WHY GO: The region encompassing La Plata MD, Waldorf, and Charles County in general, is slowly being discovered by the world. Why? How?
Charles County MD, on the Potomac River 45 minutes from Washington DC, is where you’ll find the largest collection of sunken ships in the Western Hemisphere, in a kayaking spot recently designated a National Marine Sanctuary.
It’s also where Dr. Samuel Mudd fixed John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln; and where visitors can actually touch remnants of Historic Port Tobacco, once the second largest port in Maryland.
Add a Minor League baseball game, a lovely rail-to-bike-trail, fun indie shopping, a woman-owned tattoo art gallery, one of the most extensive music stores in the country, and terrific restaurants to the mix, and you’ve got a fantastically fun Getaway for adventurous couples.
Things to Do in Charles County MD
On the Potomac River, Mallows Bay is both a MD State Park and a graveyard for over a hundred ships from the Revolutionary War through today. Most are wooden cargo ships constructed in haste during WWI. Obsolete as soon as they were built, the ships were intentionally burned to the waterline, scuttled, and then scavenged for iron.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “the Ghost Fleet is the largest and most varied collection of visible historic shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere.”
In September 2019, Mallows Bay-Potomac was designated a National Marine Sanctuary. Plants and trees grow in the rotting wood of hulls; fish swim below, and Osprey’s and Eagles make nests in and around the ruins.
To explore this most unusual area, grab a map from the “trailhead” sign, and take your own kayak or join a tour with Atlantic Kayak. You’ll weave in and out of the half to mostly sunken ship skeletons, which, through time, seeds, and movement of the waves, have turned into wild gardens.
President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin slept here. And we got all the details on a fascinating 1 ½ hour tour that began with, “Let’s go back to April 15, 1865.”
Our costumed docent set the stage, as she welcomed us into the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, just 31 years old with four young children, who welcomed an injured John Wilkes Booth, “and put him right on that sofa – that very one.”
We learned why Booth, a dashing actor – the “Brad Pitt of his day” – choose to flee to Maryland (he knew it was full of southern sympathizers), and Mudd’s house in particular (they had met a few times both in MD and in DC).
House Tour And Assassin’s Tale
As we moved through the precisely restored rooms of the home, the story of that night and subsequent years unwound. Booth was a rabid Confederate, anti-Union, anti-Black. Initially, Booth and his co-conspirators planned to kidnap the President and ransom him in exchange for jailed Confederate soldiers.
But when Lee surrendered to Grant, it signified the end of the Civil War. Lincoln stated that he wanted to extend voting rights to freed slaves. This was too much for Booth who had learned that the Lincoln’s were going to Ford Theater to take in a production of My American Cousin. The scheme to kidnap became an assassination plot.
To carry out his plan, Booth had two things going for him. As a headlining actor, he had access to box seats. And, being familiar with the pace of the play, he knew the exact moment when laughter would drown out a gunshot.
It took several minutes for the audience to realize what had happened.
After killing the President, Booth jumped from the balcony, broke his leg, and, with help of his co-conspirators, made it to the Mudd home at 4am. At first, the young doctor placed Booth on the sofa. The assassin’s leg was so swollen, Mudd had to cut off his boot. This proved to be the doc’s undoing.
“Grab A Hold of History!”
At this point, we were at the foot of the stairs, ready to ascend. “Be aware! You’re grabbing hold of history,” our docent said, as we placed our hands on the home’s original banister.
She pointed to a bureau in the upstairs bedroom where Booth rested. “He most likely shaved his signature mustache off in that very mirror to hide his identity.”
When interrogated afterwards, Mudd swore he didn’t know who Booth was at the time – just a stranger in need of help. Detectives, however, spied the bloody footwear with Booth’s name engraved inside, and arrested the doctor. By then, Booth had already fled, and was found and shot dead on sight. The myriad conspirators were tried as enemy combatants.
Doc Mudd was sentenced to life in prison for “aiding, abetting, concealing, and harboring” a fugitive. But, he saved lives during a Yellow Fever epidemic, and earned a reduced sentence of just four years. The Doctor returned home, continued practicing medicine, was pardoned, and he and his wife went on to have five more children. Tours Wednesdays and Saturdays 11-4, Sundays 12-4 (last tours at 3:30pm), $8 adults, $2 youth.
Port Tobacco was established by an Act of the Maryland General Assembly in 1727. It was a merchant village from the get go, as you’ll discover on a delightful one-hour tour of three buildings (one reconstructed, two others original) on this site. (Interestingly, Port Tobacco was not named for the crop, but for the Native American tribe – the Potapoco – who lived here.)
On a navigable tributary from the Potomac River, Port Tobacco was the second largest port in Maryland (after Baltimore) in the 18th and part of the 19th centuries. Ships delivering goods from all over the world rendered this small Maryland town worldly for its size and location.
Never residential (although merchants lived “above the store”), people in the surrounding communities came to shop, do business, and stay at hotels and taverns. Only a few structures are still standing, but there are plans to unearth foundations of others.
