Havre de Grace, Md., the often bypassed little city at the tip of the Bay, once
again thinks something good is going to turn up.
by J. V. Reistrup
photograph by Scott Sullivan
Time and again as we sailed up the Chesapeake Bay into the broad mouth
of the Susquehanna River, we heard the plaintive whistles of passenger
trains before they crossed the bridge over the river: two longs, a
short and a long on a chord Amtrak has chosen to mimic the haunting
steam whistles of old. The sleek Acela and older Metroliner trains
would then rumble over the bridge, hauling people along the corridor
linking the big cities of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and
points north and south. We were making maybe a couple of knots, giving
many of them time to pass us by.
trains were sounding crossing warnings rather than signals that they
would stop, because they never do. Passenger trains all pass by Havre
de Grace, as do most automobiles and trucks heading north or south
along U.S. 40 and Interstate 95. So most people catch just a glimpse
out the window of this pretty little waterfront city. But they are
My wife Cathe had caught this glimpse many
times and resolved to stop and spend some time in Havre de Grace, which
she began to think of as "the little town that time forgot." We made
the trip by land several times, and each visit made us fonder of the
place. So we decided to come back and check it out by water.
we circled back away from the bridges toward the Havre de Grace City
Yacht Basin at the south end of town, a couple of cormorants burst out
of the water, flapping their wings noisily. These diving birds
disappear underwater, scoop up fish and emerge a surprising distance
away. Linwood "Woody" Fogg III, who was the guide for Cathe and me on
this waterborne visit, explained that to get up to takeoff speed they
have to flap their wings and paddle at the same time, and sometimes you
see them perched on a buoy with their waterlogged wings spread out to
dry. Like a lot of other creatures (including spawning rockfish), these
birds thrive in the shallow water of the Susquehanna Flats at the
river's mouth, which can be as shallow as one foot in depth—and can
lose that foot if a north wind blows the water out, or gain a foot if a
south wind pushes it up the Bay. There was plenty of water where we
were sailing, though, and we saw the skipjackMartha Lewisunder sail nearby with a load of students aboard for one of its
educational trips to teach kids about dredging for oysters under sail.
Everybody waved. "It's fun for the kids to see the sails up," remarked
Woody, who worked as a volunteer aboard the skipjack one summer.
sounds drifting across the water on this foggy day came occasionally
from barking dogs and continually from hammers and power saws at work
on new condos along the waterfront, getting ready for people who want
to stay instead of just passing by. There are more people coming in all
the time, adding to a population of about 11,000, and there will be
more as the U.S. Army transfers thousands of skilled military and
civilian workers to nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of the base
realignment and closure (BRAC) program to be completed by 2011.
Meanwhile, civilians (three large real estate and development
companies) are developing 600 acres nearby. Centered on the nationally
known Bulle Rock golf course (pronounced "Bully Rock" and named for the
first thoroughbred horse imported to the American colonies), the
residences specialize in "main floor living" that retiring baby boomers
find attractive because they don't have to keep going up and down steps.
Proving Ground and Bulle Rock represent the latest hope for Havre de
Grace to develop an economic engine after many disappointments in the
past—sometimes because technology marched on and once because the
favored activity, massive duck hunts for the market, was deemed immoral
and ruled illegal.
The city's location, just an hour or two
from major cities on the Eastern Seaboard, is one of the attractions
for people choosing a place to settle in retirement. It puts many of
them within easy reach of family. Others drawn to the city are boaters
from the Philadelphia area, like Woody, who tend to prefer the
Chesapeake to the less hospitable Delaware Bay.
City Yacht Basin by water on this quiet weekday late in the season, we
greeted fishermen in motorboats, working the shallows on either side of
the well marked entry, and passed workers on a barge replacing a
bulkhead on Tydings Island, a manmade island which protects the marina
from the south. There were few people around the marina, and the boats
were all moored, unlike the throngs on land and water when we visited
the city by car last summer.
It's a spacious and inviting
marina, but we didn't stay this time. We headed back north toward
Tidewater Marina, closer to the shops in the center of town and closer
to the hotel we had booked. As we passed the town-built promenade, or
boardwalk, wrapping around the curve of the point, we could see the
stately Bayou Hotel on the hill.
