Rising Sun Historic Preservation Commission Hosts Civil War Weekend, Oct 3 – 5, 2014

fort delaware 138arFrom the Rising Sun Historic Preservation Commission

Announcing the Annual Rising Sun Civil War Re-enactment brought to you by the Rising Sun Historic Preservation Commission.

The re-enactment this year runs Friday, October 3rd to the Sunday, October 5th.  The Friday session is reserved for local school students, with over 500 registered to attend this year.

The public hours are as follows:

11am to 4pm – Camp open to the public.  Battle re-enactment is scheduled for 2pm.
7pm to 11pm – Dance with period attire and music.  The public is invited to attend.

9am to 3pm – Camp open to the public.
9am – Ceremony in the cemetery adjacent to the park with a Church service to follow.
1pm – Battle re-enactment
3pm – Break Camp and Clean-up

Location:  Veterans Community Park of Rising Sun

Click here for more details

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An Old House Research Question: When did the Pennsylvania Railroad Move the Dwellings

The original tracks ran alongside the old Cecil County Jail.

The original tracks ran alongside the old Cecil County Jail.

Over time, physical changes occur to a community’s built environment. Most are subtle, as when a backhoe goes to work digging up a new foundation or a bulldozer extends a street so a small parcel of land can be subdivided into building lots.  But as decades pass by more radical transformations occasionally materialize, many of those leaving behind no hint of earlier times.

Between the two World Wars, one of those epic alterations took place in the center of Elkton as the Pennsylvania Railroad electrified the northeast corridor and improved its right-of-way. The significant local enhancements included moving the tracks nearly a quarter of a mile to the north, the elimination of dangerous grade crossings, construction of two overhead bridges, the extension of municipal streets, and the erection of a new passenger station.

Once the engineers developed plans to straighten the tracks, the company purchased a great deal of land. In between wrangling for a deal with individual property owners, the PRR negotiated with the town council and the State Highway Administration to get an agreement to eliminate several busy grade crossings and build elevated bridges at North and Bridge streets.

As the plan moved forward, this design disrupted long-established street patterns in the older section of town and reoriented growth toward Elkton Heights, a new development on the edge of the county seat. In the area of North Street the realignment of the roadway required the Company to acquire a number of residences on either side of the street.  Around August 1931, the PRR sold nine of those recently acquired buildings to local parties, the price ranging from $300 to $500.  The company had paid as much as $10,000 for some of them, the Cecil Democrat reported.

Several of the houses had been lifted from their foundations in August 1931 ,and were “being moved intact to what is known as Elkton Heights, about seven hundred feet further north,” the Cecil Democrat reported.  The balance would soon follow, as the new owners had agreed to promptly remove the dwellings.  Two had been bought by John Lawrence of Newark, and one each by Argus F. Robinson, John W. Alexander. W. Holt McAllister, George P. Whitaker, Cecil P. Sentman, Thomas W. Simpers, Taylor W. McKenney, and Robert V. Creswell.  George Moore of Newark and Woodall & Son of Elkton handled the moving contract, the Cecil County News noted.

The work was hastily accomplished as the contractors on this major Great Depression era public works project anxiously wanted to get the long-delayed project moving. When it was over about 1935, the Pennsylvania Railroad had completed improvements amounting to over $1-million locally, not including electrification. Beyond that, street patterns familiar to a generation of people had been altered.  And  homes that once lined North Street had been moved to the newest development, Elkton Heights.  Today they continue to line some of the attractive streets in this subdivision, appearing as if they have been there from the first.  There are few traces of the pre-electrification era in Elkton.

Pennsylvania Railroad plan for improvements in Elkton, 1930.  Source:  Hagley Museum and Library

Pennsylvania Railroad plan for improvements in Elkton, 1930. Source: Hagley Museum and Library

A 1931 Sanborn map showing the new concrete bridge.  Source:  Historical Society of Cecil County Collection

A 1931 Sanborn map showing the new concrete bridge. Source: Historical Society of Cecil County Collection


A postcard showing a portion of North Street where the changes occurred.  C 1920s.  photo source:  personal collection.

A postcard showing a portion of North Street where the changes occurred. C 1920s. photo source: personal collection.

A 1922 Sanborn map showing the North Street area  before the houses were moved. Source:  Historical Society of Cecil County Collection.

