An exploratory journey on the upper Bay—from Garrett Island to the Susquehanna Flats and Havre de Grace. 

by John Page Williams
photographs by Michael C. Wootton

I've been wanting to take my college roommate, Jim Garrett, to visit Garrett Island on the Susquehanna River for some time now. The island has been named for his great-great-grandfather, John Work Garrett, since the 1880s, and he hasn't ever visited. This past fall, after all these years, we finally had a second, more practical reason to visit. Jim, who is a founding trustee of the Baltimore Outward Bound Center, needed to evaluate the island as a landing site for a proposed Outward Bound canoe/kayak course. And so, on a crisp morning last October, we launched First Light, my trusty 17-foot Boston Whaler Montauk, in Havre de Grace, and headed off to introduce Jim to his namesake island.

While we were readying First Light at Tidewater Marina, Jim absorbed geographical information from charts while I said a quick hello to my friend Garrett Pensell, the president of Tidewater Marina, who just so happens to be named for Garrett Island. But we couldn't talk long, as Jim was raring to go at the ramp. We headed out to circumnavigate Garrett Island, so Jim could see first-hand how the Susquehanna has sculpted the channels in the water around it. He took particular note of the channel along the Harford shoreline that allows Arundel Corporation to load large barges with stone from its quarry just below the I-95 bridge, and he was surprised to see (on First Light's depthsounder) the gravel bar northeast of it that rises to within only three feet of the surface in the middle of the River. Because there is evidence that sea level was four feet lower when Captain John Smith visited, some historians believe that in those days, the nearshore channel may have been a creek to which he refers in his journal.

After a short jaunt up the river, we reached Garrett Island and slowed down to get a good look at the shoreline and surrounding waters. Garrett Island is really the transition point between the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. From the rocky northern end, looking upstream, you can see the big River's gorge, its waters having flowed down from south-central New York and central Pennsylvania. The southern end, on the other hand, is sandy and ringed by underwater grass beds, pointing out to the six-mile-wide Susquehanna Flats that mark the head of the Chesapeake.

The island is actually the remnant of an ancient volcano that rose to nearly one-hundred feet above sea level. The water here is tidal, since the riverbed meets sea level at Smith's Falls, three miles upstream--between Lapidum, Md., on the west side, in Harford County, and Port Deposit on the east side, in Cecil County. The island serves as a mid-river footing for two bridges, one carrying cars and trucks on U.S. Route 40 and the other trains on the CSX railroad line. Jim Garrett's great-great-grandfather, it's worth mentioning, was President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (predecessor of CSX) when the latter bridge was built.

"It reminds me of the west side of Hurricane Island," Jim remarked as we rounded the rocky northern end. I agreed that it does look like the famous island in Maine where we both worked for Outward Bound in the '60s, though the view upriver was certainly more reminiscent of central Pennsylvania. Garrett is, in fact, the only rocky island in the Chesapeake's coastal plain.

Soon we were headed back down the eastern side of the island, where we marveled at the way the Susquehanna squeezes through the narrow slot between it and the riverside town of Perryville, Md. The narrowness is deceiving; this is the main channel and it's eighty feet deep in some places. It's quite a contrast to the much wider channel on the west side, which extends from in front of Havre de Grace to the I-95 bridge, and which is more like 20 feet deep near the Harford shoreline.
And the Susquehanna has had more than enough time to dig those deep channels around Garrett Island. Archaeologists have documented Native American artifacts there going back over 5,000 years. When Captain Smith and his crew visited the mouth of the Susquehanna in late July of 1608, they found no permanent native villages in the area, but instead a buffer zone between the Iroquoian Susquehannock Indians up the River, the Massawomeck (also Iroquoian) who lived to the west, and the more peaceful Algonkian Tockwogh who lived to the east along the Sassafras River. Although Smith is not precise about the location of his meeting with the Susquehannock chiefs, historians believe that Garrett Island is the logical choice, because its tall promontory offered good lookout views in all directions, while its shoreline provided sheltered landing sites in all weather conditions.

Ironically, Captain Smith decided that the River was only a tributary of the "Great Bay of Chesapeake" and so gave it a name of its own, a mistake that has caused ensuing generations to regard them as separate geographical entities. In fact, the Chesapeake is actually the tidal Susquehanna, the estuary that acts as the settling basin for what is by far the largest river on the Atlantic coast of the United States, in terms of fresh water flow.