We had deliberately chosen a
quiet time of year to make our exploration by water. Havre de Grace
apparently wants to minimize these quiet times, though, because it
continually schedules special events to draw visitors—a May
re-enactment of the 1813 attack by British invaders, a bull and oyster
roast to raise money for theMartha Lewis,
a New Year's Eve "duck drop" party, concerts and Shakespeare
performances in the parks, a July 4 (or thereabouts) parade, and on and
The town had pulled out all the stops during last summer's
Mari*Fest, when Cathe and I made our most recent land trip. The City
Yacht Basin dock was packed with spectators and honored guests as city,
county and state officials lined up at a podium to welcome the crew of
the Captain John Smith shallop on its tour up the Bay. The crew of 12
had spent 72 days sailing and rowing 800 miles from Jamestown, Va., up
the Bay to get to Havre de Grace on its journey to re-create Smith's
explorations in 1607 and 1608.
Ceremonies and speeches over,
many in the crowd stayed to talk to the shallop's crew, then headed off
along the promenade to less formal festivities. Joining them, Cathe and
I passed a sign on the town pier assuring anglers that state fishing
licenses aren't required between signs. We were reminded of the signs
in the Toronto Islands park that said "Please walk on the grass," and
the inviting public walk alongside the Potomac River at Hains Point in
The similarly inviting, city-owned promenade in
Havre de Grace wraps beyond the pier around the southern end of the
city for about a half a mile, offering the public an unimpeded,
panoramic vista across the river and down the Bay. Up on a hill to the
left was the magnificent old Bayou Hotel, souvenir of Prohibition. The
luxury hotel opened in the 1920s, offering a speakeasy and thriving for
a while, but that source of prosperity didn't last. Fortunately, the
old building has been preserved and converted to condominium
apartments. It still looks elegant.
On the promenade we ran into
Brigitte Layton, the city's director of tourism, who told us the appeal
of Havre de Grace goes beyond its near neighbors. "You know what's
amazing is the calls I'm getting from relocation people about people
who want to move here from Florida," she told us. "They're tired of the
storms but they still want to live near the water."
At the end
of the promenade sat the Concord Point Lighthouse and its surrounding
park, packed on this festive day by the tents of vendors. Visitors
streamed up and down the 35 steep steps of the lighthouse to the
lantern room. The first keeper of the lighthouse after it was built in
1827 was the patriot John O'Neill, as a reward for being the only
member of the local militia who stuck around to fire the town's only
cannon at the British when they invaded and burned the city on May 14,
The story goes that the British admiral, Sir George
Cockburn, had O'Neill arrested and ordered him hanged for treason
(refusing to respect the Irish-born O'Neill's status as a naturalized
American) until O'Neill's teenage daughter Matilda rowed out to plead
with the admiral to release him. Cockburn was so impressed with Matilda
that he gave her his gold snuff box, and the citizens of Philadelphia
later presented O'Neill with a sword for his bravery.
lighthouse keeper's job stayed in the O'Neill family for generations,
and both the snuff box and sword are on display in the old lighthouse
keeper's house across the street. The heroic daughter gets her due,
too. In one of Havre de Grace's many celebrations, little girls are
invited to bring their dolls and gather for "tea with Matilda" at the
Susquehanna Museum at the Lockhouse at the north end of town—also the
site of a re-enactment of the British raid.
Locals told us the
keeper's house went through some tough times, including years as a
somewhat seedy bar. But it was extensively renovated and now houses
displays about the keepers and their families, as well as a gift shop.
Exhibits depicting the history of lighthouses are designed to be
understandable to kids. Both the lighthouse and keeper's house are
surrounded by a five-block cultural heritage park that is part of the
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network coordinated by the National Park
Cathe and I walked across the street from the keeper's
house on Giles Street to the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, stopping
to chat with one of the museum's volunteers, Bob Clelland. On this day
he was driving a free shuttle bus to take visitors from the free
parking site behind the museum to events scattered around town. After
spending 33 years with General Motors, the last 13 in Baltimore,
Clelland took a buyout and bought a house on the water in Havre de
Grace. From there he walks up to Jana's Java coffee shop every morning,
he said, and volunteers his time in what he considers an ideal
retirement community. "This is a wonderful small town," he added.
were to keep running into other people who turned their backs on the
high-tech world to come to Havre de Grace. They often volunteer for
museums and for events like this, and they tend to express the same
sentiments as Clelland. The day after the American Legion parade in
June, we were told proudly, civic spirit left the streets spotless.
and outside the museum were boats, both historic and brand new. Besides
extensive displays of traditional watercraft and how they were built,
the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders School offers hands-on training
including a summer class for teens from 13 to 15 years old. Each builds
his or her own flat-bottom canoe, taking it home ready to launch,
volunteer Harry Glover told us. This year the museum plans to add a new
exhibit about life 400 years ago.
