Issue: December 2000
A Havre de Grace Holiday

With confectionaries and candlelight awaiting us at the top of the Bay, we weren’t about to let Scrooge, or that little problem with the “bottomless” fuel tank, slow us down. Much.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, I hummed as what looked like a brightly lit Christmas tree headed our way in the darkness down the shipping lanes of the UpperBay.

     “I don’t like this,” said Scrooge, standing next to me at the wheel of our trawler Escort. We were heading for Havre de Grace-about four hours off schedule-and the nighttime traffic made the Bay look like a gigantic pinball machine. Lights flashed, lights moved, lights stood still. Green lights, red lights, white lights, yellow lights. And none of them, as far as I could tell, matched up with anything on our chart. Those moving Christmas trees were tugs with barges, and it was hard to tell, really, whether they were coming or going.

     “We’re not going any farther tonight,” Scrooge muttered, and he swung the wheel hard to starboard. “We’ll anchor off Betterton and try again tomorrow.”

     With Scrooge, his sister Poinier, myself and son Stewart aboard, how came we to be so late on such a run, you ask? It’s a fair question. . . .

     “And she’s got enough fuel onboard to make Tortolla!” my sweetheart beamed, as with a majestic sweep of his arm he revealed his new purchase, a Krogen Pilothouse 42-the trawler that would someday, he earnestly hoped (smiling sweetly at me), be our future home afloat.

     “No way,” said I, thinking of the college tuition embodied in her ample beam. But it was as if my husband was a ten-year-old and this big boulder of a boat had followed him home from the playground. “Please can I keep her,” he wheedled. He probably remembers this part of the discussion differently, but I stand by my recollection. “We’ll put her in charter and she’ll pay her own way.”

     “And my middle name is Bambi,” I said.

     When it comes to discussions of this nature, I generally lose. The trawler came to live in the middle of our tiny Oak Creek, promptly raising the waterfront property values on what had before then been considered an unnavigable waterway. The watermen cheered as we blasted our way through the channel under the Newcomb bridge. “We been trying to get ‘em to dredge that for years!” they said. And our WesternShore friends congratulated us on finally acquiring air conditioning and a TV (this boat is equipped, I tell you) and promising to visit us more often.

     “Look at this baby,” my husband cooed. “All the way from Lake George and the fuel gauge barely budged. Now that’s economy!”

     So began a flurry of cruising expeditions-weekends, casual overnights, evening promenades (so much for chartering). We ran that boat for all she was worth. And still the fuel gauge hardly nickered. Our visit to Havre de Grace was but one more jaunt designed to put a dent in the ever so slowly diminishing fuel supply. We had left Oak Creek the night before, picked up Poinier in Bodkin Creek, then headed up the Bay in the morning. We figured we’d pull into Tidewater Marina around 2 p.m.

     And things were going along briskly. The brilliant winter sunshine dazzled the water as we motored past Tolchester. A crisp breeze began blowing abeam, building up a slight swell and spewing flecks of spray to dance light as seagull feathers on the waves. We had the Bay blissfully to ourselves-a definite advantage of winter cruising.

     We were just off Still Pond when the diesel sputtered and died. This, my true love assured us, was no cause for alarm. “Sounds like something’s clogging the fuel line,” he said blithely, and he and son Stewart ripped open the engine hatch and tumbled into the basement-um, bilge-to tackle the problem. My husband thrives on this sort of thing. He’s of the why-read-a-book-when-I-can-tinker school of boating, and disasters are his element. This was hardly a disaster, but it put color to his cheeks and a devilish spark in his eye. As for his passengers: We weren’t sinking. We had plenty of food. Everyone was happy, and in good time we were under way again.

     The second sputter was a little more sinister. We’d no sooner gotten the anchor up when son Stewart had to splash it right back down. We had made exactly 12 feet of headway.

     “Hmmmm,” said hubby. He ripped up the engine hatch and proceeded to blow out the fuel line again. When the engine died the third time, he became more circumspect. “Must be something else,” he mumbled as he disappeared into the engine room. And it was something else.

