Issue: November 2002
Port of Princes

Things really heated up when the British came to town. Since then, quiet Georgetown, Md., on the Sassafras River has come into its own as a place for boaters and their boats.

 

     “Boats.” That was her answer. She leanedforward in the pleasantly overstuffed armchair in her newly renovated living room and simply breathed it. “Boats.” Charlotte Dennett Staelin and I were talking about Georgetown, Md., the exquisitely small village on the banks of the Sassafras River where the Route 213 bridge connects Kent and Cecil counties. Her family, the Woodalls, has lived there for five generations, and I had asked her how on earth Georgetown had managed to sustain itself after British marines sacked the place in 1813, scaring the bejabbers out of the local citizenry and burning or carrying away virtually everything of value. “Boats” is the simple answer, and in some ways self-explanatory for those who know contemporary Georgetown well-the place is wall-to-wall boats, and little else. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

     I had driven up Staelin’s driveway on a whim. Colchester Farm, bought by her great-grandfather James Woodall, borders the village of Georgetown and drops to the water’s edge not far from where Georgetown Yacht Basin stops and the shoreline of Dyer Creek begins. This is also where the story of Georgetown itself begins, with a man named Gideon Pearce, who started operating a ferry from his Colchester estate across the narrow waist of the Sassafras River to Pennington’s Point in 1713. A wide, deep channel scoured the river bottom here and created a natural harbor that allowed cargo ships to just about kiss the shore, making it easy to load them with the tobacco harvested from the surrounding farms. Ballast stones from some of those early ships line part of Staelin’s cellar.

     I was already knee-deep in Georgetown history, but everything I’d read came to a dead stop with the burning of the town in 1813, when Rear Admiral George Cockburn and 500 British marines stormed the villages that had sprouted on either side of the ferry crossing. I wanted to fill in two centuries’ worth of blank pages, understand the transformation between then and now, find the story of survival and revival. I was hoping Char Staelin would be able to delve into her family history and fill in some of that empty space. Fortunately, I found her at home and at her leisure. Over a hot cup of tea and looking out across sweeping farm fields, she chatted about summers spent with her grandparents in their house on Front Street. She remembered this and that, and I listened and took notes. Through my conversations with her and her older cousin Kitty Baxter (both of them grandparents themselves), and their generous sharing of yellowed obituaries and sepia prints, a picture slowly began to emerge, and my “blank pages” began to glow with life. The whole story is far more interesting than just “boats.”

     Today Georgetown and its sibling across the river, Fredericktown, look prosperous enough-especially from the water.  Cruising boaters can count five substantial marinas below the bridge that links the twin villages nestled at the river’s edge. A working boatyard lies just above the narrow span. Bristling with docks and dotted with scores of moorings, the harbor lies about nine miles up the Sassafras, a truly lovely river full of high-banked creeks and ringed with beaches. Thanks to agricultural easements and thoughtful land use, a thick band of trees walls off a good three-quarters of the river’s main stem, making it seem as verdant and natural as anything John Smith may have laid eyes on when he arrived in 1608. Smith dubbed it the Tockwogh River, to honor the people who then lived on its banks. And he declared it the loveliest of the Bay’s rivers.

     My true love Clint and I wouldn’t have argued with him. We took a day to explore its shoreline, nosing into the creeks and coasting along the beaches. Sunlight dusted the water and a welcome breeze stirred the waves into a playful chop. Negotiating our small runabout through a more than occasional slurry of not-so-playful boat wakes was unnerving at times, but no worse than a Saturday on the South or Severn or Miles rivers. Boats were everywhere: pulled into the beaches, anchored out in the coves, rafted up in the creeks. And people were sunbathing, swimming (no nettles here), reading, partying or just watching the world go by. We had discovered a well traveled river, mightily enjoyed by a horde of resident boaters and swarms of visitors from the Bay and beyond. And there was still plenty of empty space leftover, plenty of secluded spots had we wanted to wrap ourselves in peace and quiet.