Farther along Giles Street is
the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, commemorating another enterprise that
once flourished in the town but has had its day. The Susquehanna Flats
used to attract so many ducks that they were said to darken the sky, so
market hunters came up with ingenious ways to harvest that bountiful
crop. Docents showed us some of their tools, including huge guns
designed to bring down a flock at a time and weighted "sinkboats,"
which lay low in the water with hunters inside. These craft were built
with shelves of wood around them, floating on the surface and painted
to resemble water with half-depth duck decoys perched on top. Full
decoys were placed in the water all around to bolster the effect.
Sinkboats eventually were ruled illegal, but decoy carving survived as
an art form highly prized by collectors.
The boats and guns are
on the first floor, along with half and full decoys, but a perhaps more
arresting (if not spooky) exhibit occupies the floor above. Sitting
inside glass cases are lifelike replicas of some famous decoy carvers,
each surrounded by examples of his handiwork. Each carver agreed to
donate decoys plus a set of work clothes and to sit still while plastic
molds were made of his face and hands. The docent pointed out to us
that one carver's mouth was partly open, because he couldn't go without
smoking for long and had to sneak a few puffs while the mold was
Cathe and I discovered an anomaly amidst all these
museums: Next door to the Concord Point Lighthouse and directly across
the street from the keeper's house sits a private home, and one of
contemporary design at that. It happened that the owner was standing
outside, chatting with a friend, when we strolled by. Like so many
other people we ran into in Havre de Grace, he had a story and was
eager to tell it.
Steve Gamatoria, who was born and raised in Havre
de Grace, is one of the many community activists you may run into on a
visit to the town. He has served as a firefighter, high school soccer
coach and now president of the City Council. His day job is with a
company in North East, Md., that installs, inspects and repairs fire
and smoke dampers, SafeCheck.
Gamatoria explained that he and
his father Charlie, who worked for the telephone company, bought the
property after they hit the lottery in the 1990s. The house was run
down and almost entirely concealed by vegetation, he said. They cleared
it all out, restored the house and built a fence and pier.
2003, not long after they had finished, Hurricane Isabel struck. The
Bay is shaped like a giant funnel, with Havre de Grace at its narrow
end, so when this hurricane swept northward it reversed the Bay's usual
process of carrying Susquehanna River water south to the Atlantic.
Instead, it gathered tons of water in a storm surge, drove it north and
dumped it in Havre de Grace.
Gamatoria pointed to a plaque on
the door jamb showing how high the surge rose. "My pier we found
three-quarters of a mile north," he said, and it was put back "very
well seasoned." The storm also tore the city's prized promenade from
its pilings, and the city had to rebuild it.
The Susquehanna can
pose its own problems, because it sometimes floods too. The Conowingo
Dam four miles upstream, which provides power to the region, has 52
gates that can be opened to accommodate flood crests. Normally seven
are open, Gamatoria said. If 20 are open, Cecil County across the river
will be affected, and if 30 are open "we start paying attention." But
"the major factor here is the surge coming up the Bay, because it has
nowhere to go," he said.
Just north of the Gamatoria house on
Concord Street, new condominiums are going up along the shoreline. We
noticed that the five floors intended for human habitation start on the
second level above the street. Under them, the first level is open for
vehicles and other things that can be removed quickly before the water
pours through. There is a height limit on the condos, Gamatoria told
us. The older homes on the streets behind them are in a historic
district on higher ground.
Havre de Grace is carefully planning
to handle the growth while keeping its historic character. The name is
French for "haven of grace" and goes back to the Marquis de Lafayette,
who suggested it when he passed through as an aide to General George
Washington. Inspired by his suggestion, the people of the town
incorporated as the City of Havre de Grace in 1785 and sprinkled French
names among those of American Revolutionary heroes when it laid out its
The city's geographic position gave it an initial
advantage as a commercial center, starting as the southern terminus of
a ferry linking it to Perryville, Md., and Pennsylvania beyond. In the
early 1800s it was even under consideration to replace Philadelphia as
the U.S. capital, losing out to the District of Columbia by a single
dis-appointing vote. Soon afterward the Sus-quehanna & Tidewater
Canal was built, connecting Havre de Grace with Pennsylvania towns up
the Susquehanna, but railroads came along and the canal eventually
closed. The Susquehanna Museum at the Lockhouse commemorates that era.
industrial revolution struck the city a glancing blow, bringing a fish
cannery, lumber company and a shoe factory. The town never developed
the kind of economic engine other some young colonial communities did,
but there was prosperity enough to pay for some lovely houses that
still survive in the historic district roughly bounded by Juniata and
Stokes streets. Now industry has left, and the waterfront is dominated
by condominiums, marinas and public parks.
