A trip back to the South River's lost London Town unearths a forgotten appreciation for the past.
by Jean Korten Moser
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
It happened to Jamestown. It happened to St. Mary's City. Colonial towns that hummed for generations with people and prosperity just dried up and blew away, like so much dust. What haunting possibilities of lost stories and lives these places offer us, the modern visitor. On the South River, only a few miles from Annapolis--a thriving colonial town that survived--lies historic London Town, just such an abandoned town. Before the Revolutionary War, London Town's docks throbbed with activity. Merchant ships stood off its shores, waiting for the year's tobacco crop. But within only a few years, all that was gone. The first blow was struck when the port was closed to tobacco trading; the recession brought on by the revolution finished the process. Only one grand Georgian brick home, built by William Brown, a tavern keeper, ferry master and aspiring gentleman, survived to tell the lost town's tale.
My husband Carl and I had first visited London Town--now a 23-acre Anne Arundel County park--a decade ago. But this past fall, we decided it was time for another visit--a stroll through the gardens and a tour of the tavern keeper's elegant home. We embarked on our voyage of rediscovery on a blustery Friday morning in mid-September, setting sail from Swan Creek on the Eastern Shore. It should have been a great sail. The forecast called for 10 to 15 mph winds from the west--ideal conditions for a lovely reach south. But as we emerged from Swan Creek and headed toward the Bay Bridge it became quite clear that the winds were south-southwest, not west--and more like 25 mph, not 10 to 15. Instead of a reach, we had the wind on our nose and two- to three-foot seas. We could tack laboriously down the Bay, or we could motor. Given our tight schedule we elected to motor--we needed to reach London Town before 3 p.m. or we'd miss the last tour of the day.
Bounce. Bounce.Jerk. Bounce. Bounce.Splash! Each attacking wave left our cockpit sole quivering in its wake. We'd been under way less than an hour when my husband wanted to call it quits. We listened to NOAA weather radio for current observations and learned that, even though small craft advisories had been issued, conditions were considerably calmer south of the Bay Bridge. So we pressed on and were indeed rewarded with lighter winds.
Four hours after we'd cast off, we reached the green-red "SR" buoy marking the entrance of the South River. About five miles in, Brown's 250-year-old Georgian mansion came into view--perched on a hilltop of a peninsula bounded by Glebe Bay, South River and Almshouse Creek. The house struck a discordant note among its sprawling modern neighbors. Near mark "15" we turned to port and headed to London Town's 185-foot pier, where we tied up to the west side. Even though it was dead low tide, we were relieved to find 5 1/2 feet of water at the end of the dock.
At the foot of the dock we found a large sign with Historic London Town's operating hours posted and signs that directed us up the hill to the 12,000-square-foot visitor's center. There we watched a short movie and visited the gift shop before meeting Rod Cofield, director of interpretation and museum programs, who gave us an hour-long tour of the William Brown house and the historic area.
London Town, we learned, was established as a tobacco port town in 1683 and thrived as a center for the tobacco and slave trade from 1695 until the mid-1700s. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key passed through this bustling seaport and ferry crossing that served as a vital link along the Colonial superhighway that connected Williamsburg to Philadelphia. Once the busiest port in Maryland, the town's fortunes began to change in 1747 when the Maryland Assembly restricted tobacco exporting to designated sites in order to address quality control issues. London Town wasn't one of the sites chosen, and by the early 19th century the town was little more than a memory.
Brown's grand legacy and London Town's sole surviving building has the symmetry and balance typical of Georgian buildings. A National Historic Landmark, it is considered to be a fine example of header-bond brickwork, an expensive kind of construction in which bricks were laid side to side in walls two bricks thick. Brown used the house as a private residence and upscale tavern, but never completely finished the interior. The building project left him owing money he couldn't repay. As the tobacco economy declined, Brown lost his home and possessions to the heirs of his main creditor. Ironically, his grand mansion served as the Anne Arundel County almshouse (poorhouse) for more than 150 years (1828-1965). It was turned into a museum in the 1970s.
A portion of London Town, including the Lord Mayor's Tenement, the Carpenter Shop and the Rumney-West Tavern, is being reconstructed by Lost Towns Project archaeologists. We visited all of these with our guide, then walked the mile-long trail through the eight-acre Woodland Garden, which is planted with native and exotic plants ranging from azaleas and hostas to hollies, magnolias and camellias. We also checked out the smaller gardens nearby: the kitchen garden, medicinal garden and African-American garden.
As we prepared to cast off from the dock I took a long look back at the Brown House, which overlooks the South River and Scott Street, the town's main thoroughfare. The street that once led to the ferry landing is now nothing more than a tree-lined ravine. Yet for a few hours we had returned to a time when London Town was the busiest port in Maryland, when citizens were all English subjects and the slave trade prospered. The town may be gone, but thanks to archaeologists and historians, it's no longer lost.
Visiting London Town
Historic London Town and Gardens is a 23-acre park located on the South River in Edgewater, Md. The park is owned by Anne Arundel County and managed by the London Town Foundation. Part of the late 17th- and early 18th-century town of London is located here and is being excavated by archaeologists from the Lost Towns Project. It is the largest current archaeological exploration in Maryland. The Lost Towns Project was founded by Anne Arundel County archaeologist Dr. Al Luckenbach and is rediscovering the county's lost towns of the 17th century.
Visitors to London Town will find the original Georgian brick building and several reconstructed wooden buildings, a visitors center, museum, archaeology lab and eight acres of woodland gardens. Free public dig days, where volunteers work alongside archaeologists, are conducted several times a year. London Town is open March through December, Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the Historic Area and William Brown House are offered on the hour. The last tour is at 3 p.m. 410-222-1919 or visitwww.historiclondontown.org.