Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Port Deposit, MD

 

A jaunt across the Bay and up the Susquehanna River took a pair 
of intrepid explorers as far as Port Deposit, MD, where granite looms
large but slips are hard to come by. [May 2005]

By Jane Meneely

I want to live on Rock Run Road in Port Deposit, Md. It's just so different from any place I've ever called home. It leads up the hillside that rises from the north shore of the Susquehanna River, just about where the rocks break the river's surface and stop boaters in their tracks. A stream—Rock Run—splashes beside it like a silver sidewalk, running helter skelter down the hill. You can't really go ashore where the stream enters the river. If you did, you'd have to scramble across the railroad tracks that parallel the river—too daunting for me to dare it. Instead, I found Rock Run by walking up Port Deposit's Main Street, having nothing better to do but be charmed by this tiny town at the headwaters of the Bay.

Earlier that morning Clint and I had launchedCookie, our little Chris Craft runabout, into Turner Creek near the mouth of the Sassafras River. A sky as bright as new gelcoat gleamed above us and a cooling breeze riffled the water. With a few easy turns of the wheel, we were soon skimming across the Bay toward Susquehanna Flats,
glad to be going lippity clip with the wind in our face.

Once beyond the shallow Flats, the mouth of the Susquehanna proper is deep and wide. Boats were everywhere, their owners playing on the river or just relaxing. Families were tubing in the open water. Fishermen had their lines out. We half expected to see Ratty and Mole rowing around the bend of Garrett Island with a loaded picnic basket. It's a busy place, though not frantic. No one wasgoinganywhere; they were obviously already where they wanted to be.

We decided to navigate past Havre de Grace and Perryville to see what Port Deposit had to offer. What we discovered was a sleepy little waterfront village that hasn't quite come into its own as a boating destination. There isn't much to do beyond a quiet walk through town or a pleasant meal. But one by one the small street-side houses are being renovated, and the sprawling waterfront, which only a few years back was the site of considerable industry (sections of the Fort McHenry Tunnel were built here, for example), is now a clean sweep of condos in the making, a spiffy boatel and a soon-to-be-refurbished waterside park.

Originally, we had planned to bring our trawler,Escort, up from the Miles River to make this trek to the head of the Bay, but she's awfully slow, and it would have been an all-day trip up and another day back—not ideal for a weekend outing. Worse, we weren't entirely sure there would be anywhere to put Escortin Port Deposit, which, we'd been told when we called ahead, has no transient slips. With the runabout we could drive most of the distance by car, then cut across the Bay at 20 knots instead of six. We could stay the night if we found a slip ( Cookiehas a cozy V-berth), or come back late the same day. Either way, it was a better plan.

We cruised under the I-95 bridge and pointed our nose at the Port Deposit waterfront on the north bank of the river. The town lies just below the river's fall line, the last stop for cargo vessels on the river—indeed, the last stop for just about any vessel except for the occasional canoe or shoal-draft runabout. You can clearly see the barrier of rocks just upriver from the town.

Port Deposit (originally called Creswell's Ferry) reportedly got its name from the fact that mountains of lumber were once rafted downriver from upstate Pennsylvania and "deposited" at the town's wharves. Huge rafts or "arks"—some of them up to 100 feet long with a 20-foot beam—were cobbled together from logs and crudely shaped into double-ended vessels steered with a single 40-foot sweep. In 1826, for instance, some 1,500 arks arrived in town, carrying coal, lumber, flour and whiskey from the uplands. One raftsman claimed that the downriver trip took three hours from where he lived, and that he would walk 28 miles to get back home the same day, to be ready for the next morning's trip. That's a heck of a commute by today's standards, but supposedly there were a number of taverns along the way where a fellow could rest his weary feet and, um, rehydrate. Of course, the arks couldn't go upstream, so they were broken up and sold as lumber. Many of the older Port Deposit homes, in fact, were built from the logs harvested from the abandoned arks. (Today's remodelers have a time of it when they discover the wall they want to alter is actually 14 inches thick.)

In the early 1800s a canal route was established between Port Deposit and Conowingo to ease the movement of trade up and down the north bank of the river, but the project soon fizzled and was replaced by the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, which ran from Havre de Grace. Even so, by the 1860s Port Deposit was a bustling town, with 74 places of business. Alice Miller, who wroteCecil County, Maryland, A Study in Local History(1949), included an intriguing clipping from the Cecil Whig, which listed the business establishments in town and added that there were "three practicing physicians, two or three painters, several carpenters, a number of dressmakers, one parson and no lawyer." How the town managed to keep away the lawyers is not explained.

Naturally, fishing was a mainstay of the town. Beginning in the early 1800s, huge fishing "floats" were anchored out in the river to set seine nets, and men would actually live on them during the shad runs. Miller reports that one turn-of-the-19th-century fellow earned $1,400 in three months catching perch and shad, pulling up between 50 and 100 shad per drift. But he also claimed that he'd never worked so hard in his life.