     Farmers settled on this river four hundred years ago, and for the most part, they never left. Just about everywhere we went, the shoreline was surprisingly undeveloped. From my reading I gathered that it had been hard to develop this land from the beginning. Petitions to lay out towns in these parts were bandied about the Maryland colonial assembly as early as 1683, perhaps earlier, but nothing took root. By then the river was called the Sassafras (or Sassafrax by some; I never discovered why or when the name Tockwogh was discarded). During the mid-1600s a ferry had operated between Ordinary Point and the would-be town of Kentmore (sanctioned by the colonial government, but never actualized, unless you count the summer community that sprang up there in the 1930s). As the 18th century dawned, other towns were proposed; still nothing happened (and modern developers think they’ve got headaches). Finally, in 1736, the people of Cecil County, on the north side of the Sassafras, took the bull by the horns and asked the colonial legislature for permission to lay out a town from which county farmers could conveniently ship their tobacco. They designated the land on the north shore at Gideon Pearce’s crossing (a place known then and now as Happy Harbor), about four miles overland from the county seat at Cecilton and four miles upriver from Ordinary Point. Kent County offered its own petition a few days later, for a town to “be called George Town” on the south side of Pearce’s ferry. Pearce, who stood to make a bundle (of tobacco of course) on the deal, was one of the petitioners.

     And so came two towns to roost on opposite banks of the Sassafras: Fredericktown on the north, Georgetown on the south. History books and otherwise learned scholars will tell you that the towns are named for the sons of King George II, then the reigning monarch of England. Fredericktown was no doubt named in honor of the Prince of Wales. But his brother George had died as an infant some 20 years earlier, so it’s more likely that Georgetown was named after the king himself, George II. (Frederick’s own son George, who ascended the throne as George III and presided over the loss of his American colonies, wasn’t born until 1738.)

     Regardless of the name game, within 10 years of their founding each town had its own tobacco inspection station and its own official tobacco inspector-and here’s where boats start coming into play. Besides warehousing great quantities of raw materials gleaned from the neighboring countryside, the twin towns played host to any number of ships that arrived to carry it all away. Shipbuilding never amounted to much along the Sassafras shoreline, but ship owning was a lucrative business. Although tobacco cultivation petered out, it gave way to the amber waves of grain that still blanket much of the northern Eastern Shore. And boats carrying that grain sailed from the Sassafras River to the ravenous world beyond.

     Naturally, all these boats had to be maintained. Because the Sassafras runs fresh, ship captains would gladly tarry-at least long enough to rid their bottoms of teredo worms. Who knows what work they may have commissioned while they waited for their holds to fill. Enter folks like Simon Woodall, Charlotte Staelin’s great-great-great-grandfather, born in what is now Queen Anne’s County, a carpenter by trade and married to a Georgetown girl by 1813. No one really knows what kind of carpentry work he did, but it’s safe to assume that between ship and shore he kept plenty busy.

     Then all hell broke loose. Imagine the terror of that single day and night of May 6, 1813. Rear Admiral George Cockburn (who would lead the sack of Washington 15 months later), in charge of the British fleet and doing his utmost to cut off lines of travel and trade on the Chesapeake, was still dusting the ashes of Havre de Grace from his jacket when he barged up the Sassafras to decapitate the shipping hub that supplied the upstart nation and its army with bread. He later claimed that he had no intention of burning the towns, and had in fact sent word through two mulatto workmen that if he met with no resistance he would actually pay for anything he claimed. (American witnesses disputed this. No one had received any such message, they said, certainly not from anyone “respectable” enough to be believed.) And then the uppity churls had the gall to fire on him. Infuriated, Cockburn seemed bent on complete destruction as he slid up the river in the dark morning.

     And of course the towns resisted. Militias from both counties rallied and marched to the river. News had traveled swiftly from Havre de Grace. Since that now smoldering town had received no quarter from Cockburn, there was little reason to believe the Sassafras waterfront would be spared. Cockburn’s barges steered clear of the Kent County defenses, but the Cecil County militia laid into the British with such force that Cockburn reportedly quailed, thinking he faced a regimental army. Nonetheless, he persisted, much to the Cecil County warriors’ chagrin. By some accounts, many of the militiamen carried only one or two rounds of ammunition. Little wonder then that half their party fled within minutes of the first exchange, prudence overcoming valor. The others fought on for another half hour before retreating.

