Home | Whats New | Site Index | Search

St Michaels Historic District

Town of St Michaels, Talbot County, MD

Photo: Harrison House Green Street, built ca. 1790 by carpenter, Thomas Harrison, Jr.; copyright © 2018, Philip H. Krugler, photographer.


The St. Michaels Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

The St. Michaels Historic District is significant for its association with: 18th‑century town planning in Tidewater Maryland. The district comprises the original 58 lots laid out around a green square in 1778 as a speculative development for a Liverpool merchant firm. Few 18th century town plans in Maryland reserved open space for other than residential use; in the case of St. Michaels, the square was intended to accommodate a Methodist meetinghouse. As St. Michaels grew through the l9th century, the grid pattern was expanded, and the original development remained intact. The District derives additional significance from its architecture, especially the outstanding collection of Federal period brick and frame houses including relatively high-style examples as well as an exceptionally large of 1‑1/2 story, one room wide by two rooms deep houses; the ladder type exemplifies a traditional middle class dwelling form whose distribution in Maryland was limited to the Eastern Shore and of which few examples survive.

Unusual to the Eastern Shore and Maryland in general, the town of St. Michaels began as the result of a consciously planned development scheme by James Braddock, a factor of a Liverpool merchant firm in 1778. JHe recorded his power of attorney to serve as agent for Gildart and Gawith in 1775 at the Talbot County Courthouse. The Gildart family had been trading in the West Indies and the American colonies from the early 1700s, dealing in general merchandise and the transportation of slaves, convicts and indentured servants. Business dealings were carried on with such distinguished families as the Washingtons of Virginia abd the Carrolls of Maryland. At the time James Braddock was sent to Maryland, James Gildart was in serious financial trouble, apparently from unwise speculation, possibly related to the growing unrest in the North American colonies.

In 1775 Braddock began purchasing land in the vicinity of St. Michaels church, and by early 1778 had acquired parts of tracts known as Chance, Elliot's Lot, Davenport, Bentley Bay, Janes Progress and The Beach. At the time of his last purchase in 1779 he held more than 200 acres.

The Janes Progress and The Beach tracts were most significant with respect to the original plan of St. Michaels. This was part of the two tracts totalling 127 acres which Braddock obtained at an auction of the real estate of Philip Weatheral in 1778. This comprised the land that Braddock laid out for the town.

The St. Michaels development was probably a financial disaster for Gildart and Gawith, but there can be no doubt that the new town, though small, was firmly established by the end of the Revolution. This is in marked contrast to neighboring Oxford which suffered a rapid decline from 1775 onward. Oxford's economy, based on an already failing tobacco trade, was decimated by the War and superseded forever by rapidly expanding Baltimore. St. Michaels had the advantage of a new venture offering small plots on a sheltered harbor to men of moderate means with craft‑related skills. Surrounded by a rich agrarian community of large and small plantations, St. Michaels also prospered as a center for the boat building industry and was the heir to rich oyster beds in Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

During. the first two decades of the nineteenth century St. Michaels. like Talbot County in general, entered a most prosperous period resulting from a vibrant agrarian and trade economy. In addition, ship building and other craft related businesses contributed to the overall prosperity of the era. Reflective of these financial successes is a collection of fine Federal period houses erected during the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Shortly after the construction of these Federal period houses, the War of 1812 threatened the accumulated successes of St. Michaels residents. On the night of August 10, 1813, British gunboats fired on the town. Local traditions relate that one cannon balL entered the house of William Merchant, hence its nickname.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the town outgrew its early boundaries, resulting in the division of adjacent land into building lots. Located along the west side of Talbot Street, "Canton Row" was divided in 1843 into leasable lots. North of Carpenter Street along current Cherry and Willow streets, Harrison family. land was divided into additional building lots, beginning during the 1840s. Later, during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, Thompson's Square and Dr. John Miller's Addition were subdivided and improved on the south and west sides of the original town.

Several factors contributed to the explosive growth of St. Michaels dur-\ing the second half of the nineteenth century. An extremely lucrative, oyster trade was developing during this period and Talbot County's grain based agriculture was benefiting from several decades of improved soil husbandry and agricultural reform. Improved transportation networks through rail and steamboat expedited trade with larger markets in Baltimore and Annapolis, and by 1891-1892 the population of St. Michaels exceeded 1200. By 1871, St. Michaels boasted an impressive cross-section of craftsmen, commercial ventures, and industry.

Representative of the expanded town population and productivity are large sections of mid to late nineteenth century houses built on the periphery of the old Braddock town lots. Victorian houses and other structures were obviously erected in the old town as well, in fact both the Episcopal and Methodist congregations erected new churches during the 1870s. The Episcopalians erected an ambitious granite structure in 1878, while the Methodists had moved from their St. Mary's Square site to erect an Italianate style brick chruch on,Main Street in 1871. The Union M. E. congregation waited until 1895 to erect their impressive frame church on the corner of Fremont Street and Railroad Avenue.

During the first decades of the twentieth century St. Michaels continued to grow, albeit at a reduced pace. Plentiful supplies of oysters in the Bay and immediate access to outside markets via the railroad continued to serve St. Michaels until the mid twentieth century. As a result, the town limits expanded further south to include additional lots with modest early twentieth century bungalow style dwellings of the pre‑Depression years. The Depression effectively halted development in St. Michaels: following the second World War, the agrarian economy and seafood industry revived, resultilng in the construction of additional Colonial influenced houses in the southeast part of town {outside the_historic.district). Beginning about 1970, tourism and recreation sparked a renaissance in St. Michaels, and many of the historic buildings were sensitively rehabilitated or restored.

† Adapted from St. Michaels Historic District, National Register nomination document, 1986, Paul Touart, Architectual Historian, Historic St. Michaels/Bay Hundred. Accessed July 2020, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, www.nps.gov.

Street Names
Canton Street • Cherry Street • Chestnut Street • Chew Avenue • Freemont Street • Grace Street • Green Street • Locust Street • Mill Street • Mulberry Street • Railroad Avenue • St Marys Square • Talbot Street • Thompson Street • Thompsons Alley • Water Street • Willow Street