And of course, there was all that granite in the surrounding hills. By the end of the 18th century, the rocky slopes upriver were pocked with quarries. You'll see that quarried stone in the houses lining Port Deposit's streets—and all over the country, for that matter. The Conowingo Dam put a stop to the fishing and the rafting in 1927, the quarries went belly up by the early 1900s, and the town went into something of an economic nosedive—until the Bainbridge Naval Training Center, atop the bluffs behind Port Deposit, opened up in 1942. But Bainbridge is closed now, and the town is once again struggling to sustain itself and beginning to look to tourism as a possible new industry. It still has a ways to go. For the moment, with the exception of some dining establishments and a single gift-and-framing shop, Port Deposit is as sleepy as a sun-drenched terrapin. But that, say the town fathers, is about to change. A megadollar revitalization project is slated to begin sometime this summer, aimed at revamping the public waterfront park and making the town more "boater friendly."

Meanwhile, the town is just plain hard to visit by boat. When Clint and I approached from the river, we saw the long stretch of green that makes up the park on the downriver end of town. A smattering of mobile homes sits at the water's edge. There is a launch ramp here, but no slips. Next to the park is the Tome's Landing Marina, a big box of a boatel that houses dry slips for some 200 boats. The term marina here is a little misleading, since most people think of marinas as having docks and wet slips, and this huge boatel has everything but. A marine supply store fills one corner of the massive building, and there is a gas dock (no diesel). Essentially a boat launched here can sidle up to the bulkhead to load supplies or fuel up. Otherwise it's pretty exposed for any
long-term mooring.

Just up from the marina is the dockage for the Portside Grille, a classy new eating establishment that looks out on the river. And next door to the restaurant and nestled within a floating breakwater are some lovely floating docks, with plenty of empty slips. They belong to the Tome's Landing Condominiums, which preside over that part of the waterfront. While both the Tome's Landing Marina and the folks in the town office had told us that there is no transient dockage of any sort in town, a few people told us, rather under their breath, that some of these condominium slips are occasionally rented to visiting boaters. The sub-rosa aspect is to be expected; condo owners are understandably leery of the wholesale rental of their slips to transients with no stake in the property's upkeep. Guests would be another matter entirely. I have a hunch that if you called Tome's Landing Marina and asked very nicely about a "guest slip" at the condos, you may find a warm welcome. Remember, though, it's only a hunch.

We sidled over to the restaurant and pulled up along the little floating boardwalk. Here we were told that we could tie up only if we planned on dining. We said we were and that then we wanted to walk through town. "Sarge," the dockmaster, frowned on that idea, mostly because Tome's Landing Marina was holding its annual poker run that day, and he expected a lot of those go-fast boats to come roaring in at any minute. "Any other day," he said, "and I wouldn't have such a problem." Ultimately, though, he relented, but we had to promise not to dawdle.

Sarge was certainly friendly enough and chatted for a good long while about the potentially bright future of Port Deposit. He mentioned the planned renovation of the town park and added that there is a contingent of townspeople who want to make sure any improvements along the waterfront include public docking. There's also a contingent of people who don't, so the final decision is in limbo. Sarge was optimistic, though. He felt that if slips were available boaters would come—by the hundreds. And what a boon that would be for the town. Look at Havre de Grace, he said. They're learning to capitalize on their waterfront and it's working. People like to get out on the water and go places. Port Deposit has a launch ramp for boaters, and of course there's the boatel, but they have to go somewhere else if they wanted to tie up and spend their money.
He had a point.

After finishing a lovely meal at the Portside Grille, Clint and I began our walk by turning south on Main Street and heading into the "commercial district"—the one gift shop
and a handful of street-side eateries. Otherwise it was all residential. And topographically fascinating—unlike any other town I've encountered on the Bay. It reminded me of Ellicott City, Md., or Harper's Ferry, W. Va., where many of the houses are carved into the rocky hillside. Here the architecture is not quite so locked into the stony slope, but there is still only room for one street (and a set of train tracks) between the river and the rock face, and the homes have clearly incorporated bedrock into their basements and foundations. How different from the flatness of the Eastern Shore or even the gentle roll of the Tidewater. A block or so down Main Street, a flight of imposing stone steps laced with a rippling waterfall leads to the next street up. The steps were built, we learned, so that students of the Jacob Tome Institute could make their way from the train station back to their campus on the hilltop. The school, part of local business magnate Jacob Tome's legacy to the town, is long gone, swallowed up by the Bainbridge naval base, but we headed up the steps anyway. A very aerobic town, this. The splashing water, of course, gives you the excuse to stop and rest a while—isn't it lovely? one can say as one chokes for breath. Walk up that two or three times a day and feel the pounds melt! The street above lies terraced into the hillside and level with the Main Street rooftops. It provides a stellar glimpse of the river, making the huff and puff of the climb worthwhile.

We walked down the stairway again to the town's ground floor and continued south, where we spotted an intriguing stone portal. Apparently this was the grand entrance to another building associated with the Jacob Tome Institute, which was here swallowed up by the Tome's Landing Marina parking lot.