     “Congratulations,” he said as he reappeared. “We’re in Tortolla.” Or, to put it plainly, we were out of fuel.

I thought the Coast Guard boys who finally came out from the Still Pond station to make sure we weren’t making a drug drop were pretty darned considerate. “Anyone you’d like us to call?” they asked as they thumped alongside. And I thought Mr. Deckelman, of Deckelman Marine Group, the “oldest licensed and insured towing firm serving the Chesapeake Bay,” was downright gracious, coming all the way from Middle River on a breezy December day to deliver 10 gallons of fuel (it averaged about $44 a gallon-a little high by Bay standards, but this was the Caribbean, right?). He even gave us a refrigerator magnet with his phone number written on it in big letters. “I don’t give them to everybody,” he said. “Just particular customers.” He was perfectly charming. Turned out, the only thing wrong with the boat was a broken fuel gauge. So I couldn’t understand why my true love’s mood went south. We started calling him Scrooge.

 

     We woke up early, swinging on our anchor in the still Bay waters, stretched placid and gray in the steely morning light. The highlands of Elk Neck in the distance looked oddly out of place, familiar as we were with the lower Eastern Shore. Our evening had been, thankfully, uneventful. Now we would only have to follow the channel across the Susquehanna Flats and up the river a short way into Havre de Grace-certainly a much less difficult journey by daylight. A few commercial fishing boats were working the river’s mouth, and several sailboats hailed us as we passed. It was a surprising amount of activity, we thought, for this time of year-and a Sunday at that. We finally pulled into Tidewater Marina, stopping first at the fuel dock (Gee, a buck a gallon-such a deal!) and then moving into a sheltered slip inside one of the man-made basins carved into the riverbank.

     Poinier and I jumped ship as soon as the lines were fast. We had so much painstaking research to do-shopping, ice cream tasting, chocolate tasting, Victoriana gawking. Such a burden. Scrooge and son had blokey things to do, they declared, so off we went, reveling in the bright, warm December day and looking forward to cruising through the fun and festivities of the annual Christmas in Havre de Grace weekend. For the last 28 years, the good people of Havre de Grace have decorated their houses and their streets for a candlelight tour through the historic district. It’s one massive, city-wide open house; museums, shops and homes throw open their doors with a more than merry welcome. This was a chance to get inside Havre de Grace, and Poinier and I were determined to do just that.

     We walked the few hundred yards up Bourbon Street and turned right on Market, stopping first at Splendor in Brass. Call it an antique, a collectible or just plain junk, Havre de Grace has it-under one roof or another. Here carousel horses and grandfather clocks preside over sashes full of stained glass and a small army of Tiffany lamps. Glass cases full of diamond studs and old pens made the big open room look like a dusty lost and found. We were soon immersed in the journey through other people’s lives, often catching a glimpse of our own in the process: Look, I had one just like that!

     Further down the street we found the Save-A-Lot food store-probably even closer to the water than the Acme in St. Michaels. It occupies a broad swath of blacktop on the corner of Market Street and Congress Avenue, just up from where the skipjack Martha Lewis docks alongside the paddleboat Lantern Queen. Both boats were under wraps, given the time of year, although the Lantern Queen would welcome visitors during the candlelight tour.The Martha Lewis takes groups out for dredge cruises during oyster season. During the summer, she loads passengers on a first-come-first-served basis (unless your group has made prior arrangements) for a run down the Bay. Her owner Allen Rawl rebuilt the boat in 1994 and began taking school groups out on Bay ecology trips.

