Southern Maryland Matters and Mavens: Dr. Ralph Eshelman


What if I told you that today, I met a specialist on polar exploration that has called Southern Maryland home since 1974, would that get your attention? What if I told you that he has visited every continent, and been to Antarctica over fifty times. And what if I told you this is only the tip of the iceberg, would you be intrigued?

Credit: Ralph Eshelman

In what I can only describe as the only man that can make the world’s most interesting man jealous, and Ken Burns take notice, I present to you, Dr. Ralph Eshelman.

Ralph, as he prefers to be called, is a world-class adventurer, historian, author, and proud Eagle Scout, whose merit badges of accomplishments ought to be treasured.

Ralph’s Beginnings

To understand and appreciate Ralph a little more, it’s better to learn a little more about his early history. “My mother and father always supported me in my interests whether it was astronomy, paleontology, or the thrill of being outdoors hiking and camping,” Ralph recalls fondly. “My high school advanced biology teacher made everyone in her class do a science fair project. After we chose our topics, she went out and found a mentor for each of us. My project was the Paleontology of the District of Columbia, where I then lived and went to school. My mentor was Dr. Frank C. Whitmore, Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist for the US Geological Survey at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. I was permitted to be absent Wednesday afternoon from school in order to take a bus to the mall and work on my science fair project with Dr. Whitmore. After my science fair project was over, I continued to volunteer and was hired as a summer Physical Science aid for two summers” Ralph stated.

Ralph Eshelman went on earning his Bachelors of Science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in earth and space science with a minor in zoology; a Master of Science degree followed from the University of Iowa in geology and vertebrate paleontology, with a minor in museum studies. And off to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he received his Ph.D. in 1974 from the University of Michigan with a major in geology and vertebrate paleontology, and a minor in ecology. “Frank (Dr. Frank C. Whitmore, Jr) served as a mentor to me through my doctorate program and found a job for me as the first director of the Calvert Marine Museum.” Recalls, Ralph. While employed at the Calvert Marine Museum he was permitted to continue his research at the Smithsonian Institution one day a week and was eventually appointed as a Research Associate with a cubicle in the Department of Paleobiology.

The Calvert Marine Museum and the Drum Point Lighthouse – behind the History

Pilings of the original Drum Point Lighthouse on the grounds of Drum Point Club. In the distance also once stood Cedar Point Light. Drum Point Lighthouse was relocated to its current home, the Calvert Marine Museum Credit: Sal Icaza

The Calvert Marine Museum attracts approximately 100,000 visitors yearly, with the Drum Point Lighthouse as a beacon attraction. First lit in 1883, the Drum Point Lighthouse was strategically placed – well, in Drum Point – which is the very point where the often tempestuous waters of Chesapeake Bay, greet the more serene waters of the Patuxent River. The Drum Point Lighthouse was deactivated and simply abandoned in 1962.

Wondering how the Lighthouse made its way up the Patuxent River to the campus of the Museum? Let me shed some light.

As Ralph has pointed out, he was Calvert Marine Museum’s first Director.

Ralph’s oversight was instrumental in relocating the Drum Point Lighthouse from the grounds of Drum Point Club to the Calvert Marine Museum. Moving the Lighthouse was a long-term plan by the Calvert County Historical Society, to preserve it from its imminent deterioration, and to restore it for the benefit of museum-goers and the community.

Stored in vaults of history, we unearthed an incident involving the relocation of the Drum Point Lighthouse. A steam-operated 110-foot-long crane on a barge (shown in the picture) moved the Lighthouse from Drum Point to the Calvert Marine Museum campus; it was already in the river as part of the construction of the Governor Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge. The company that owned and operated said equipment on the Johnson Bridge, was the BF Diamond Construction Company. Rumor had it that the company was cited for illegally dumping concrete into the river. A local judge is said to have used his influence to persuade the company to move the lighthouse in exchange for a more lenient quid pro quo judgment.

Drum Point Lighthouse Credit: Calvert Marine Museum

Polar Explorer

Eventually, Ralph Eshelman’s pinchant for exploration lead him to Patagonia. He found work as a historian, and later as a geologist, as part of an expedition team taking visitors on excursion vessels to Antarctica. “I traveled to the great white continent anywhere from two to five times per season. I spent over six months of my life onboard ships during crossings of the dreaded Drake Passage between Patagonia and Antarctica.” Recalls, Ralph.

Ralph has been everywhere, so I couldn’t help myself but ask him the favorite place that he has visited. Without hesitation, Ralph responded, “My favorite place on earth is South Georgia, where in one viewshed you can see over half a million penguins with snowcapped mountains in the background and tussock grass over six feet tall – an amazing place.” South Georgia is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Author and Historian

Ralph Eshelman is an accomplished author and is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on maritime history and the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake. He is currently working on his next book (working title) Patuxent: An Encyclopedic Pictorial History of Maryland’s Forgotten River which he hopes to publish in 2023.

Ralph cites that his most comprehensive book (with co-authors Scott S. Sheads and Donald R. Hickey) is The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide To Historic Sites In Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

And the most fun book that he has written, and why? Ralph points to, In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake co-authored with Burton K. Kummerow, published by the Maryland Historical Society Press and the Maryland Historical Trust Press. “This full-color book was supported by the National Park Service which enabled us to commission two well-known illustrators to prepare illustrations of events never illustrated before. Having such funding allowed us to include double-page illustrations with high-quality printing.” Added, Ralph. Ralph Eshelman’s books are readily available on Amazon.

As a highly respected and sought-after historian, he was part of the team which wrote the Historic Lighthouse Preservation Handbook for the US Coast Guard, Department of Defense, and National Park Service in 1997. During the same year, he prepared three National Historic Landmark Nominations for masonry-type lighthouse towers, including Cape Hatteras Light Station for the National Maritime Initiative of the National Park Service.

Currently

Ralph is active in several professional and civic organizations including past president of the Council of American Maritime Museums, founding vice-president of the National Maritime Preservation Task Force of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, former vice-president for Science and Stewardship of the Maryland -Washington DC Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Patuxent Riverkeeper, and Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Ralph offered his original, refreshingly non-cliché views on the importance of history: “When people have a knowledge of and an appreciation for history, whether it is local, regional or wider, they gain a better sense of place, and as a consequence , they are more likely to want to preserve the vestiges of history for future generations.”

Make no bones about it, met Ralph and learning more about him, I have found a renewed sense of appreciation for our surroundings. I hope that he’s sparked an interest and curiosity to learn, explore, and make a difference. Thank you for making this journey.


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