The Whitehaven Ferry dates back to 1685 and is the oldest publicly operated ferry in the country. Although Whitehaven is one of the oldest incorporated towns on the Eastern Shore (1753), nearly all of the buildings in the town date to the 1800s, with only the plantation house, Bolton, dating to the 18th century.
Circa 1810, what is now the Whitehaven Hotel was first built as a two-and-a-half story road-house or private home. In the late 1800s, the Village of Whitehaven (then spelled White Haven) was a vibrant riverfront community with shipyards, a canning factory, a new school and church, and several stores. To meet the region’s burgeoning demand for lodging, the building (sitting along the Wicomico River and the Whitehaven Ferry) went through its first major expansion in approximately 1877 and opened as a hotel. The hotel served steamship passengers including salesmen who traveled among the region’s farming communities. The hotel also drew guests by horse who crossed the ferry which connected several important Eastern Shore towns, including Princess Anne, Quantico and Vienna. At this time, a store was attached to the west end of the original building (literally by rolling it down the street and nailing it on) and a mansard roof replaced the pitched roof.
At the turn of the century, the hotel was expanded again as a dining room, kitchen and more guest rooms were added, including a high style Victorian quarters for the innkeeper. At some point the open roof between the first and second floors of the store was filled in to make more rooms, where it is said salesmen could sleep four to a bed for twenty-five cents. By 1910, an addition on the south side filled in the u-shaped structure with a bar, possibly replacing a second-floor porch. This bar operated into the 1950s. Accounts of stopping by the Hotel can be found in River of Rogues and The Entailed Hat.
Weary travelers in River of Rogues—an account of 18th-century life by A.R. Beverly Giddings—stop at the Whitehaven Hotel to sip iced rum punch beneath a tulip tree.
World War I provided a boost to Whitehaven’s shipyards, but river traffic and commerce eventually shifted to Salisbury. During prohibition, the “Whippoorwill Gang” was said to operate nearby. A secret door in the Hotel store is thought to have been used for passing liquor to customers who had first been given the once-over. As the village’s fortunes declined, the hotel became a private residence and closed shortly after World War II.
The present restoration, which started in late 1997, is reversing nearly 50 years of neglect and bringing this jewel of the Eastern Shore back to its stately appearance. While you’re waiting for the Whitehaven Ferry, it’s easy to imagine former (and future) guests relaxing on the porch while enjoying the early-evening views and breezes.