Gem of the Nanticoke

Like fishermen with their favorite fishing holes, Vienna, Md., gives boaters a special place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to call their own.

Sandwiched between landmark reaches on the twisting Nanticoke River is the old town of Vienna. One of only three communities on the northern side of the river from the Chesapeake Bay to Seaford, Del., the town of 300 residents holds special riparian delights for the weekend boater. Just 10 miles from the mouth of the Nanticoke, Vienna is a village offering history in architecture and a picture-perfect waterfront. 

Mayor Russell Brinsfield’s home faces the river on a street shared by a sprinkling of homes from the 18th century and Victorian years. His house is just a few homes away from the Governor Thomas Holiday Hick’s House, built by the man credited with keeping Maryland neutral during the Civil War. Across the street is the Lewis House, the town’s only brick house dating to the Civil War. Builder James Kendal Lewis declared at the time that it was, “A house the damn Yankee’s couldn’t burn.” 

The homes on Water Street overlook the pride and joy of Vienna, a to-die-for waterfront park with 12 slips for recreational boaters and an almost quarter-mile-long river walk. “This is the only place like this on the Nanticoke River. We have yachts 60-foot-long that can tie up here. We have a beautiful pavilion and facilities with electrical outlets and restrooms nearby for parties, weddings and social events,” Brinsfield said. “Over the past fifteen years, there has been about $10 million spent here by the state helping us improve the town and waterfront. All this has been made possible by Program Open Space and the Waterway Improvement Fund, state programs. When we started this about 15 years ago, Vienna was looking kind of ragged. Now,” Brinsfield says with a smile, “we really are new and improved. We just received another $100,000 Waterway Improvement Fund grant to put in another 10 or so floating slips.”  Dockage is free. “There’s no charge to tie up for a day or weekend—or even a week,” Brinsfield said. “We want people to leave with a good feeling about Vienna and to tell their friends about this great little place.” 

Vienna has no stoplights or police force. There’s a single convenience store and just one restaurant—Millie’s Roadhouse, a classic small-town-America watering hole.

But, it features a spacious, modern boat ramp. The town offers free open-air concerts in the riverside pavilion. There are also two one-room museums in town—The Captain John Smith Welcome and Discovery Center and the Vienna Heritage Museum. The 18th-century landmark Old Tavern House Bed & Breakfast is just a few yards from the Customs House, a National Historic Landmark dating to the mid-1700s when Vienna was a port of entry for ocean-going ships. A self-guided walking tour highlights numerous points of interest to visitors.

Millie’s Roadhouse is a five-minute stroll from the dock, or you can call the restaurant, and someone will come pick you up in a golf cart. Millie’s attracts colorful Vienna personalities—farmers, watermen, hunters and visitors with its six-dollar burgers, crabcakes ($12.99), flounder and steaks. Millie and Greg Cusik have been serving customers since 1998. The riverfront improvements have changed their business and the town. “From mid-May through October we have a lot of trade from boaters. Having that beautiful dock on the river and good places for them to tie up has really increased boat traffic. Vienna really is a diamond in the rough. It’s quaint, undeveloped and has a gorgeous waterfront,” the Cusiks say.

According to the mayor, they have worked hard to preserve the precious small-town appeal by limiting growth. As a result of his and the town council’s work, Vienna has barely outgrown the original boundaries of the township laid out in the 1708.  “The idea is to curtail growth to about 1,000 people here,” says Brinsfield. “We have a green-belt south of town that ensures the town’s southern boundary is fixed. Any new homes in the future will have to mirror the architecture of what’s in old-town Vienna. We annexed the southern waterfront too, so any new homes will have to be set back from the shoreline, just like those in Vienna.”

Concerned that the rerouted Route 50, which used to pass through Vienna in the 1980s, was diverting traffic and tourists from the town, Brinsfield capitalized on something Vienna had that no other community in Dorchester County offered: a spectacular view of the river. Since the river walk and slips were constructed, there’s been plenty of foot and water traffic to the town. 

“All we’ve done here has sure paid off. Vienna is looking better all the time,” he says.

­—Brice Stump