     Then Cockburn’s rampage began. Starting in Fredericktown, British soldiers went house to house, looting and burning indiscriminately-conveniently claiming to be rooting out militia captain Colonel T. W. Veazey. The principle merchants on the Cecil County side were brothers James and John Allen, who owned warehouses and a granary, as well as their own substantial residences and dependencies. James had stood fast with the militia but was captured by Cockburn when he returned to protect his home (the militia uniform was a dead giveaway). After James was dragged off, John Allen reportedly begged Cockburn to preserve the family property, their homes at least, to no avail. When Cockburn moved to torch James’s house, John frantically tried to stop him. James’s wife had given birth two days before and was quite ill, John said. She couldn’t be moved. Cockburn was unpersuaded. Fortunately the lady’s mother, a Mrs. McDonough, had fire enough in her tongue to repulse the admiral. The soldiers moved on, sparing James Allen’s house-though it was one of only a few left intact on the Fredericktown side of the river. The house apparently no longer stands; there is neither plaque nor local legend to commemorate Mrs. McDonough’s deed, recorded by Donald G. Shomette in his book Lost Towns of Tidewater Maryland (Tidewater Publishers, 2002). Curiously, James Allen was released when brother John suggested to Cockburn that since he had destroyed his family’s wealth, he should at least restore his business partner so they could start over. But it might have been pragmatism rather than charity that spurred Cockburn’s parting gesture; keeping track of surly prisoners has its own headaches, and he apprehended no one else on this sortie.

     It didn’t take long for the British to set upon Georgetown, by far the more populous side of the river at that time. Townspeople had already fled in a panic, leaving behind a wealth of stored grain, livestock and household furnishings. The granary was torched. The shoemaker’s shop was leveled, the tavern and storehouse were ransacked and burned. Even the shack where the ferryman lived with his pig was fair game. At the top of the hill overlooking the harbor, the feisty Kitty Knight fended off Cockburn and his troops when they began to burn the two brick houses that stood there. (This redoubtable lady lived long enough to purchase one of the houses she saved and to tell her ownstory ad nauseum-and so it is recounted today on every menu, brochure and placard even marginally related to Georgetown.) Across the street, the posh brick boarding school (now Duck Hollow) also survived, but its furnishings-including an array of valuable musical instruments-were hauled out to the front lawn and torched. The boarding school later made the greatest claim for reparations.

     The traditional histories of Georgetown pretty much stop here, with smoke still wafting above the scorched shoreline. Clint and I tried to imagine it as we motored toward the harbor, past afternoon raft-ups and a steady stream of vessels coming and going. There had only been three or four visiting boats at the wharves when Cockburn arrived; he burned them all. Apparently the “resident” boats (James and John Allen, for example, owned a fleet between them, and there were other shipowners in the towns) were somewhere else. How different the situation today, when hundreds of boats representing millions of dollars stay year round at the Georgetown docks.

     We scanned the shoreline looking for signs of battle-an oddly shaped hummock of grass that might conceal an old foundation, maybe. No such luck. The scars of 1813 have long since disappeared, along with the bustling waterfront villages that cowered before Cockburn’s attack. But neither was there anything to indicate the transition from charred ruins to today’s boating mecca. How did people manage to hang on after Cockburn left?

     Family histories pick up where the history books leave off. According to his descendants, Simon Woodall, while his family probably hid in the woods with neighbors, stood with the Kent County defenders and watched the British leave, before turning to the task of dousing fires, dressing wounds and surveying the damage. There was plenty to keep a carpenter busy, and when Woodall’s sons Edward and Andrew were old enough, he put them to work as well. After all, Cockburn burned the town, but not the industry. In fact, there may have been precious little in the granaries so early in the spring, but within a few short months, grain would again be piling up on the Sassafras shores. Although little of residential Georgetown or Fredericktown was re-established, the wharves and warehouses revived and boats came and went as before.

     Young Andrew Woodall-Char Staelin’s great-great-grandfather-was industrious enough, but he didn’t care much for carpentry. He invested in a small sailing packet before he was 20; before he was 30, he controlled a small fleet. When he died in 1906, Captain Andrew Woodall was the wealthiest man in Kent County, having amassed a fortune in land, lumber and grain, as well as a fleet of boats, which by then included the first powerboats on the river and, significantly, a sailing yacht. By that time, train tracks cut across the county, and shipping had moved from cargo hold to railcar. But sailing yachts were another thing entirely. After all, it was still easier to get up and down the river by boat than by horse and buggy. And recreational sailing was a pleasant way to pass the time. The captain was not the only one who kept a private yacht for recreational purposes, and his great-great grandchildren talk of boating parties and friendly races as an established way of life by the time they’d arrived on the river.

