Cecil County, Maryland: People, places and eventsJun 29, 2023 01:31PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Gene Pisasale
Starting around when local Piscataway Indians traded with the Susquehannocks and Lenape from around the region, Cecil County has a heritage that dates back many centuries. William Claiborne established a trading post near the mouth of the Susquehanna River near the current city of Perryville. Not long afterward, in 1608, an English explorer came to the area. Later in the 17th century, Augustine Herman drew the first maps of the region in 1674. George Talbot was also active in the area and was made surveyor-General of Maryland in 1683, receiving a land grant in Cecil County. With roots that go back roughly four centuries, Cecil County has many stories to tell those interested in exploring its history.
Religious leaders were also active. Jesuit missionaries established a mission in 1704 that would later become St. Francis Xavier Church. It was rebuilt in 1792 and is one of the oldest churches in the state. It now operates as a museum. St. Mary Anne’s Episcopal Church is another one with deep roots, with origins that date to 1706. The church was reconstructed in 1742. Industrialists were also active in the region. Principio Furnace was begun in 1719, supplying pig iron for local use and for export.
War came to Cecil County beginning in the late 1700s. On August 25, 1777 British General William Howe unloaded his troops from the Elk River off of the Bay and marched 11 miles to what is today the town of Elkton, Maryland. Less than four years later in March 1781, the Marquis de Lafayette became active in his pursuit of a spy. He embarked near Elkton in hopes of catching Benedict Arnold. A month later, Lafayette returned to the area on his way to Virginia to capture an even bigger prize: British General Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. Aided by General George Washington and French General Rochambeau, who came to Elkton in September, the Continental and the French Army, along with the French Navy under De Grasse later captured Cornwallis to achieve the crowning victory of the American Revolution.
Some famous people spent time in Cecil County. English Captain John Smith (1580- 1631) not only mapped the Chesapeake Bay, he was also instrumental in supporting the new colony of Jamestown in Virginia and encouraging colonization of the area which came to be called New England. William Paca (1740- 1799) was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later Governor of Maryland. George Read (1733- 1798) was initially opposed independence, but later signed the Declaration of Independence and subsequently served as a Senator, Chief Justice and Governor of Delaware. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass crossed Cecil County on his escape to freedom in 1838. He was a famous orator, later served as Minister to Haiti and the most famous first black man supporting the recently formed Republican Party.
Just as tragic as war was another event, which occurred in Cecil County 182 years after Washington’s victory at Yorktown. On December 8, 1963 Pan American World Airways Flight 214 was flying in the area, but went down in a lightning thunderstorm. The event shocked the entire nation, as lightning strikes causing air crashes are generally quite rare. So what happened?
Pan Am Flight 214 was a regularly scheduled flight originating in San Juan, Puerto Rico with a final destination in Philadelphia, including a stopover at Baltimore’s Friendship Airport. Pan Am Flight 213 was its counterpart, going from Philadelphia to San Juan, which it had done earlier that same day. For the return trip, Pan Am Flight 214 left San Juan December 8th at 4:10 p.m. Eastern Time with 140 passengers and a crew of eight. Flight 214 reached Baltimore safely, where 67 passengers disembarked. Little did they know they would be saved from one of the worst airline disasters up to that time in U.S. history.
Flight 214 left Baltimore at 8:24 p.m. bound for Philadelphia. Only 18 minutes later, air traffic controllers made contact with the crew, informing them about a line of thunderstorms in the area, with strong winds and turbulence which could pose a threat to safe operation of the aircraft. The controller asked the pilots if they wanted to go directly to Philadelphia or wait in a holding pattern until the storm cleared. Flight 214’s pilots opted for the holding pattern. Staying in the air in that vicinity put the plane in the midst of heavy rain, with numerous lighting strikes sighted and high winds around 50 miles per hour.
At 8:58 p.m., disaster struck. A lightning bolt hit the aircraft, causing an explosion. In the final moments, the pilots sent out a desperate message: “MAYDAY!… MAYDAY!… MAYDAY! Clipper 214 out of control…” An officer aboard National Airlines Flight 16, flying 1,000 feet above them announced to controllers: “Clipper 214 is going down in flames…” At 8:59 p.m., Flight 214 crashed into a cornfield east of Elkton, Maryland. The plane was completely destroyed, and all 81 of the occupants were killed.
Some good things did come from this tragedy. Aircraft standards later required fuel system designs to prevent the ignition of fuel vapors; fuel-vent flame arrestors and other changes were introduced that improved aircraft safety. It is unfortunate that we often experience tragedies before changes are introduced to avoid them in our daily lives, but that is the nature of human experience. So, in a small way, that sad day in December 1963 near Elkton, Maryland made air travel much safer for all.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His eleven books focus on the history of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is “Heritage of the Brandywine Valley” chronicling more than 300 years of regional history, due out in June 2023. Gene’s books are available on his website at www.GenePisasale.com and also on www.Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].