The Tidewater Marina,
where we docked our boat, sits among them. At the top of the parking
lot behind it is the marina's expansive marine supply store, which
opens onto streets full of shops dating back to the 19th century. Cathe
was especially taken by The Picture Show, with its owner's whimsical
clay fish sculptures. We paused to check the menu in the window at the
Laurrapin Grille, and a passerby offered unsolicited advice: "Tell you
what, that's the best food in town, right there. The best." We didn't
check out all the restaurants in Havre de Grace but we did try the
Laurrapin; the food was delicious and the restaurant offers a view of
We stayed overnight at the Old Chesapeake Hotel over
Ken's Steak & Rib House on North Union Avenue, where the old hotel
rooms have been converted to comfortable suites. Gangster and gambler
Al Capone was said to have stayed in the hotel in the early 20th
century so he could take in races at the since-closed Havre de Grace
Racetrack (known as "the Graw"), which drew famous horses like Man O'
War and Citation.
The hotel building, now owned by the city, is
rented and operated by the Ruggiero family. The Ruggieros moved to
Havre de Grace from Massachusetts, where David Ruggiero was an
electrical engineer. He and his wife Mary manage it, and son Chris,
with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, runs the restaurant.
The hotel rooms have been converted into suites for long-term living.
Bomboy family has been in Havre de Grace longer, and opened their own
business about a quarter century ago. Barry and Jean Bomboy moved into
a two-story building on Market Street with a storefront below and an
apartment above and started making homemade chocolate candies of
extensive and inventive variety—including, of course, chocolate ducks.
The Bomboys did so well that they were able to build a larger factory
and shop across the street, turning the original building into an
ice-cream shop run by their daughter Kathy and son Charlie. Both shops
do a brisk trade with tourists, especially those with kids, and the
ice-cream shop is packed on hot days.
Yes, Havre de Grace is
happy to help businesses who cater to the tourist market. In fact,
because Route 40 (which runs just west of "downtown" Havre de Grace)
became a depressed area after the development of I-95, Aberdeen and
Havre de Grace have been designated an Enterprise Zone offering tax
credits to businesses locating there. So for a town that survived
pillaging by the British in the war of 1812, decades of economic
setback after setback and Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the people of Havre
de Grace seem perfectly happy with the city's modern niche as a tourist
town. As Steve Gamatoria aptly put it, "That's what we want to be."
Cruiser's Digest: Havre de Grace, Md.
you are coming up from the Chesapeake Bay toward Havre de Grace, past
Fishing Battery Light, you need to stay in the channel—particularly
between green "11" and green "13" as it goes through islands in the
shallow Susquehanna Flats. Above that point, there is good water
outside the channel to green "17" off the entrance to City Yacht Basin,
which has its own well marked channel.
City Yacht Basin (410-939-0015,www.havredegracemd.comunder "Departments") is managed by Havre de Grace to provide affordable
water access to the public, including a boat ramp, fishing pier,
docking for transients at $1 per foot per night, and 275 slips for
annual rental. Food, fuel, pump-out, showers and other services are
available. The dockmaster monitors channels 16 and 68.
nice stroll along the boardwalk from City Yacht Basin to some of the
city's most popular museums. If you want to take in more, you may
choose to ride a bike. It's about 16 blocks through the main part of
town to the Susquehanna Museum and park at the old canal lock house on
the north end, and there are other attractions beyond that including
Susquehanna State Park. Bikes can be rented from Biller's Bikes, close
to City Yacht Basin, or they can deliver to your boat (443-502-2377,www.billersbikes.com).
Farther north and more centrally located is Tidewater Marina (410-939-0951,www.tidewatermarina.com)
an attractive, full-service operation with bathhouses, a picnic area
and an expansive marine supply store opening onto the main business
district. Rates for transients are $1.50 a foot, and the marina offers
a courtesy shuttle. Some anchorage may be available offshore, although
much of the space is taken up by local boaters' mooring balls. The
charter operation and sailing school BaySail (410-939-2869,www.baysail.net),
is also based there, offering an attractive option for those who want
to get out on the water at Havre de Grace without sailing all the way
To enter Tidewater Marina, pass lighted green "17" and
head toward moored boats outside the marina. A two-story building with
a reddish roof marks the main entrance to the marina. To its right,
beyond a longer one-story brown roof, is the fuel dock, channel entry
and B dock. Tidewater monitors channel 16, will switch you to channel 9
and will greet you at the dock.
Still farther north, there is anchorage off the Tidewater Grille (410-939-3313,www.thetidewatergrille.com),
which also offers free mooring to diners—probably a more attractive
choice option for powerboaters than sailors because of susceptibility
to shoaling there.