Fourteen years after Smith's arrival, King James I granted the island to Edward Palmer in 1622 and named it for him, but Palmer died before visiting it. In 1637, William Claiborne of Virginia established a trading outpost on it, but the Maryland Colony soon claimed it from him. Down through the years, local people farmed it and, in the 1870s, set up fish-processing facilities there that remained into the 1920s. After the construction of the B&O railroad bridge in the 1880s, the island passed through several private owners until 2008, when The Conservation Fund was able to engineer a transfer to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), which manages it as a unit of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Unfortunately, USFWS has had to restrict access to the island because tight budgets have prevented the staff from establishing a permanent presence there. Plans are under discussion to open broader access, but for the moment, there is only a 100-yard stretch of beach on the east side that allows boaters to stop and stretch their legs.

We landed there to do the same, and I took a photo of Jim beside the USFWS sign on the beach. He was delighted to be the first direct Garrett descendent to visit in many years, and was excited with the island's suitability for an organized visit by Baltimore Outward Bound students and staff. There wasn't much else we could do on the island, as the aforementioned sign explicitly prohibits access beyond the beach. But we did poke our noses around the edges, looking at the dense woods that occupy most of the island. There is, or at least once was, a trail around Garrett, but it hasn't seen any maintenance for several years. Another, rougher trail to the summit once existed as well, but even if we were up for breaking the law, we didn't have our machetes with us to cut a path.

And so we combed the empty beach, finding nothing much but a gorgeous view and soon were back on First Light, where we ended up discussing the state of the Susquehanna's dying fisheries. Historically the Susquehanna hosted unimaginably large runs of river herring (alewives), blueback herring, hickory shad and American shad. Before the river was dammed for electric power in the early twentieth century, the fish ran all the way up the Susquehanna into New York. But from 1870 to 1920, Havre de Grace was a focal point for huge crews that hauled mile-long seine nets from "floats," large, anchored barges with both fish-processing rooms and living quarters for their 90-man crews. They salted herring and American shad for shipment to East Coast markets, especially Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore. (Much of this history is captured in the exhibits of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, along with a new exhibit about Captain Smith's visit.)
The crews also hauled seines along the shores of the River's islands and processed fish in concrete vats built on them. Before we landed, I had slid First Light close to Garrett Island's eastern bank so Jim could see the remnants of some old vats which have been abandoned for nearly a century.

Unfortunately, these super-efficient operations overharvested the runs, and the dams cut the fish off from most of their spawning grounds upriver. When Conowingo Dam closed the river just ten miles above Havre de Grace in 1928, the shad population crashed in earnest. Harvests were banned in 1979.

Jim and I pointed First Light back down river and headed for the Susquehanna Flats, where the delta effect is seen as the river deposits its sediments. These shallow sediments have for centuries provided excellent growing conditions for underwater Bay grasses, especially wild celery (Vallisneria americana). In warm weather, the grass beds provide sheltered habitat for all of the juvenile shad, herring, rockfish, perch and bass spawned in the spring. Meanwhile, larger rock, perch and bass prowl the flats in summer to feed on the young fish.

In winter, though, the scene changes. Historically, waterfowl by the millions descended on the flats from their breeding grounds in the prairie pothole country of the upper Midwestern United States and Canada. The most prized of these ducks were the large, beautiful canvasbacks, which have such a taste for wild celery (Vallisneria americana) that their Latin name is Aythya valisineria. From the 1880s till the 1920s, Havre de Grace watermen harvested ducks commercially through the winter, shipping them to most of the same markets to which they shipped shad, herring, and rockfish in the spring. The watermen also served as guides for the "sports," recreational hunters who flocked to the town every gunning season (October through March in those days). The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum does a great job of recreating the waterfowl culture that grew up around the flats.

This was a colorful era for Havre de Grace, but unfortunately, just as with the haul seine fishery, the gunning took a heavy toll. Meanwhile, the grass beds began a long, slow decline that culminated suddenly in a catastrophic load of sediment from Hurricane Agnes in June 1972, which literally smothered most of the beds. Fortunately, the grasses have recovered quite a lot in the past forty years, especially as Pennsylvania has undertaken significant cleanup programs for the river, its tributaries, and the Bay.

Indeed we could easily see, and smile about, the beds growing four feet below us as we slid by Garrett Island's southern end. As we continued to the flats we could see how the depth changes suddenly and observed even larger beds. We discussed possible itineraries for Baltimore Outward Bound trips, and enjoyed the prospect of students paddling canoes and kayaks through these rich beds in the summer. The water is stunningly clear then, and, though the students will have some miles to cover, they'll have time, I hope, to drift for a bit over this huge natural aquarium.

