I was standing on the roof in bright sun gazing at water on three sides. The view of the Chesapeake Bay was stunning and I could begin to imagine British warships approaching the property. Just over two hundred years ago, that was the scene. The British were headed to attack the nearby town of St. Michaels, Maryland, and damage its shipbuilding industry. It was one of their many raids of towns around the Chesapeake and the Great Bandit himself, as the newspapers dubbed Rear Admiral George Cockburn, was directing.
But my great interest in this property, today called the Wade’s Point Inn, was in its builder, Thomas Kemp. Most Americans have never heard of Kemp, but Kemp had a national reputation in the early 1800’s because his shipyard in Fells Point in Baltimore built some of the most famous ships of the day. And, he is one of the main characters in my upcoming book, Star Spangled. Unfortunately no images of him are known to exist.
Kemp had grown up near St. Michaels, served as an apprentice in a local shipyard, and then moved to Baltimore’s Fells Point to practice the trade. He soon built his own shipyard and was producing ships like the Rossie, the Rolla, the Comet, and the Chasseur (the pride of Baltimore). These privateers were causing great damage to British shipping, one reason why the British found Baltimore such an irresistible target during the War of 1812. Of course the British did attack and the American military repelled the invasion. Kemp’s shipyard was safe. But after the War ended in early 1815, the shipbuilding boom slowed and Kemp moved back to his Wade’s Point property. He began building a house for his growing family and that house eventually became the gracious inn there today.
Kemp, the ship designer, spend much time designing his house and overseeing its construction. Diaries he kept during construction were found under the porch and are held in local archives today.
It seems that Kemp the house builder maintained his strong ties to the shipbuilding industry. The owner took me into a bedroom on the top floor, opened a closet, took out some clothes, and revealed a secret door at the back. Through the open door, ancient steps led up to the lookout, a small room with windows where Kemp could go to watch traffic on the Chesapeake, specifically his ships.
Sadly Kemp only enjoyed the house for a few years before he passed away in 1824 at age 45. Only a short walk from the main house, a small family graveyard includes his simple marker.
Sometime after 1876, the Kemp family decided that the traffic coming across the bay from the west shore might merit creating a summer resort. They built additions onto it and today the property features 26 rooms. At the other end of the house, we climbed another set of steps and opened a large metal door to go onto the captain’s walk, the flat roof area where a group of people could go for the breeze and the view (and get baked in the process!) It has got to be one of the highest views around. In this area of vast water views and wetlands, there are no mountains in sight.
The property has been an inn since the 1870s, purchased from the Kemp family by the current owners in the 1980s. It is a bucolic retreat for sure, and I think Thomas Kemp would be happy that the place he enjoyed so much has been welcoming guests for over one hundred years. I wonder how many British guests have stayed there!
[When I began writing Star Spangled, I had no idea that Kemp’s home was an inn.]