to a vast marshy region, touted as the “Everglades of the North”. At close to 29,000 acres the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has a variety of habitats, among them tidal wetlands, freshwater lakes, hardwood & evergreen forest, open fields and farmland.
The refuge was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary, and from late fall is the scene of an amazing migration of waterfowl, dominated by Canada geese, but also including swans, cranes and more than 20 duck species.
Bald eagles are also present here all year round. In summer there are fewer bird spotting opportunities, but this is the best time to explore the maze of waterways (insect repellent may be needed), with rentals available from companies like Blackwater Adventures.
3. Downtown Cambridge
Along Race Street, Poplar Street and High Street, Cambridge’s historic center is packed with culture, museums, excellent dining and lots of intriguing little detours.
One of these is Christ Episcopal Church. Although the current Gothic Revival building is from 1883, there has been a church here since 1692, and no fewer than five Maryland governors are buried in the cemetery.
The brick-paved High Street is especially quaint, and eventually leads to the waterfront at its eastern end.
At 206 stands the fine Italianate Dorchester County Courthouse (1854), site of an escape by Harriet Tubman’s niece Kessiah and her two children from the slavery auction block here in 1850.
There are many clues to Cambridge’s maritime heritage, from the paintings of schooners in gallery windows to the displays for the craft of boatbuilding at the Richardson Maritime Museum.
Most of downtown Cambridge’s eateries are concentrated along Race Street and Poplar Street, where your choices include modern American, pizza, pub fare, breakfast food, Indian, BBQ, Mexican and steaks.
4. Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center
You can stay on the Harriet Tubman trail downtown at this small but well-researched museum. With the help of detailed information boards and a short film, the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center tells her story.
You’ll find out about her childhood, her devout religious beliefs, the injury she suffered in her youth, her initial escape to Philadelphia in 1849 and the many returns she made to the Eastern Shore to rescue family and friends.
The museum made headlines in 2019 for an impressive and touching mural on an external wall. Depicting Tubman in a rowboat with an arm outstretched, the work was painted by Michael Rosato and commissioned by the Dorchester Center for the Arts.
5. Visitor Center at Sailwinds Park East
Strategically placed by the Choptank River Bridge to welcome people traveling down the Delmarva Peninsula, there’s a visitor center for Dorchester County on the waterfront in Cambridge.
The Visitor Center at Sailwinds Park East is designed to catch your attention, sitting beneath a giant, sail-like canopy evoking a schooner.
This is a good resource for practical information and material like maps and brochures, but is also an attraction in its own right. Inside, there are exhibits about Cambridge and Dorchester County on two levels.
Outside is a fantastic lighthouse-themed playground, a fountain for the Grand National Waterfowl Association, a restful garden with native plants, an amphitheater for events, a beach area on the river and a stretch of boardwalk a mile long.
6. Richardson Maritime Museum
Wooden boatbuilding is a skill with more than 300 years of history on the Eastern Shore, and there’s a museum in a fine old bank building on High Street in Cambridge that tells its story.
The Richardson Maritime Museum is named for celebrated local boatbuilder, James B. Richardson.
The main exhibit pays tribute to the region’s craftsmen with a comprehensive display of preserved boatbuilding tools, from planes to saws to bevels.
You can also check out an exceptional lineup of models for the many different sailboats on the Chesapeake Bay. Among them are pungys, bug eyes and skipjacks, the vessels of choice for oyster dredging, long a key source of income in Cambridge.
7. Heritage Museums and Gardens of Dorchester
The headquarters of the Dorchester County Historical Society can be visited at a campus on a quiet residential street in Cambridge.
The showpiece here is the Meredith House, built around 1760 and displaying artifacts and home furnishings to give a sense of domestic life in the county down the years.
On the same site, the Neild Museum deals with rural life in Dorchester County, presenting a combined wheelwright and blacksmith shop, a stronghouse from the 1700s and formal herb gardens.
Other trades and aspects of local history can be explored at the Robbins Heritage Center, devoted to the canning industry, trapping, hunting, timbering, Native American history and the War of 1812 in Dorchester county.
8. Blackwater Adventures
The extensive sheltered waters all around Cambridge are an outdoor playground, perfect for activities like paddling, jet skiing, fishing, powerboating and much more.
