From its headwaters in Sussex County, Delaware, to its mouth at Tangier Sound in Dorchester County, Maryland, the Nanticoke River flows for close to 64 miles through one of the most pristine watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Significant portions of the Nanticoke’s watershed are protected by state parks, wildlife refuges and natural heritage sites, and the river is also home to an array of historical and cultural landmarks. Whether you’re a first-time traveler to the Nanticoke or a frequent visitor, discover the natural beauty and unique culture of the waterway by exploring these eight sites.
1. Nanticoke River Water Trail
One of the best ways to journey the Nanticoke’s landscape is on the water. Stretching 26 miles through Sussex County, Delaware, the Nanticoke River Water Trail follows the river to the Maryland state line. The trail overlaps in part with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, allowing paddlers follow the historic voyages Captain John Smith made along the Nanticoke. Waterways also offer some of the only access to protected wildlife areas, such as the Nanticoke portions of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
The nearly 725,000 acres of land that flow into the Nanticoke River are home to a diverse range of wildlife, including more than 100 rare species. To protect some of that wildlife habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gradually been adding parcels of land along the Nanticoke to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge—the main portion of which is located near Cambridge, Maryland. Since 1993, close to 1,500 acres along the Nanticoke have been incorporated into the refuge, including the home of one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles in the northeastern United States.
3. Trap Pond State Park
One of Delaware’s first state parks, Trap Pond near Laurel, Delaware, sits along one of the upstream tributaries of the Nanticoke. The park is home to the northernmost natural stand of bald cypress trees in the United States, and nearby James Branch Nature Preserve and Trussum Pond are also home to bald cypress stands. Visitors can hike, kayak, canoe, fish and more throughout the park’s more than 2,600 acres.
4. Nanticoke Heritage Byway & Woodland Ferry
This driving route gives a tour of Sussex County, Delaware, passing through Seaford, Bethel and Laurel before ending at Trap Pond State Park. Visitors can enjoy both nature and culture as they drive through scenic farmland, forests and historic towns.
Part of the byway includes crossing over the Nanticoke River on the historic Woodland Ferry, a 200-year-old ferry boat that is one of the oldest continuously running ferries in the United States. But don’t worry, you won’t have to leave your car: the ferry can fit six vehicles at a time as it crosses the 500-foot river span.
5. Seaford Museum & Governor Ross Mansion
Operated by the Seaford Historical Society, the Seaford Museum is dedicated to commemorating the history of Seaford, Delaware, which sits on the banks of the Nanticoke. More than 60 exhibits portray the area’s history and culture, including the life of native tribes, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the shipbuilding industry and the Nanticoke River’s connection to the Chesapeake Bay.
Just up the road from the museum is the Governor Ross Mansion & Plantation, also operated by the Seaford Historical Society. The estate was once owned by William Henry Harrison Ross, who was governor of Delaware from 1851 to 1855. Visitors can tour the restored Victorian Italianate mansion, see the only documented log slave quarters in Delaware and explore the 20 acres that remain of the original 1,400-acre plantation.
6. Handsell & Chicone Village
In 1665, Thomas Taylor received a land grant called “Handsell,” giving him 700 acres of land along the Nanticoke River, which he established as a trading post with the Nanticoke and Chicone tribes. Today, the Handsell plantation house—built on the site in 1837—is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the surrounding 1,400 acres are protected by a Rural Legacy Conservation Easement.
To honor the Eastern Woodland tribes who once lived on the land, Chicone Village was constructed: a replica longhouse—built using the materials and techniques that would have been available pre-1600—along with a waddle-fenced garden and lean-to work shelter. Both Handsell and the Chicone Village are open year-round during daylight hours. The Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance also hosts an annual Chicone Village Day each spring, when native interpreters and tribal representatives come to Handsell to celebrate their history.
7. Adkins Historical & Museum Complex
Dozens of small, historic towns dot the landscape of the lower Eastern Shore. One such small town is Mardela Springs, Maryland, which sits along the shores of Barren Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River. Many of the town’s less than 400 current residents can trace their ancestry back to the mid-1600s, when the town was first settled and known as Barren Creek Springs.
To preserve the town’s history, the Adkins Complex has preserved ten historical buildings, each furnished as closely as possible to the period it was built. The complex includes the Brattan- Young’s Purchase Farmhouse, built in 1724; Taylor Country Store, built in 1838; and the Cannery Warehouse, built in 1903. Tours are free and open to the public by appointment.
8. Sussex County Potato Houses
The mild climate and rich soil of Sussex County, Delaware, once made the area a hot spot for growing sweet potatoes. In 1868, the Delaware State Directory said, “the sweet potatoes of southern Delaware have a richness and a sweetness of flavor” not found in potatoes from other states. But a potato blight in the 1940s destroyed most of the crops, removing many farmers’ primary source of income.
