by Kris Ankarlo

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WNEW) — Standing in the shadow of the burnt out remnants of an ancient mansion, a sweeping view rolls out before me of the Rhode River as it meets the Chesapeake.

“We know tobacco farming had a largely intense effect on the environment. It eroded the soil a whole lot, and drained it of nutrients, which we’ve realized now,” says Kristen Minogue, media relations coordinator with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

From this hillside, the connection between the land and the bay is clear. In the almost 400 years of European habitation, mistakes have been made damaging Maryland’s most treasured resource. Now, scientists at SERC are working hard to make sure similar mistakes are avoided along coastal zones around the world.
And the almost 2,700 acre complex offers a chance to get a close up look into the Chesapeake coastal ecosystem.

“The point is that we need to relate the research that is going on here that helps everybody to explain and know the connection people have to the environment. That connection is also synonymous with how we change the environment,” says SERC Director of Education Mark Haddon.

SERC is about 25 minutes south of Annapolis off of Muddy Branch Road. The road leading to the Reed Education Center winds along rolling hills and antiquated plantations before diving deep into the woods. Behind the center is a floating dock for launching kayaks and canoes. You can launch your own canoe or take a
self-guided hike of the four miles of trail.

“We have three main trails that are open to the public that provide a variety of venues to see different ecosystems: marshland, old forest, new forest, old fields.”

Haddon says there are also some research sites adjacent to the trail.

SERC is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They do ask visitors to sign in at the Reed Educational Center. It’s a simple thing to do for a great experience.

“During the different seasons it looks very beautiful. So there’s a chance to see bald eagles, osprey, muskrats an array of turtles.”

Haddon also says there’s a resident water snake that’s spotted from time to time; but there’s no need to worry … it’s not poisonous.

If you are looking to go another layer deeper at SERC, it’s important to plan ahead. The center offers guided hikes and canoe trips to the public, but only on specific dates, or with advance notice. They also offer chances to volunteer and help with research. That also requires some advance planning. Check their website for more information.

“The key is that in our activities we help the participants understand some of the processes that are going on in our environment,” Haddon says. “Some of the connections that they probably never knew were connections, which only better helps them to understand the bigger picture and their part in it.”

The grounds have a fascinating, and perhaps controversial, history. Much of the land was once tobacco plantation that relied on slave labor.

“The legend is that John Contee bought it with bounty money from the War of 1812,” Minogue says. “We do know that he was on-board the USS Constitution when it defeated the HMS Java. And he did name this plantation the Java plantation either as a tribute, or a kind of gloating. We’re not quite sure.”

Minogue also says there’s no certainty that Contee bought the land with the bounty, “but it’s a great story.”

And today, as the USS Constitution still floats in Boston Harbor, only the burnt shell of a mansion remains of Contee’s plantation.

“In 2010 shortly after we acquired this part of the property we did an archeological excavation around it,” says Minogue. “We’re mostly about the environment here, but we’re also about a little history. We want to figure out who lived here before us, how did they live and how what they did impacts the world today.”

For more, visit

Follow Kris and WNEW on Twitter.