Port Deposit’s new town docks will pay dividends for upper Bay cruisers.
by Jody Argo Schroath
I’ve wanted to write about Port Deposit, Md., a little town up the Susquehanna River on the fall line of the Chesapeake Bay, for more than a year now. But each time I sat down to do it, I stopped. Not because there’s not a lot to see and do in Port Deposit. No, I find it one of the most unusual and beguiling little burgs on the entire Chesapeake. And not because it’s not a beautiful place to cruise. It certainly is. No, I stopped because there’s been no place to park your boat once you get there. And with the river’s granite bottom, it’s not exactly a practical place to drop the hook. To be fair, you could dock at the Susky River Grille while enjoying a lunch or dinner and a million-dollar view of the Susquehanna, but as far as whiling away a day or two exploring this singular town, you would be out of luck.
But now all that is changed. By the time you read this it’s more than likely that you could jump in your boat, if you had a mind to, and spend a diverting weekend docked in Port Deposit. That’s because there is the new municipal dock—300 feet long and 10 feet deep—that was scheduled for completion in mid-September. Mind you, this is a public dock and not a marina, which means that while there will be plenty of cleats for tying off, there will not be, for now, any power or water at the docks. On the bright side, it won’t cost anything to dock and you don’t have to tell anybody you’re coming. You just pull up, tie off and visit the town and spend a night or two. There will be restrooms and possibly showers (that’s still under discussion).
Now, once you get there, what are you going to do? Well, here is what my husband Rick and I did when we went by boat last spring—and what I did when I visited this August by car to look at the new docks. In the first instance, Rick and I were on an early season cruise of the upper Bay and had spent the night before in Perryville, Md., near the mouth of the Susquehanna—where there is also a brand-new municipal dock. We decided we had just enough time to cruise up to Port Deposit before we had to start back down the Bay. It was a picture perfect morning as we pulled out onto the river, with diaphanous clouds of mist drifting above the mirror-still water.
Port Deposit lies three miles and three bridges above Perryville. As we passed in and out of the mist, we studied the densely wooded shoreline of Garrett Island to port and bright ochre banks of the Cecil County shoreline to starboard. Beyond Garrett, we passed under bridge number three, the busy Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge, which carries I-95 over the Susquehanna. Ahead we could already we could see the two large boat storage buildings of Tomes Landing Marina and, beyond them, the docks of Tomes Landing Condominium Marina. Neither of these facilities has slips for visiting boaters—Tomes Landing Marina because it is exclusively a boatel facility and has no slips, the condominium marina because the slips are private. In between these two and parallel to the shore, we could just make out the Susky River Grille’s long dock along the shore. Before we reached either, we came to the town’s long narrow park fronting the river. This has a playground, picnic facilities and a boat ramp. (The new town dock is at the upstream end of this park and juts out into the river.)
Rick and I docked the boat at Susky Grille and for the next hour explored the town until the restaurant opened for lunch. Many of Port Deposit’s buildings are constructed of the silver-gray granite for which it is well known, since it has been used for buildings in Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., including the U.S. Naval Academy, Lincoln Tunnel, Fort McHenry and the Boston Public Library.
Port Deposit marked the end of navigation for ships traveling up the Susquehanna. Captain John Smith discovered as much on his voyage of exploration up the Chesapeake. He named the rapids just above present-day Port Deposit “Smith Fayles,” and marked it with an X on his map. In the 18th and 19th centuries the town was a bustling transfer point for wagons, barges and floating lumber going south, hence the name “Port Deposit.” The town’s resident philanthropist, Jacob Tome, made his fortune in lumber that resulted in clear-cutting the forests upriver, and he bequeathed the town three million dollars to establish a school for boys. Tome School for Boys was duly established in 1894, with a series of beaux-arts buildings made of local granite (of course) built on a bluff above the town and overlooking the Susquehanna. The school closed in the 1940s. A few years later, its buildings were used as a training facility—the U.S. Naval Training Center, Bainbridge—with up to 35,000 sailors at a time passing through. Now the school’s elegant buildings lie vandalized and moldering, awaiting restoration and reuse or final destruction.
On my visit this summer, I climbed the Tome School’s double stone stairway (gift of the class of 1927) up the bluff across from Tomes Landing Marina for a rather breathtaking view of the river, the town, Garrett Island and beyond. Earlier that day, I had lunched on delicious locally made empanadas at the Hidden Bean Cafe on Main Street, along the town’s two-block downtown section. Next door to the Hidden Bean is CMB Tugs Grub n Pub and across the street D’Lorenzo Pizza & Grill and the Cecil County library. Just up the street in the direction of the town park is Backfin Blues Bar & Grill (dinner only). All of these are housed in old buildingsalong a tree-shaded street that they share with even older granite (of course) buildings—such as Gerry House, built in 1813, where General Lafayette was entertained in 1824.
The previous spring, Rick and I had walked up Main Street as far the town park, before turning back to see whether the Susky Grille was ready to feed us. We were certainly ready to be fed. As we turned onto Rowland Drive, which runs down to the river, crossing the railroad tracks along the way, we pointed out one interesting site after another to each other as we walked. If we’d continued up the street, we would have come to the Paw Paw Museum (named for the paw paw trees originally growing on either side of the door), opposite the fire station (interesting in its own right). Just before we reached the Susky Grill itself, we passed another curiosity, the tiny museum dedicated to the memory of the U.S. Naval Training Center, Bainbridge. It was closed, but happily the Susky River Grille was not. We spent the rest of our first visit to Port Deposit enjoying our lunch and the view from the restaurant’s deck.
Reluctantly we returned to the boat and headed back downriver. On my summer visit to Port Deposit by automobile, I spent more time wandering around town, watching the dock construction and chatting with Dave Read of Tomes Landing Marina, which has long been an active supporter of the town. I also learned that the Northern map turtle has a special affection for Port Deposit, and that next spring there will yet another reason to visit town. But that’s another story. Port Deposit has a lot of stories, as it turns out, and now boaters can discover them too.