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Cecil County Life

Walking through history

Oct 26, 2018 01:06PM ● By J. Chambless

The Tome Carriage House was probably built when the Tome mansion was built in 1850. It once held the carriages belonging to Jacob Tome. It has been a livery stable and taxi business, and now holds a meeting hall.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

If you pause anywhere on Main Street in Port Deposit and ignore the passing cars, you could just as easily be standing in 1860, when the mile-long town on the Susquehanna River was bustling with 2,000 inhabitants and booming with commercial opportunities. Many of the town's homes have changed little – or not at all – since they were built, and the feeling of time travel is everywhere.

As a prime hunting and fishing ground, the site of Port Deposit was inhabited for centuries by the Susquehannock Indians before the arrival of Captain John Smith in 1608, who attempted to navigate the river until his ship got stuck on rocks in the shallow water. There were more than 600 Native Americans living along the shore at the time. Their stone tools and arrowheads are on display at the Paw Paw Museum in Port Deposit, where the whole history of the scrappy little town can be explored.

Volunteers staff the museum a few days a month, and guide visitors in their exploration of Port Deposit.

George Maldeis, a board member of the Port Deposit Heritage Corporation, was at the museum on a September afternoon, when visitors included Carolyn Roberts Simons and Lydia Roberts Brown, who grew up on the Mount Ararat dairy farm nearby. Their mother and father are in photos in the musem's upstairs room. Maldeis welcomed them, shared anecdotes, and pointed out photos and maps that revealed the rich history of the town.

“That sort of thing happens a lot,” Maldeis said after the women had left to walk around the town. “People will just bring in artifacts and drop them off here.” Consequently, the museum is brimming with an eclectic collection that includes arrowheads, Civil War letters, signs that used to hang in the downtown, a wagon wheel, hundreds of photos, and an archive of documents and images on two floors of the building. Whether you're in town for sightseeing or doing extensive research on genealogy, the Paw Paw Museum (named for the tree outside the front door that still bears fruit each season) is the place to go.

Maldeis, referring to an 1812 map of the town that hangs in the museum, pointed out homes that are still standing, as well as extensive docks and industrial buildings along the river that have since been replaced by condominiums, a park and new businesses. But the basic structure of Port Deposit hasn't changed much since the 1800s. Hemmed in by the river on one side, and a hill – almost a cliff – on the other side, it has survived the centuries thanks to industry, the hard work of common people, and a few key benefactors.

There are references to a mill being operated in 1731, and an inn before that. Granite was being quarried from the north of the town as early as 1789. Given its position on the river, Port Deposit was a key shipping port for lumber and grain coming down the river, as well as the town's distinctive granite. The dark gray stone is everywhere in Port Deposit, in the homes and the sidewalks, and is also used in the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City.

With so much work available in the quarries, mills, factories and lumber yards, Port Deposit attracted a large community of immigrant workers who both made the town run and drew the disdain of upper-class white residents and neighbors. In 1834, it held the only place to do banking between Wilmington and Baltimore. It was the eighth largest town in Maryland at the time of the Civil War.

Men who grew rich from the industries in Port Deposit built grand homes out of the native stone, set up banks and businesses, and helped the tiny town boom. One of them was Jacob Tome, who arrived peniless in 1833 but made a fortune in the lumber business. As a wealthy man, he gave back to Port Deposit, establishing a free school system in 1889, and five years later opening the Jacob Tome Institute. Within four years, more than 600 children were attending classes there. When Tome died in 1898, a boarding school for boys was built on the high bluff overlooking the town.

As railroads took the place of the huge river barges formerly used to transport goods in and out of Port Deposit, the town was connected to major trade markets north and south. In 1927, the Conowingo Dam cut off the town's ability to ship goods north, the Depression crippled the nation, and the quarries slowed down as building projects dwindled.

The Tome School closed in 1940, but the sprawling property was taken over by the U.S. Navy to become its principal training center on the East Coast. The population swelled to nearly 35,000 recruits at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center. When the facility closed in 1976, it left buildings filled with asbestos insulation and vast fields of coal ash, and it remains shuttered pending a cleanup. In 1981, Wiley Manufacturing Company, which had filled the riverfront, closed its doors, further crippling Port Deposit.

By the 1990s, however, there was a turnaround, and the Tome's Landing condominium community was built where factories had once stood, and Marina Park was opened on the last former industrial zone. Documenting all the changes was the Port Deposit Heritage Corporation, which in 1975 began repairing a derelict building in town and turning it into the museum. Today, a dedicated corps of volunteers keeps the history of Port Deposit alive.

While volunteers such as George Maldeis keep the doors open and help preserve the town's legacy, he also acknowledged that the Susquehanna River is frequently the enemy of the town. Pulling out photographs from the 1800s and 1900s, he shows how often the river has frozen, overflowed its banks and sent cascades of ice down Main Street, often sweeping away the wooden buildings. When times were good, companies would just rebuild them. The railroad added an embankment between the river and the downtown which can trap floodwaters, and the rivers that feed into the Susquehanna add to the flooding problem during heavy rains.

It has been, Maldeis said, a story of flooding and rebuilding since the 1800s, but now there are several historic buildings in peril due to owners who have gotten fed up with the costs of repairs and walked away. For every two or three splendidly restored Victorian mansions, there are two or three homes or shop fronts that are crumbling.

But that hasn't kept everyone away. The downtown has remained vital, with Backfin Blues providing a fine-dining oasis, and the Lees Landing restaurant on the waterfront adding a major draw. In the summer, the boardwalk-like attractions at the club bring in huge crowds. The condominiums are an attractive addition and have a spectacular view of the river and marina.

There are, in short, plenty of good things in Port Deposit. It could be a boutique haven like New Hope, a Pennsylvania town that shares a long history of dependence on river-based industry. All it will take is a few more believers to keep the spark of downtown Port Deposit alive.

And until then, longtime supporters like Maldeis are eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

For more information, visit www.portdepositheritage.org.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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