The seat of Charles County in Southern Maryland is near the head of the Port Tobacco River, which was a center for international trade in the 17th and 18th century.
Port Tobacco, now just a group of historic buildings on La Plata’s outskirts, was once the second-largest river port in Maryland, driven by a booming tobacco trade.
One planter was Thomas Stone, who was the youngest signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Also around La Plata is the world’s oldest continuously occupied Jesuit Residence, in a magnificent hilltop setting at St. Thomas Manor.
Another place of real historical value is Mount Carmel Monastery, the site of the oldest Catholic monastery in the original 13 colonies, and re-established a Carmelite community in the 1930s.
1. Thomas Stone National Historic Site
The home of Thomas Stone (1743-1787), one of the 56 signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence, is less than ten minutes west of La Plata. This is Haberadventure, built by Stone in the Georgian style in 1771.
A planter, lawyer and politician, Thomas Stone was the youngest signer. He gave up the law to care for his ailing wife, Margaret, and passed away just four months after she died.
Stone’s descendants continued to reside at Haberadventure until 1936, and The National Park Service purchased this property in 1978.
On a guided tour you’ll get a clearer picture of Stone’s career, as well as the unique motivations that led to him co-signing the Declaration of Independence.
Walking trails lead off to the family cemetery, as well as historic outbuildings like a horse barn, corn crib and tobacco barn.
2. Port Tobacco
Long before La Plata, Charles County’s first county seat was Port Tobacco, first settled in 1634.
By the turn of the 18th century this was a chaotic riverport bolstered by a booming tobacco trade and easy access to both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic.
During the Civil War, Port Tobacco was known as a hotbed for Confederate sympathizers, and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth brought investigators to this town.
Things soon went south for the town when the river silted up, and this process was accelerated in the 1870s when Port Tobacco was bypassed by the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in favor of La Plata.
Today there’s a National Historic District made up of a few 18th and 19th-century buildings, along with the reconstructed courthouse, which we’ll talk about later.
One historic residence on what used to be the town square is Stag Hall (c. 1766), a fine frame house, open for tours Thursday to Sunday, April through December.
3. St. Thomas Manor
Crowning a hill with an awe-inspiring view of the Port Tobacco River is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic parish in the United States.
The settlement at Chapel Point was founded in 1641 by Andrew White (1579-1656), an English Jesuit missionary, and this became an active parish in 1662.
St. Thomas Manor here was built in 1741, making it the oldest Georgian building in Maryland, and the oldest continuously occupied Jesuit residence in the world.
When John Carroll (1735-1815) was consecrated as Bishop in 1790, this also became the first Roman Catholic See in the former 13 British colonies.
There are interpretive boards and markers outside, while tours are given of the manor and church on an informal basis.
You can find the grave of a Confederate spy in the adjoining cemetery, and a rare example of preserved quarters for enslaved people on the property. If you’re just stopping by, try to come at sunset when the panoramas are magical.
4. Port Tobacco Courthouse
The original Port Tobacco Courthouse was built in 1819 but burned down in 1895 in suspicious circumstances. In 1972 a brick-for-brick replica of this Federal landmark was built on the site to serve as a local history museum.
This building is HQ for the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco, and opens to the public during the summer.
Inside are museum exhibits studying different aspects of Port Tobacco’s history like the 17th and 18th-century tobacco trade and the Civil War, all enriched with archaeological discoveries made in the area.
5. Marie’s Diner
The star of La Plata’s food scene is this unpretentious diner, serving homestyle, breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.
As a mark of its food and famous warm service, Marie’s Diner is almost always hopping, and operates a waitlist at busier times.
The menu is vast, but there are a few strong points to check out. In the morning, the sausage gravy or chipped beef breakfast is a go-to.
Later, given the proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, you’re duty-bound to try one of the seafood specialties, like the special recipe 5 oz crab cakes. Honorable mention for the scrapple, corn fritters, cover-the-plate pancakes and daily delights in the bakery case.
6. Gilbert Run Park
This popular Charles County park is eight miles east of La Plata on Route 6, encompassing the 69-acre Wheatley Lake.
In summer the lake is a boating hotspot whether you bring your own vessel or rent a kayak, canoe, pedal boat or row boat from the park office.
For fishing, there’s a pier on the southwest shore, and trout, catfish, bluegill and largemouth bass are a few of the varieties caught here.
The lake’s shores are covered with forest, which can be seen along a 2.5-mile nature trail. Gilbert Run Park is also a prime spot for parties and family reunions, with five pavilions dotted around the lakeshore and available for rental.
Last but not least the children’s playground is one of the best in the area, and even comes with a zipline.