A 1922 Sanborn map showing the North Street area before the houses were moved. Source: Historical Society of Cecil County Collection.



Elkton Police Arrest of Ambassador From Iran Causes International Incident in 1935

Elkton Police Chief Jake Biddle in 1935.  Source:  Baltimore Sun

Elkton Police Chief Jake Biddle in 1935. Source: Baltimore Sun

If there was anything remarkable about that Wednesday in November 1935 in Elkton, it was the new policeman directing traffic on the main thoroughfare from Washington to New York. Seventy-year-old Chief George Potts, having maintained tranquility in the town for twenty-eight years, had recently retired.  The rookie, Jake Biddle, was going to make a fine replacement as the top cop in Cecil County’s largest town and its two-man force, the locals remarked.

Eloping couple were streaming into the courthouse, while the marrying parlors were packed with nearly forty weddings, but that was routine.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House struggling with the nation’s economic woes.  Far away in the Middle East, the ruler of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi was on the throne, but few people recognized his name.  As far as anyone knew, it was going to be another unremarkable day for the town of 3,000 people.

But once that shiny Packard blasted onto Main Street “at a terrible speed,” the town was caught in an incident involving international law, wounded Iranian dignity, and disruption of diplomatic relations.

Chief Biddle was downtown when he noticed the fast-moving vehicle.  In it was Iran’s ambassador hurrying from Washington to New York for a dinner date, along with his British born wife, a pet dog, and the chauffeur.  When the policeman gave a blast on the whistle the driver pulled to the curb.  As Biddle walked up to the Packard, he wasn’t put off by the lettering on its side that read “Ghaffar Khan Djalal, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Imperial Majesty the Shah of Iran.”  The diplomatic license plate didn’t register either.

Stories about what happened next vary widely, but whatever the case, the run-in escalated. One local paper said, “When Biddle approached the car, the minister, who it is said had been drinking pushed him away, and when Biddle refused to allow the envoy to proceed, he got out of the car and engaged in a scuffle. “  So unruly had the diplomat become that handcuffs were snapped on his wrists, the paper continued.  Constable Clayton Ellison who lived nearby was roused from a catnap by the disturbance so he rushed over to help as did old Chief Potts as a growing crowd watched the tense, unfolding scene downtown.

Producing his State Department credentials and business card identifying his lofty position, the Persian Prince asked to straighten things out by calling Secretary Cordell Hull, the Far East Desk or someone in Washington, D.C.  But the officers weren’t letting a little noise distract them from their sworn duty to uphold Maryland Traffic Laws.

At some point the bunch was carted off to the jail. When it was explained to the jailer that the minister of Iran was involved, he wasn’t impressed either, accustomed as he was to so many marrying reverend in the Gretna Green.  “Minister, eh?  Just another preacher.  Throw ‘em in the cell!” quoted the Associated Press.

Everyone had concluded the same thing.  From the crowd watching the police action to Biddle and the deputy at the jail, it was universally agreed that he was a “marrying minister” trying to grab some of cupid’s lucrative Elkton business.

At the lockup, the ambassador again protesting that his diplomatic immunity was violated, asked to call Washington, but the request was denied. When the lawmen found that the trial magistrate wasn’t available they packed up the group for a trip to North East.  There the justice of the peace, George C. Rawson, thought the situation was a little ticklish so he allowed the Persian representative to call the State Department.  When the Far East duty officer got the judge on the line, the charges were quickly dropped as the magistrate told everyone in the hearing room that a “foreign minister can do no wrong.”

Once the judge determined that not all speeders could be treated equally, it wasn’t long before the Elkton police discovered that they had stumbled upon one of “Washington’s prize foreign squawkers,” as a local newspaper labeled the emissary. Djalal grumbled to New York Papers, saying that the “Elkton police were no diplomats,” or a least that’s what the headline screamed.  As soon as he returned from New York, where he “rushed for an urgent official engagement” he would make a formal complaint with the State Department, he assured newspapermen.

The Shah of Iran was outraged, when he heard that police officers grappled with his dignitary . . . snapping the degrading shackles of a criminal on his wrist” as Time reported.  After a protest was lodged, federal investigators took affidavits, followed by closed-door meetings with officials at the highest level of government.  To pacify Iran, the officers, Biddle and Clayton, were convicted of assault and fired, while the president, governor, and mayor issued formal apologies.