We also got a chance to witness the sight of three important elements of Havre de Grace today. The first was a big barge moored at the edge of the flats, waiting to be loaded at the stone quarry. The second was Martha Lewis, Havre de Grace's restored skipjack, cruising past us with a class of students aboard for a history/ecology field trip. The third was NOAA's big yellow Susquehanna buoy, the northernmost in the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS). I gave Jim my cell phone, which has CBIBS on speed-dial (877-BUOYBAY), so he could call the buoy for current weather and water quality information--as well as seasonal and geographic information and a sketch of Captain John Smith's visit to the area. He remarked that the buoy will be very useful in providing students and staff with near-real-time weather information for paddling across the flats.


After calling the buoy, we circled back around, past the Havre de Grace City Yacht Basin and Tydings Marina, the promenade along the river in front of the Decoy Museum, the town's iconic Concord Point Lighthouse, and the Maritime Museum, to the ramp at Tidewater Marina. We pulled First Light onto her trailer and headed up St. John Street to MacGregor's Restaurant & Tavern for a late lunch. MacGregor's menu includes a short history of Havre de Grace, which got us talking about that very subject.

Havre de Grace has managed to establish itself as an interesting river town without growing so fast that it loses its attractiveness. Although colonial planters whose lands bordered the navigable rivers of the Chesapeake's tidal water never saw much need for incorporated towns, the west side of the Susquehanna's mouth held farm wharves from the mid-17th century on. Ferries began running in 1695, though overland travel, which needed the ferry, was minor compared to travel by water for most of the 18th century.

The American Revolution changed that, and gave the town its name. The young Marquis de Lafayette, coming through on his way to meet General George Washington, remarked that the harbor he found there reminded him of France's Havre de Grace, and the name stuck, though the pronunciation has definitely been Americanized, to Haver dee Grayce. Moreover, the unincorporated village became much more important because the presence of the British Navy in the Chesapeake forced many people, including colonial leaders like Washington and James Madison headed to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to travel overland, and thus to need the ferry here across the Susquehanna, as well as taverns for food and lodging. In 1785, the residents finally laid out streets and incorporated Havre de Grace as an official town.

During the War of 1812, British Admiral Cockburn brought his fleet up the Bay to raid waterfront towns. When a battery in Havre de Grace fired on the fleet, Cockburn landed a party of Marines who burned the town in retaliation. The resilient townspeople rebuilt. The first half of the 19th century saw development of the Pennsylvania Canal System, with its terminus at Havre de Grace, where shipments of timber and coal from central Pennsylvania were transferred to coasting ships for delivery to Philadelphia and Wilmington through the newly dug Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The Canal System continued operating through the century, though the concurrently developing railroad system eventually put it out of business. Havre de Grace's Lockhouse Museum, at the terminus of the canal, interprets the Canal System well.

Over the course of our lunch conversation, we could see that Havre de Grace itself might also be part of an Outward Bound experience, blending a river/Bay experience with time in Havre de Grace itself. The museums in particular reflect well how the nature of the river and the Bay has affected the lives of the area's people over the centuries.

Today, as Jim saw clearly while passing the Decoy Museum, the Maritime Museum, the lighthouse, the waterfront promenade, the Martha Lewis and the Lockhouse Museum, tourism has become a vital part of Havre de Grace's economy. They make the town (now a city) a great destination for anyone interested in the ways that natural and human history interact over time. Boaters in vessels from kayaks to cruising sail- and powerboats will find welcome at the town's parks and marinas. And anglers will find plenty of opportunities, especially in the spring when Maryland's Department of Natural Resources allows a carefully controlled catch-and-release, fly/light tackle fishery for large rockfish on the flats. Also at that time, upriver streams like Deer Creek on the Harford side and Octoraro on the Cecil side teem with high-jumping hickory shad for wading fly and light tackle anglers.

As we headed from McGregor's back to the truck and First Light, we caught one last glimpse of the river from up the hill on St. John Street. We reflected that Havre de Grace is still a river city, and a great place from which to explore what happens where the Susquehanna River becomes the Chesapeake Bay. For the Outward Bound students, the challenges will lie not only in dealing with the river's currents and the Bay's winds, but also in wrestling with questions about how Havre de Grace can evolve in the 21st century by building on its proud history and protecting the special natural environment that has given it its life. This trip may have been Jim Garrett's first to his ancestor's island, but it won't be his last.

[3.12 issue]