9 Dec 2020
By Kathi Ferguson
Tucked away along the meandering Nanticoke River, sits the small Chesapeake Bay town of Vienna. First explored by Captain John Smith during his historic voyage in 1608, Vienna has found its place as one of the oldest colonial settlements in the state of Maryland.
Established in 1706, Vienna thrived on trade, tobacco farming, and shipbuilding, with a ferry service for crossing the river being established in 1671. From about 1768 to 1866, Vienna served as the official port for customs collection in the area—one of three on the Eastern Shore. The town’s former Customs House, reported to be the oldest surviving in Maryland, was built in 1791 and is located at the corner of Church and Water streets. Also still standing is the old ferry tender’s house, which would end up serving as the Vienna Town Hall for many years after 1932.
It was in 1926 that the town of Vienna was selected by the Eastern Shore Gas and Electric Company for the location of a new coal fired electric generating plant. Coupled with a then booming agricultural industry and a fur and fishing trade on the Nanticoke, an economic engine for Vienna was provided for many decades.
Today, Vienna strikes the perfect balance between historic character and modern discovery.
In the heart of town on Race Street is the Vienna Heritage Museum, dedicated to preserving Vienna’s rural and industrial history. The building once operated as the Hurst and Brother Service Station and Confectionary Shop from the 1920s until the 1970s. Contained in the museum are a potpourri of antiques, artifacts, photos and memorabilia from Vienna and the surrounding area. It is also home to the unique machinery from the Elliot’s Island mother-of-pearl button factory, the last commercial manufacturer of this type of button in the United States.
Among those dwelling along Vienna’s shores when Smith arrived were the Nanticoke Indians. Smith recorded that nearly 200 warriors lived with their families along the river at that time, making their tribe more significant in population than others in the region. A stop at the Captain John Smith Nanticoke River Discovery Center on “Old Ocean Gateway” offers visitors a glimpse into the Nanticoke’s lifestyle and culture. The Center also serves as a very important spot along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and is home to the Nanticoke River Watershed Alliance.
To stroll along Vienna’s waterfront is more than just a walk in the park. After the town acquired the former industrial properties along the water, dilapidated structures were replaced with a new river walk, a gazebo, and several transient floating docks were constructed. Lined with renovated historic properties, Water Street provides the park with the perfect scenic backdrop.
This jewel of a town really lights up during the holidays. Each year since 1981, Vienna hosts its annual Luminaria event. This holiday tradition features 1,500 glowing luminaries along the streets, home tours, horse-drawn carriage rides, and other activities. It is a special hospitality time for Vienna as it supports customs from the past. While the exact origin for the custom of luminarias unknown, one suggestion is that the lights are symbolic of the shepherds’ bonfires the night Christ was born. Or it could be that they serve to guide the Christ Child to one’s door.
A historic crossroads village dating from colonial times, the town of Vienna has managed to preserve much of its history, charm, and quiet lifestyle for over three centuries, and has become a popular destination for present day explorers.