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MARYLAND AT A GLANCE

WATERWAYS

RIVERS

At the State level, the Department of the Environment seeks to protect Maryland waterways, including rivers, as does the Scenic and Wild Rivers Program within the Department of Natural Resources. In addition, county government units, such as Anne Arundel County's Severn River Commission also provide oversight.


[photo, Boat house on Susquehanna River, Havre de Grace, Maryland] Maryland's riverine system is a complex network of branches and tributaries, some of which are known both as rivers and creeks. Most rivers in Maryland run into the Chesapeake Bay. All of Maryland's rivers have helped to guide the development of the State since its inception.

Boat house on Susquehanna River, Havre de Grace, Maryland, April 2005. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.


Many rivers are tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, but the three largest are the Potomac, the Patapsco, and the Patuxent. The Potomac River runs west and creates a natural border between Maryland and Virginia, while the Patapsco runs north from the Bay through Baltimore. It is the Patuxent, however, which may be the greatest contributor to the watershed. Located between the Patapsco and the Potomac, the Patuxent River covers over 957 square miles, and bears the distinction of being the longest river exclusive to Maryland.

In the years before European expansion, native peoples used rivers, such as the Susquehanna and the Pocomoke, for food and transportation. Early European explorers traversed rivers from the Chesapeake Bay inland, establishing contact with Native Americans, setting up trading posts, and later settlements. One of the most notable explorers was John Smith, and by 1608, he had charted the Nanticoke River, as well as a number of smaller tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Rivers were a major basis for the settlement of early towns, allowing colonists to go further inland. From these rivers, settlers procured food and water, as well as transport and other necessities. As wars broke out, river routes also became essential in the movement of troops by England and France. When the HMS Tonnant anchored in 1812, it was on the Patapsco River that Frances Scott Key wrote what would become America's national anthem.

During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate forces, blockade-runners, and even escaping slaves used the rivers of Maryland. One route for those trying to bypass the Union blockade was the Nanticoke River, where smugglers would stop at port towns, such as Vienna, acquiring much-needed goods to sell to southern states. Runaway slaves used similar routes, traversing rivers and streams on their trek north along the Underground Railroad. These routes followed many rivers and streams on both sides of the Bay. The Potomac also was heavily traversed at this time, as both armies would sortie back and forth for the duration of the war. The River even lent its name to identify the Union Army on the eastern front. General Lee moved the Army of Northern Virginia across in two foiled assaults in 1862 and 1863, and many Union generals crossed with the Army of the Potomac, starting with McClellan in 1861 through General Grant in 1865.

Since then, evolving methods of transit and transportation, have lessened riverine influence upon economic and other development. Today, Maryland rivers primarily support boating, fishing, and other recreational pursuits.



[photo, Patuxent River with Solomons Island Bridge in distance (from St. Mary's County), Maryland]

Patuxent River with Solomons Island Bridge in distance (from St. Mary's County), Maryland, May 2000. Solomons Island Bridge links Calvert and St. Mary's counties in southern Maryland. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.


[photo, Fishermen on Potomac River, Point of Rocks, Maryland]
  • Patapsco River
  • Patuxent River
  • Port Tobacco River
  • Pocomoke River
  • Potomac River
  • Rhode River
  • St. George River
  • St. Martin River
  • St. Mary's River
  • Fishermen on Potomac River, Point of Rocks, Maryland, October 2003. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

    [photo, Sassafras River at Georgetown, Kent County, Maryland]

    Sassafras River at Georgetown, Kent County, Maryland, April 2002. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.


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     Maryland Manual On-Line, 2009

    July 1, 2009   
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