Today, one of the only standing reminders of the area’s sweet potato industry are the potato houses: structures built to store and cure potatoes before they could be sold. Fewer than 15 of the houses have survived, most of them along the banks of the Nanticoke and its tributaries, and all are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What’s your favorite spot along the Nanticoke River? Tell us in the comments!
For close to a decade, scientists and volunteers have spent their springs at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery, working to rebuild populations of American shad.
In this small building near Bethel, Del., hundreds of thousands of American shad are raised each year before they are returned to their native spawning grounds in the Nanticoke River. This spring, the hatchery stocked about 558,000 fish to the waterway.
In the early 1900s, excessive commercial harvests took a heavy toll on American shad. Over the past century, poor water quality and the construction of dams that restrict the anadromous fish’s access to upstream spawning grounds have caused shad populations to decline.
Today, restoration efforts are giving American shad a much-needed population boost. Restocking programs across the Chesapeake Bay watershed—combined with harvest restrictions, improved water quality and the removal of dams—are critical to the re-establishment of the species.
American shad spend most of their lives in brackish and saltwater before returning to their birth waters to spawn. The Nanticoke Shad Hatchery collects its brood stock directly from the Nanticoke River and its Deep Creek tributary to ensure adult fish will return to the waterway and to preserve the genetic integrity of the local shad population.
Throughout the spring spawning season, which runs from mid-March through April, mature shad that are held in the hatchery’s closely monitored, 3,500-gallon spawning tanks periodically release eggs and sperm.
On the morning after an overnight spawning event, pea-sized eggs are filtered into an egg collection tank.
“Bad eggs” are removed from the tank before fertilized eggs are measured by volume and placed in incubation jars to grow.
Eggs that survive to the “eyed” stage are moved to one of four culture tanks, where they will hatch into larval fish within a week.
After a few more days spent in the safety of the culture tanks, the larval fish absorb their nutritive yolk sac and transform into fry that are ready to feed on their own in their natural habitat.
Before the hatchery-produced fish are released into the Nanticoke River, scientists mark them with oxytetracycline. Tracking the fish will allow scientists to gauge their survival and stocking success over time.
Six years of sampling surveys on the Nanticoke River show that adult American shad abundance has increased, while the number of hatchery-produced juveniles has decreased. According to hatchery manager Mike Stengl, this suggests the hatchery is succeeding in its long-term goal: to reduce the percentage of hatchery-grown fish in the river and encourage the wild population to spawn on its own.
Success at the Nanticoke Shad Hatchery and at other hatcheries across the region are giving American shad a second chance at survival in the watershed.
View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Three Delaware towns have received grant funding and technical assistance to create habitat and improve water quality in Delaware's tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
The towns of Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel, located along the Route 13 corridor in Sussex County, have set their sights on curbing stormwater runoff to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek.
When rainfall runs across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, it can pick up pollutants before washing down storm drains and into local waterways. By using best management practices—think rain barrels, green roofs or forested buffers along the shores of streams and rivers—to target the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay, these Delaware towns can help position the state to meet its pollution reduction goals.
The Town of Greenwood, for instance, will restore a buffer of native vegetation along a tax ditch that drains into the Nanticoke River, establishing habitat and reducing stormwater runoff from two industrial buildings in the heart of the community.
The neighboring towns of Laurel and Bethel will develop plans to bring green infrastructure to Broad Creek, stabilizing stream banks, reducing stormwater discharge and eliminating local flooding. Bethel might even implement innovative practices in the oldest part of town, bringing permeable pavement and living shorelines to the town's historic district.
"The projects in Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel will improve the water quality of our local streams and rivers, reduce flooding and enhance the quality of life for local communities," said Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O'Mara. "By ... working together, we are securing resources necessary to ensure that our waterways are safe, swimmable and fishable for current and future generations."
Funding for the Greenwood project, totaling $35,000, was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.Technical assistance for the initiatives in Laurel and Bethel, valued at $100,000, was awarded through NFWF's Local Government Capacity Building Initiative. To learn more about the projects, visit the DNREC website.
The National Park Service, with support of five states, has designated four rivers – the Susquehanna, Chester, upper Nanticoke and upper James – as new sections of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
(Image courtesy Michael Land/National Park Service)
Recognition of these connecting waterways adds 841 miles to the 3,000-mile-long trail and underscores their significance to the history, cultural heritage and natural resources of the Chesapeake region.
Joel Dunn, executive director of Chesapeake Conservancy said, “These [connecting] trails provide a focus around which communities can engage in efforts to increase recreational use of the Chesapeake's great rivers and protect the river corridors and landscapes. This kind of conservation helps communities celebrate their history and culture, protect wildlife habitat, and protect lands that have unique ecological values.”
The designation comes after considerable collaboration between the National Park Service, the five states through which these rivers flow, numerous American Indian tribes and strong support of the conservation community. The National Park Service will work closely with these partners to provide technical and financial assistance, manage resources, enhance facilities, and mark and promote interpretive routes along the connecting trails.
Visit the Chesapeake Conservancy’s website to learn more about these new rivers and the entire Smith Trail.