7. Port Tobacco River Park
Adding to the abundance of wonderful outdoor spaces around La Plata, there’s Port Tobacco River Park.
This is special for its wildlife viewing opportunities, as there’s a pair of nesting bald eagles here that can even be seen on YouTube via the Eagle Cam.
The park’s three miles of trails are furnished with observation platforms and lots of interpretive signs about its wildlife, from nesting great herons to a wide array of turtles. You can also bring a picnic for an alfresco meal at the pavilion, surrounded by nature.
8. Mount Carmel Monastery
The site of the oldest Catholic monastery in the original 13 colonies is on La Plata’s northwestern margins, by the College of Southern Maryland campus.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, Mount Carmel Monastery was originally founded in 1790 by a group of discalced Carmelite nuns.
That community was closed down in 1831 and relocated to Baltimore, but the monastery was re-established in 1933 and continues to welcome visitors.
You can take a look around the restored 200-year-old buildings, visit the chapel, admire the grounds and get a sense of daily life for the ten members of this community.
9. Tilghman Lake Park
Less than five minutes from the center of La Plata is an unfrequented park, sitting around a little lake inhabited by waterfowl and otters.
Tilghman Lake is fringed by a large stand of pine trees, with a paved walking trail along the shore that has exercise stations along the way.
There’s a floating dock if you’re here for some catch & release fishing, and lots of places near the water where you can unwind, whether you bring a picnic or use one of the grills for a cookout.
If you’re planning a special occasion, there’s also a pavilion that can be rented via La Plata Town Hall.
10. Port Tobacco Players
A pillar of the arts in Southern Maryland, La Plata has a community theater group with a history reaching back to 1947.
Unusually for this kind of organization, the Port Tobacco Players have their own home, at a charming and newly renovated former movie theater from the 1940s.
The group puts on six productions a season, running the gamut from Shakespeare to musicals and family-friendly shows.
For an idea of what to expect, the varied list of recent productions includes Little Shop of Horrors, Macbeth, The Importance of Being Earnest, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Guys and Dolls and Calendar Girls.
11. Chapel Point State Park
The state park next to St. Thomas Manor was purchased from the Jesuits in the 1970s, and has more than 600 acres of woods and waterfront along the east bank of the Port Tobacco River.
The park is undeveloped, and the few amenities tend to be primitive. In essence, this is a peaceful and unspoiled backdrop for hiking, picnics (no tables) and activities on the river.
There’s a small beach area if you’d like a swim, along with a ramp for boating and kayaking (car-topping vessels only), and fishing areas.
12. Laurel Springs Regional Park
This park by La Plata High School has been designed for active recreation and is loaded with sports facilities.
Well served by parking lots, Laurel Springs Regional Park has a complex of baseball fields, a softball field and soccer/football fields, complemented by a concession stand that is open on game days.
This entire space is encircled by the multi-use Laurel Springs Trail, which heads off to Tilghman Lake Park, a few hundred feet to the southeast. A real highlight for families is the playground, which has state-of-the-art, all-abilities equipment.
13. La Plata Train Station Museum
Given that La Plata developed around this former Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station, it’s fitting that the building should now be home to the Charles County Historical Society.
The station was completed in 1873 and today is the sole surviving station building on the old Pope’s Creek Line.
With a view to becoming a full-fledged attraction, the museum has irregular hours, but the station is worth seeing from the outside for a moment.
If you do get to go inside there’s a growing collection of photographs and artifacts relating to the Pope’s Creek Line, as well as life in La Plata over the last 150 years.
14. Fun Haven Golf
This family attraction sits next to Turkey Hill Park a little way north of La Plata on the Crain Highway.
Something that everyone will love at Fun Haven Golf is the miniature golf course, with 18 holes embedded in flowing gardens, with plenty of shade and decorative elements like a gazebo and miniature lighthouse.
The course will appeal to golfers working on their short game as much as families on a day out. There’s also a driving range, with large buckets priced at $10 (when we wrote this list), and club rentals for as little as $1.
Added to that are batting cages for a range of speeds, though these were temporarily closed at the time of writing.
15. Charles County Fair
The biggest annual event around La Plata is this old-school county fair over four days in September.
A century-old tradition, the Charles County Fair is known for its amazing variety of exhibitors, in categories as varied as livestock, flowers, quilts, arts and crafts and more.
Across the four days there’s a carnival midway with rides and games, along with a kiddie midway for littler fair-goers.
You’ve also got four stages of live entertainment, tons of demonstrations, fun contests like pig racing, and a wide choice of food, including Chesapeake Bay crab cakes.