No big surprise that there’s been a lot of interest in uncovering this region’s past. Charles County MD is so deeply serious about preserving its history, it publishes a yearly magazine called “Preservation Matters,” celebrating the County’s Historic Places.
Start in Stagg Hall, built in 1766 by merchant, Thomas Howe Ridgate, who ran it as a store and tavern. All three rooms are on full display; two as they would have appeared back then, the third an exhibition area with maps and artifacts.
The general store, one of 80 establishments in Port Tobacco back then, stocked everything from fabrics to china, ladies gloves, buckles, hats, stoneware, quill pens, ink, soaps and more. Valuable sugar cones were wrapped in blue-tinted paper, as indigo tended to repel rats. Feel the materials, smell the soaps. Kids can try on clothes of the day.
Are your ancestors in debt to the Ridgates? Thomas’s widow kept a ledger of 300 customers who owed her husband money. Take a look. Was your family on the list?
The Tap Room is displayed as it would have looked when men ate, drank, smoked, and played cards while wheeling and dealing. A third room is a Port Tobacco museum of sorts, with a copy of the first 1844 Port Tobacco Times newspaper, and the original printers typeset cabinet that belonged to founder/editor, Elijah Wells.
The End of Port Tobacco Village
By the late 1800’s, the navigable river silted up, ending Port Tobacco’s era of prosperity. In 1904, most of the buildings, including Stagg Hall, had gone to seed. This led to an opportunity for seamstress, Mary Barbour, to purchase it for $100. Members of the Barbour family lived there for over 50 years.
Said our guide, “This is the only room we know of in historical preservation that went away and came back.” Apparently, in 1930, the Chicago Art Institute purchased it, beam, stone, and nail. Years later, the Barbour Family brought it back home.
In 2013, Historic Port Tobacco Village was turned over to Charles County to maintain and manage. Two more buildings are on the tour.
The Port Tobacco Courthouse, destroyed by fire and reconstructed in 1972, contains court cases summarized on sheets of paper draped over every pew seat. Spend a few minutes marveling at how much has changed and how much has stayed the same regarding community grievances.
The third and last building, the Burch House, belonged to Washington Burch, the first Black man to own land here after the Civil War. Burch was a jailer, and then founder of a school for African American kids. Tours of all three buildings Thurs-Sun April – Dec, 10-4.
BIKE/WALK: Indian Head Rail Trail, White Plains MD
This 13 mile paved path from White Plains MD to Indian Head MD runs through pleasant scenery and natural areas. It makes for a great leg stretcher. Or, if out and back, a great 26-mile bike ride. If you choose to go early morning, you’ll have plenty of company.
BALLGAME: Southern Maryland Blue Crabs at Regency Furniture Stadium, Waldorf
There’s nothing like a minor league baseball game on a warm Spring evening for some local cultural immersion. With a variety of nightly themes, a great kids amusement park on site ($7 for unlimited rides, including bumper boats), decent stadium food, goofy mascots, and the crack of the bat – it’s a wholesome couple of hours, and a way to savor the sunset.
Waldorf MD’s pristine 4,200-seat stadium features fourteen air-conditioned suites for up to 25 people each; all told, a 6,000 plus capacity, including lawn and picnic areas.
On a Tuesday night in June, however, there were only a few hundred seniors for “Silver Sluggers Night.” But they seemed happy to be there, laughing (or groaning, more likely) at the antics of Pinch and Ron the Tie-Dye Man.
For a non-farm team, the Blue Crab’s Press Box is pretty sophisticated. In addition, as an “MLB Partner,” representatives from the Majors come here to test out new rules and, in this case, devices.
That night, four MLB reps were intently watching both the game and results from Trackman – an electronic strike zone virtual umpire – to determine if the computer would catch and call plays as well as humans do. I was not privy to the results. Tickets are $15 – a bargain. Games from Late April – mid Sept., fireworks every Saturday night.
Thomas Stone was one of the 55 Revolutionary era politicians who signed the Declaration of Independence. Tour his home and learn his story.
VISIT: Mount Aventine, Chapman State Park, Indian Head MD
In private hands until 1985, and turned over to the State of MD in 2001, the Mount Aventine mansion provides one of the most stunning vistas of the Potomac River from its back door. If nothing else, come just to take in the view.
The approach to the house, on a cedar-lined lane, is almost as striking.
First built in 1840, with an 1860’s addition, Mt. Aventine Mansion and its surrounding acres of Chapman State Park were slated for a “National Harbor-like” development. Concerned citizens came to the rescue to preserve it, donating money and about 98% of its period furniture.
Plans are in the works to restore rooms to the 19th Century, including removing a 1950’s bathroom and installing Plexiglas to reveal early 1800’s construction practices.
Chapman State Park itself is a treasure. Its 2,254 acres encompass a variety of habitats including meadows, forests, swamps, and riverfront: a utopia for birdwatchers. Walk miles of trails at Chapman State Park dawn to dusk. Mt. Avertine Mansion open Sundays April-Oct. 1-4, free.