Blackwater Adventures, located at Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, offers everything you could need to make the most of this unique environment.
You can rent kayaks, paddle boats, bicycles, catamarans and stand-up paddleboards, or something a bit more powerful. There are also step-on, step-off guided bus tours of the area, as well a wide choice of guided paddling and bicycle tours.
9. Harriet Tubman Birthplace Marker
In the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge you can take a moment to visit one purported site of Harriet Tubman’s birth.
Tubman’s exact year and place of birth have been difficult to pinpoint. In 2021 the location for her father Ben Ross’s cabin was believed to have been discovered, further west in Peter’s Neck.
But along Greenbrier Road to the east there’s a place in a verdant landscape where you can pull off the road and reflect.
A marker has been erected here, and is accompanied by an interpretive sign with details about Tubman’s early years, the experience of African Americans in mid-19th century Dorchester County and the origins of the Underground Railroad.
10. Spocott Windmill
The only post mill in the whole of Maryland stands a few miles west of Cambridge by Gary Creek, and is part of an outdoor museum with an ensemble of historic buildings going back to the 19th century.
The original windmill, able to turn in any direction to meet the wind, was raised in 1852 and blown down in a blizzard in 1888.
The current Spocott Windmill is an accurate replica, built by Cambridge boat builder Jim Richardson, also known for the Richardson Maritime Museum.
Since then a number of old buildings have been relocated to this site, among them a doctor’s office, colonial cottage (c. 1800), country store and a one-room schoolhouse (c. 1868).
11. Long Wharf Park
Keep going north on High Street and you’ll soon come to the Choptank riverfront, once the scene of bustling river trade, where oystermen brought their catch ashore.
Long Wharf Park fronts the Cambridge Yacht Basin, able to accommodate some surprisingly large boats.
A floating monument to the oyster industry, the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester is moored next to Long Wharf Park, and can be boarded for public sailing trips, charters and special events throughout the summer.
The park also hosts the Cambridge Farmers’ Market on Thursday afternoons, May through November.
12. Choptank River Lighthouse
One of Cambridge’s favorite sights is a replica lighthouse that can be reached via a pier next to Long Wharf Park.
The Choptank River Lighthouse was built in 2012 and is a reproduction of an historic screwpile lighthouse positioned here until it was dismantled in 1964.
Funded for the most part by local residents, the new lighthouse was more than two decades in the making, and serves as a small museum that can be visited daily, May through October.
You can soak up the views, and browse exhibits recording the maritime heritage of Dorchester County.
13. Dorchester Center for the Arts
Based on Cambridge’s Historic High Street there’s a dynamic community arts center run by a non-profit organization.
This was founded in 1970 and serves the entire Eastern Shore community with exceptional gallery shows and classes in a variety of media for all ages and levels.
Exhibitions at the Dorchester Center for the Arts usually run for a month at a time and feature work by local and regional artists.
As well as annual members’ and young people’s shows, exhibits have dealt with themes like art therapy, textiles, Harriet Tubman, model boats, African American quilts and more.
The gift shop deserves a mention as another place to pick up something unique and handmade on High Street.
14. Bill Burton Fishing Pier
On both banks of the Choptank River, long stretches of the old Emerson C. Harrington Bridge have been preserved as a promenade and fishing pier.
The longest can be accessed across the river at Trappe, and is officially the Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park.
The Emerson C. Harrington Bridge was dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, and runs parallel to the modern crossing, which replaced it in 1987.
On the Cambridge side, the pier is half a mile long, and is a popular location for strolls, jogging, crabbing and fishing.
A few species commonly caught in the Choptank are striped bass, perch, croaker, catfish and sea trout. When we compiled this list the pier had been temporarily closed to the public.
15. Gerry Boyle Park
Another place where you can get down to the Choptank riverfront in Cambridge is this public park at the tip of Great Marsh Point.
Gerry Boyle Park has a boat ramp, two soft launch areas, a playground, pavilion, walking path, fishing areas and a small beach.
The setting is an attraction in its own right, and this is a breathtaking place to be at sunrise or sunset, or to watch Cambridge’s Fourth of July fireworks.
The park is also on the course of the grueling and internationally renowned triathlon races, Ironman Maryland in September, and Ironman 70.3 Eagleman in June.