Next door is the park (currently occupied by mobile homes and a launch ramp) that will hopefully provide the solution to Port Deposit's boat parking problem. When its renovation is complete, the new Jetty at Marina Park will offer two launch ramps, a canoe drop and, if the pro-boater contingent prevails, 50 to 60 transient slips. Part of the jetty will serve as a landing for a water taxi that will run regularly between Havre de Grace, Perryville and Port Deposit starting this summer. It will also be a hub for a shoreside promenade that will run along the river. And finally, it will provide the town with a public gathering place for evening concerts and the like.

So far Clint and I had trekked about a half a mile, and with no moretherethere, we turned around and trekked the other way. I'm glad we did. Main Street parallels the train track, which parallels the river. Stone houses, ranging from modest to grandiose and in varying stages of renovation, line the street. But most have no river view, thanks to the condos and the marina and then a railway bed that rises above street level on the north side of town. Still, Clint and I walked on. About a mile north of the town center, we came to the corner of Main and Granite streets, where we found the shell of the Rock Run Mill, built around 1725. Its brown granite hulk sits back a bit from the road, and its broken lintels, fallen-in doors and toothless windows made us shudder to think of what its renovation would entail. Still, it was an interesting remnant of the town's industrial past.

We were just about ready to turn around and head back to the boat when we saw Rock Run Road leading away from the riverfront. Here a mountain stream tumbles by the tree-lined road through a charming community. Small clusters of old houses dig in their toes here and there where the land is level, or where long-ago families had perhaps managed to buy a piece of property and then divvied it up among themselves. They were that close together—in pairs or groups of three, with broad spaces in between. Backyards stretched up the wooded mountain slope. And that splashing brook. . . . I began life as a river rat. I grew up on the water, and my childhood experiences and memories include mud fights, splash battles, swimming with sea nettles, sailing, exploring, catching turtles. I wanted my children to have similar opportunities, so on the water I stayed. Even in my travels to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, I always yearned for my river view. But something about this shady roadside touched me to the core. Something about those soft woods beckoned. Something in the tune of that tumbling brook made my heart hum for joy. I wanted to be a kid again, roll up my pants and wade in that brook, scramble through the brown undergrowth and chase squirrels. Set out to conquer that highbrowed hill. Build a tree fort.

Clint brought me careening back to reality. The commute would be impossible, he reminded me. And eventually, I'm sure, that babbling brook would have lost its luster, that hillside would have been mastered, and I'd be homesick once more for undulating Bay water outside my window. With a last lingering look, I followed Clint back to the boat, half fearful that Sarge would chide us for our too leisurely tour. Fortunately for us he was nowhere in sight when we finally ambled down the floating dock, still largely empty of boats. We slippedCookie's lines and peeled away, turning downriver and for home. Our trip to Port Deposit had been pleasant and relaxing. We hadn't had to march shoulder to shoulder with a throng of tourists. And we'd ventured through a landscape refreshingly different from our own home territory. The town shows promise, we thought. A good deal of promise.

Cruiser's Digest: Port Deposit, MD      

Port Deposit lies on the north bank of the Susquehanna River, above Havre de Grace and beyond the I-95 and Route 40 bridges. The channel runs fairly deep along the northside of the river, from 14 to 30 feet, but this is rocky bottom and boaters are advised not to go upriver beyond the town. Approaching from the water, boaters will see the big yellow boatel building at the Tome's Landing Marina (410-378-3343;www.tomeslandingmarina.com), a boatel and dry-storage facility only. A marine store operates on the premises, and there is a gas dock (no diesel). Below the marina is a waterfront park with a launch ramp and an old stone jetty, where work will begin this summer on the Jetty at Marina Park. Call the town office (410-378-2121) for more information about future dock space at this new facility, expected to open in 2005.

Currently, there is dockage for diners at the Portside Grille (410-378-4600), the waterfront restaurant nestled between the Tome's Landing Marina and the Tome's Landing Condominiums.
 
Other dining establishments, all on Main Street, include C.M. Tugs (410-378-8338, open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner); the Winchester Pub and Restaurant (410-378-5643, open daily for lunch and dinner); Moretti's Cafe and Gallery (410-378-8878, open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday); and, opening soon, DiLorenzo's Pizza and Grill (410-378-2800).

There are no Port Deposit B&Bs per se, although several properties, including the majestic Gerry House, are reportedly undergoing renovation or remodeling to accommodate future guests.Creswell Manor, circa 1813, currently operates as the Guest House at One Center Street (no meals; $75/room; 410-658-9893; onecenterst@zoominternet.net).

The Paw Paw Museum (410-378-4480) offers visitors a glimpse of "the good old days" in Port Deposit on the first Saturday of every month, 10 a.m.–2 p.m., and the second and fourth Sunday May through October, 1–5 p.m.

Tome's Landing Marina sponsors the Northern Chesapeake Bay Poker Run and Crab Feast_August 20–21 to support the local fire company. Interested players should call the marina for more information. Over Labor Day weekend the waterfront will erupt with
Ragin' on the River, when the American Power Boat Association brings inboard boat races to Port Deposit. Contact Tome's Landing Marina for more information.

In December Port Deposit homes open their doors for the annual Christmas Candlelight Tour. This is a once-a-year opportunity to see inside some of the wonderful old homes that grace Port Deposit's streets. For more information go towww.portdeposit.com.