Issue: April 2008
FEATURE DESTINATION: Gracious Host

Aerial shot of some of havre de grace's coves

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. 

The 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 missing something. 

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.

As 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.

Other 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.

Aberdeen 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.

Approaching the 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 on.

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 Washington, D.C.

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, 1813.

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.

The 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 Service.

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.

We 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.

Inside 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 setting.

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.

In 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 streets.

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.

The 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 the water.

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.

The 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.

If 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.

It's a 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 there.

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.


[04.08 issue]