SHOP: Stores in La Plata MD
This small MD town has quite the entrepreneurial spirit. (Perhaps harking back to Port Tobacco Village). The following are our favorites.
Gotta love a place with the slogan, “Bitches Hustle.” This women-owned tattoo and art gallery is so named because, “we had those numbers already,” quipped owner Shannon Wang, pointing to the large light-bulb’d digits behind the counter. In that regard, she and co-owner Romona Wise, could have easily named it Shop 35.
But either way, fellow artists, and others in the know, make pilgrimages here just for the body art – with immense respect for the hustling bitches’ custom ink work. Don’t like needles? You can also purchase Wang’s designs on t-shirts, or buy a piece of art in the gallery.
OK, this place floored me. The collection of musical instruments and equipment is so vast, one room is devoted to ukuleles alone! For the 11th year in a row, the North American Merchants Association has recognized Island Music as one of the Top 100 Music Stores in the USA. Besides ukuleles, of course, you can pick up drums, guitars, amps, horns, and hard to find, rare items.
Grammy winning artists (e.g., Ringo’s drummer, KISS band member) come in to give workshops and clinics. And, every 1st Saturday in October, Island Music hosts Rocktober Fest, with a major headliner, which brings thousands of people to La Plata from DC and “all over.” They generally raise over $100,000 for local school arts programs.
Joson Fine Jewelry & Home Boutique
From custom engagement rings to unique baby gifts, there’s something for everyone at this very friendly gift and jewelry store.
More La Plata MD Shops
If you’ve got time, stop into Dream Big Boutique for work of local crafters, Centerpiece Boutique for latest fashions, Claire & Co for European antiques, and House Boutique for vintage, shabby chic, and gifts.
DO: Scary Strokes – Indoor Mini-Golf, Waldorf
It’s all about dark, black-light spooky merriment at this unique arcade and mini-golf course.
TASTE: Patuxent Brewery, Waldorf
Enjoy a nod to Mallows Bay, “Sunken Sips IPA,” at this 100% minority-owned brewery.
TASTE: BlueDyer Distilling, Waldorf
This popular place is still family owned and run, many generations down the line.
Where to Eat in La Plata MD and Greater Charles County
The Charles is by far, the most recommended spot in La Plata for locally sourced, “real food.” Casual and a bit rustic, dishes at the “only Farm to Table restaurant in Charles County” are reliably great.
Burgers, and almost all menu items, really, are terrific, but if you only order one thing, make it the incredible Kung Pow Brussels.
The attached Charles Market sells locally made foodstuffs from Maryland.
EAT: Marie’s Diner, La Plata MD
Early morning, if you’re looking for anyone in La Plata, start at Marie’s. It’s the place to meet and get deals done, in town. At 8:30am on a random Tuesday morning, the dining room was, to my eye, packed. “Oh, honey, this is nothing,” said my waitress. “There’s usually a line to get in.”
Marie’s is an authentic, adorable diner where gossip is doled out along with signature plate-sized pancakes. The home-fries are some of the best I’ve ever had.
EAT: Bobby Rucci’s Deli and Italian Restaurant, White Plains MD
Down in MD, they call calzones “doughboys” – and that’s what Rucci’s is known for. But, from the looks of it, during mid-week lunchtime, this white linen spot also excels in business and political meetups over toothsome “Overstuffed Signature Subs,” specialty pizzas, salads, pasta dishes, and something called, “Death by Grilled Cheese,” which consists of ¼ lb. beef, cheese, sausage, and onion rings. All for $18.95.
COFFEE/BREAKFAST: Wee Bean Coffee Roasters, La Plata MD
This “Mission driven” sustainable coffee roaster literally just opened (May 2021) in what was a pancake house. Owner Erich Herrmann had obviously built a huge following from the mobile food truck he ran for six years prior. Traffic was backed up on the road, as fans new and old jockeyed for parking spaces. Yes, the coffee – and the food, is that good.
Herrmann sources beans from all over the world, and likes to educate his diverse customer base about the indignities of what’s called “Fair Trade” (it fixes prices, so when demand goes up, small independent growers don’t share in the profits) and “Organic” (very costly to have certified).
BAKERY/ICE CREAM: Charles St. Bakery, La Plata MD
Every small town needs a decent bakery, and ice cream shop. La Plata has that and more. The Charles St. Bakery excels in Wedding and Special Occasion cakes. Some are downright extraordinary.
EAT: Locals Recommend
Lucianna’s for fine dining, Galazio’s for casual Greek-Mediterranean,
EAT: Crab Houses
This being Maryland, you’ve got to try at least one authentic Crab House. Locals recommend Captain John’s, Captain Billy’s, and Gilligan’s.
Where to Stay in La Plata MD and Charles County
For now, there are, for the most part, chain hotels in Charles County. I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in La Plata (next door to the Best Western La Plata), a decent accommodation perfectly located to explore downtown.
The majority of chain lodgings are in Waldorf – which is convenient to the Maryland Blue Crab stadium – about 20 minutes from La Plata.