For decades, Captain Bill Behlke has loaded up his river cruiser, the Ellen B to take guests on a two-hour boat tour of the upper Choptank River out of Denton, Maryland. When he and his wife Gloria decided to retire, they chose a local family as their successors.
“We’ve always been boat people,” says Captain Allan Thomason, pointing to the family’s 28-foot center console docked nearby. “And we’ve known the Behlkes all our lives.”
The Thomasons thought they had lots of time to plan out the transfer of ownership of the River Run Cruise Company, but when Captain Bill asked if they could buy the boat earlier than originally planned, the family had a decision to make.
“We knew if we didn’t buy it, the Ellen B would probably be sold up north and its legacy would be lost to the community,” Katie Thomason says. “Now the business will remain in the community, and we can pursue our passion here at home.”
The new cruise team took the helm in June, renamed the business River City Cruise Company, and it’s a completely family affair. Daughter Kennedy Thomason was a natural choice to lead the river tours. She has deep roots in the community, extensive knowledge of the region and is a history major at Washington College.
“Many people come specifically for the Underground Railroad portion of the tour. I do like to include it but I want people to learn more about Denton and Caroline County as well,” she says. “I want them to come away with a more well-rounded experience instead of one specific piece of history. And there’s so many locations I can point out. It’s a culmination of everything I can get my hands on.”
Soon after Captain Thomason pulls away from the dock, passengers enjoy fruit, pastries, and beverages, accompanied by an entirely different view of the area. The sight of the railroad bridge on land is nothing like up close and personal from the water. Homeowners whose property faces River Road on land have turned their waterside backyards into personal oases, some with dockside tiki bars, and at least one small sand beach.
The river cruise’s primary focus is history and nature. And Kennedy Thomason comes prepared with historic documents, and well-researched, thought-provoking, and sometimes surprising facts. She is passionate about pirate lore and cruise guests get to learn the real reason pirates wear eyepatches, the difference between a privateer and a pirate and the legend of nearby buried treasure. Local maritime history includes shipbuilding in unlikely places.
The cruise company offers a variety of public and private tours of the Choptank River, including crab feasts, team-building activities, birthday parties, and retirement parties. They also work with local groups and have partnered with Delmarva Birding Weekends’ Boating and Birding on the Harriet Tubman Byway excursion.
Along with stories about Tubman and the location of a hidden tunnel, Kennedy shares the story of two formerly enslaved brothers reunited in adulthood by serendipitous chance.
Floating along the river, cruisers can expect to see a nest full of baby ospreys a few feet away from the boat, learn about the Tuckahoe root and how it was used as bread, and be thrilled by the legend of the red handprint in the Denton jail that just won’t disappear.
“The best part of this venture is that it’s a family business,” adds Katie Thomason. “Just being around people, our family and community—especially our retirement community members—we have so much fun with these individuals who don’t get out often. We enjoy making their day and seeing their enjoyment. It’s all about building a life and business and keeping it all here.”