     Poinier and I veered left and headed up St. John Street, still parallel to the river but getting more commercial and more holly-bedecked by the minute. We scampered up the steps to Ice Dreams Restaurant and Catering, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor that also boasts a full menu with an award-winning (eight times!) crabcake. It was still early enough in the morning that we bypassed the frozen and culinary delights, but we wondered aloud at the small outdoor eating area that overlooks, well, the street. Proprietor Lori Maslin explained that the alfresco balcony once had a more extensive water view, now reduced by the new Seneca Pointe condominiums abutting the renovated cannery across the street. (The cannery has since opened as Cannery Row Marketplace Antique Mall). While Maslin welcomed the clientele that came from the condos, others on the street were irked by the waterfront construction. It swallowed a lot of the water views along St. John Street, along with a long stretch of waterfront.

     We wandered on to the far northern edge of town, to the open house at the SusquehannaMuseum, one of the hubs of the candlelight tour-and, on this day, starting the party early with a Christmas boutique and refreshments.

     The SusquehannaMuseum commemorates local history, but especially focuses on the old Susquehanna and TidewaterCanal, which opened in 1840 and operated until around 1900. The canal funneled freight from the Pennsylvania hills down the river to the Havre de Grace railhead and steamship wharves. The museum building itself was once the lockkeeper’s house, built to serve as both canal office (at the canal’s entrance) and the lockkeeper’s residence. This sturdy, carefully restored brick building overlooks the first lock segment of the canal and the re-created swing bridge, which today carries pedestrians over the canal bed to the narrow slice of land separating it from the Susquehanna proper. Originally, this is where the mules would cross to the towpath, to begin the arduous task of hauling the canal boats upstream.

     Normally, the lockkeeper’s house is set up as a residence. Schoolchildren come in droves to get a dose of life as a 19th-century lockkeeper. On this day, though, the four downstairs rooms were jammed with Christmas greens, decorations and an assortment of attractive gifts for sale. The smell of mulled cider wafted above the denser scent of cedar and bayberry, and it lured me to a table where a cheery-faced woman in Colonial garb was ladling the stuff into paper cups for the asking. Perfect, I thought, as I sipped at the delightful brew. Now it was beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.

     Between the canal, the railroad and the steamship traffic that all converged on Havre de Grace during the 1800s, the town bustled with economic growth and activity. That would explain, of course, the smattering of Victorian homes listed on the candlelight tour-stellar examples of period architecture that preside over Havre de Grace’s main thoroughfare like fussy matrons at a Sunday social. But fishing and boatbuilding added to the general prosperity as well, and, after the Civil War, canning and manufacturing provided paychecks for many of the town’s residents. That would explain the more mundane character of some of the neighborhoods, where significantly more modest homes stand shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity with their working-class inhabitants.

     That Havre de Grace is undergoing another wave of economic expansion is apparent in more than just the renovation at Seneca Pointe and the slow-moving upgrade of blue-collar houses. New restaurants and cafes are cropping up alongside the antique and curio shops. And the waterfront, once clogged with empty warehouses, is rapidly filling in with condos and new marinas-too rapidly in the opinion of some residents. This kind of transition from down-at-the-heels to New Age-nouveau rubs at some people like a too-tight shoe, and the aches and pains of what the politicos like to call “commercial revitalization” occasionally plague an otherwise tranquil town. The most recent controversy, we learned, raged over a restaurant proposed for Concord Point, on the other end of town, right where we’re headed. That made us doubly curious to see what all the dither was about.

     While the central commercial district draws the antique buffs, the SusquehannaMuseum to the north and Concord Point on the south serve as bookends for the town, each holding up a volume or two of regional history and pulling in visitors looking for something besides shopping. Concord Point itself marks the confluence of the Susquehanna and the Chesapeake Bay-or more accurately, the Susquehanna Flats, where all the run-off from 444 miles of upstream development caches and settles in a broad delta.