     On a clear day in the mid-1930s, three decades after Captain Woodall’s death, a plane soared over the Sassafras River, carrying a photographer who captured a bird’s-eye view of the Georgetown and Fredericktown harbors. The black-and-white print shows wharves holding up the sinuous riverbank like a whalebone corset. A few commercial buildings sit at the water’s edge. And sprinkled across the south side of the river, about 50 pleasure boats swing at anchor. These aren’t fishing boats; there isn’t a skipjack or deadrise to be seen. They are yachts, plain and fancy, used for Sunday outings and family picnics, owned by the gentleman farmers whose outlying farms had so long supplied the harbor with grain, and by wealthy summer refugees from Wilmington and Philadelphia. Yachting on the Sassafras was in full swing.

     Not long after this photograph was taken, Captain John Woodall Wilson pounded a couple of stakes into the water off property he owned on the north bank of the river, adjacent to the swing bridge that had long ago replaced the ferry. He did it to accommodate some friends who kept their boats on moorings in the river and wanted easier access from the shore. At their request, he eventually built a ramp leading from the shoreline to their boats. Then he put in another ramp, and the Sassafras Boat Company was born, catering to the fleet of yachts out in the harbor, drawing them off their moorings and into the convenience of its docks and covered slips. Next door, on the east side of the bridge, the Berg Boatbuilding Company started up in the 1940s. About five years after that, across the river, the Hall family, proprietors of the Kitty Knight House (the two original brick buildings were by then joined together with a brick hyphen and served as a country inn), built a dock, hoping to attract Sunday boaters. The boaters came, but they weren’t necessarily looking for Sunday supper-they were looking for boat slips. Within a few years, the Halls were in the marina business full tilt, operating Georgetown Yacht Basin. They sold off the inn in 1954.

     Though a cannery operated well into the 1950s, other commercial enterprises along the water’s edge succumbed one by one to boating interests, making way for docks, docks and more docks as the marinas slowly expanded. The old Fredericktown granary was even converted into a restaurant-also with slips to rent.

     By mid-afternoon, Clint and I decided to find a bite to eat, so we headed straight for town. If we hadn’t known better, we might have thought the river dead-ends at Georgetown. Docks and boat sheds so crowd the channel that the bridge (a new drawbridge now) is completely obscured until you’re just about on it.

     Plenty of boats swing on moorings, mostly sailboats these days. And the vast roofs of the covered slips, at both the Georgetown Yacht Basin and the Sassafras Harbor Marina (which replaced the Sassafras Boat Company in 1994), doubtless cover more space collectively than all of the buildings in town. But beyond the bridge, the river widens again, with verdant shoreline on the left and a series of unpretentious residential properties on the right. Intrigued, we ignored our stomachs and motored close to Gregg Neck Boat Yard, ogling the collection of boats on the ways or moored to its sprawling docks-classic wooden sail and powerboats, and new construction projects of all shapes and sizes. Then we scooted back through the bridge, parked the boat, and climbed the hill to the Kitty Knight House for lunch and a spectacular view of the harbor.

     There’s not much to do in Georgetown, truth be told, which might explain why everyone is aways out on the river. On the Fredericktown side of the harbor you can ponder the “gallery” of old Fredericktown photographs interspersed on office walls throughout the Sassafras Harbor Marina complex. Wander along the road there, past the Sassafras T-Shirt Shop, to the Sassafras Studio, one of the oldest buildings in Fredericktown, dating back to 1820, and now an antiques shop. (The house next to the public landing across the street, charred now from a recent fire, could be even older, though no one can say if it predates 1813.) If you venture uphill on Schoolhouse Lane, past Brian Coffay’s tiny Sassafras Yacht Sales office, you’ll come to the old one-room schoolhouse, boarded up tight. Circling back down the hill, on Route 213, you’ll pass Gull Cottage, a sweet little junque shop operated by yacht broker Bea Gebhardt, whose Odyssey Ltd. office is right next door.

     Beyond that, you can nosh at one of several eateries. You can rent a bike and pedal up to the antiques stores in Galena (about a mile down Route 213 south). You can buy a boat, rent a boat, sell a boat, repair a boat or build a boat. And you can probably sit for hours on the Kitty Knight House porch drinking tea or sipping wine, and try to imagine what the harbor looked like before the conflagration. Had Cockburn himself been afforded such respite, perhaps he too would have been mesmerized by that rippling stretch of river. Or maybe he would have torched the place anyway. And sitting here admiring the end result, I’m inclined to thank the touchy old firebug.