     The Concord Point Lighthouse is one of the more picturesque on the Bay, if you ask me. Its lofty, white, cylindrical tower is capped by a still-working light. Currently maintained by the non-profit Friends of Concord Point Lighthouse, it is open by appointment during the winter season. It was decked out for the holidays with a festive wreath, but when we were there it was locked tighter than a drum. Next to it is the oddly named “Potato Battery,” marked by a cannon from the War of 1812. On this spot, the valiant lighthouse keeper John O’Neill single-handedly worked the array of guns placed there to defend the town against the British attack in May of 1813. He was ultimately captured by Admiral George Cockburn, and the town was burned. Supposedly, O’Neill’s daughter Matilda managed to talk the feisty British admiral into releasing her father-but you can read all about it yourself on the plaque that stands there next to the cannon.

     A broad wooden walkway completely wraps around Concord Point, leading pedestrians down the riverbank and along a natural wetlands till it connects with the MillardE.TydingsMemorial Park and the Havre de GraceCityYachtBasin. Plenty of benches provide resting, gawking, sketching, snoozing room for those mesmerized by the incredible vista of the river’s mouth. This is a convenient place to end a hike through town, and it’s small wonder that some would take a dim view of building a restaurant, complete with parking lot, in the open space of the promontory next to the lighthouse.

     The Havre de GraceDecoyMuseum overlooks the boardwalk from its hillside perch well away from the water’s edge. The modern-looking building is spacious and well lit, a fine repository for the items that make Havre de Grace proudly proclaim itself “Decoy Capital of the World.” Carefully constructed, life-size dioramas line the walls inside, showing a variety of hunting landscapes, boats and guns. A host of Bay carvers, modeled in wax, sit forever at their work benches. Carver Madison Mitchell’s tape-recorded voice describes the diorama of himself and other carvers in front of a potbelly stove-a scene originally photographed by A. Aubrey Bodine in 1942. Upstairs we found live carvers displaying their decoys and carvings and willing to share a tip or two with anyone eager to learn.

     Just down the hill and across the street from the lighthouse, the new Havre de GraceMaritimeMuseum, still under construction during our visit, will be open for visitors June 2001.

 

     Dusk was coming on and Havre de Grace was retreating indoors for its holiday reception. Already the streets were lined with paper luminaries to light the way for the candlelight tour. Houses liberally festooned with twinkling evergreen garlands were now officially open, and occasional snatches of holiday songs carried through the now nippy air. Small clutches of walkers trooped up and down the sidewalks, tour brochures in hand. Front doors opened into warmly lit hallways and living rooms glittering with tinsel. Bathed by thousands of holiday lights studding the gathering darkness, some of the Victorians were absolutely breathtaking. The SpencerSilverMansion, a B&B with turrets and elaborate gingerbread, looked as if it could stage a run-through of the Nutcracker ballet. Indeed, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

     But before Poinier and I could take on anymore of this festive folderol, we needed to revive our energy. We’d trekked from one side of Havre de Grace to the other, poked into shops, nodded through museums and gazed in awe at the view from Concord Point. It was time for . . .

     Chocolate! We’d heard about Bomboy’s, that little nondescript confectionary tucked out of the way on one of Havre de Grace’s side streets. For Bomboy’s alone I would brave the vagaries of the mighty Chesapeake, fly in the face of faulty fuel gauges, and voyage to the far ends of the Bay in the off-season, defying all common sense. Here in a plain block building not far from Concord Point (a new, larger shop is expected to open across the street by Thanksgiving), we found confectionary heaven: home-made chocolate and candies that would trump a sugar plum fairy’s dream. Candy canes, bonbons-even Scrooge’s favorite almond butter crunch. We had to buy him some, didn’t we? And while we were at it, a few of the rum cordials would be nice, a slice or two of almond bark, some caramel nougats, and . . .

     With a vast and nutritious assortment of goodies tucked under our arms, Poinier and I headed back to the boat, fully intending to spoil everyone’s dinner. Now it’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas, I thought to myself as I sampled one of the caramels on the sly. Its creamy sweetness was still on my tongue as we reached a warm and cozy Escort-a little naked perhaps without a single scrap of tinsel or twig of green, but our home for this holiday at any rate-and we were happy to hop onboard. When we pried open the Bomboy’s boxes, even Scrooge had to smile.