It might have all faded into the mist of time right there but for an enterprising photographer from the Baltimore Sun. He got three of the lawmen to pose for picture a few weeks after with a caption reading:  “These gyves [shackesl] were snapped on Iran’s Envoy.”  Local authorities thought they would quietly reinstate the officer, but that one again grabbed headlines.  The moved touched off another international incident for an apology was no longer sufficient for the now furious shah.  He ordered the minister recalled, closed the embassy, and evicted U.S. representatives from Persia, breaking off all diplomatic relations with the United States for three years

So how did it all end? With the federal government carefully monitoring municipal actions, Biddle quickly hung up his holster and badge at the order of the town council.  The rookie chief returned to farming at a quiet spot far off the main road from New York to Washington.  As for Elkton policemen, they steered clear of run-ins with foreign ambassadors.  And diplomats, envoys, or marry ministers for that matter were likely to use a little more caution when traveling through this corner of northeastern Maryland.


Following the arrest of the Ambassador of Iran, Cecil County lawmen display the handcuffs used to shackle the ambassador while he was transported to the jail. From L to R: Sheriff Eugene Racine, Constable Clayton Ellison, and Elkton Chief Jake Biddle. source: Baltimore Sun.

Cecil County Atlas of 1877 & Other Maps Available from Sheridan Library

The Sheridan Library of Johns Hopkins University has a large collection of Cecil County digital maps.  Family and local history researchers will find these online collections to be helpful.  In the collection there is the entire atlas of 1877, as well as digital aerial maps (1938 and 1952), topographic maps, and many other cartographic products.

Visit the search page by clicking here and searching for your county of interest.  .

Station Agent at Childs Recalls 50 Years on the B & O Railroad

F C. Breitenbach B & O Station Agent at Childs.  Source:  Cecil Democrat, Oct. 7, 1954

F C. Breitenbach B & O Station Agent at Childs. Source: Cecil Democrat, Oct. 7, 1954

For many Cecil County villages and towns the railroad station was the center of the community years ago, and the company official overseeing the comings and goings of townspeople, passengers, telegraph messages, freight and mail was an important member of the community. Each place with a station had one, a station agent, in charge of keeping everything on track at his depot.

To keep the operation running smoothly, the agents were assigned many responsibilities at smaller places. Obligations included preparing for the arrival of trains, selling tickets, handling freight, mail and baggage, announcing arrivals, and taking care of the property.

Frederick ‘C, Breitenbach, Sr.,  of Cherry Hill was the Baltimore and Ohio’s agent-operator at Childs in 1954. He had just completed 50 years with the company, having come to the Singerly Tower in 1904. In subsequent years he was assigned to Childs as an operator-clerk and as an agent-operator at Leslie. His final stint brought him back to Childs in 1935.

“The romance of the railroad has been lost since steam has gone,” the agent told the Cecil Democrat in 1954. He loved “the smell of that old coal,” and “the engineers in those steam engines were hardy men. The trains today are more like street cars.”

Until 1949 local passenger trains stopped at Childs, but as he marked a half-century of service the station only handled freight, most of it going to and from the Elk Paper company plant. When he started at Childs, it was the most important stop in Cecil County and three people worked at the station, he recalled.

But in 1954 he was the only remaining employee. The rural Cecil County depot was slowly reaching the end of the line, although years ago the building alongside the B & O tracks was the center of the village.  This old-time railroader had worked across the changing years and changing times as he and the station neared retirement.

He was born in Baltimore in 1885 and died in Union Hospital on May 16, 1958.  He was an employee of the B & O for 53 years, last serving as “station master at Childs.”

A postcard of the Childs Railroad Station, Circa 1914.  Source:  Personal Collection

A postcard of the Childs Railroad Station, Circa 1912. The card was unused so there is no postal cancellation. Source: Personal Collection




Confederate General From Cecil County Featured in Jeff Shaara’s Latest Novel

The Smoke at Dawn,” Jeff Shaara’s latest historical novel about the Civil War, has been released and it has a Cecil County angle.  This third volume, part of a four part series, focuses on the critical Battle of Chattanooga.

Kyle Dixon has been listening to the audio version of the book.,  He informs me that William Whann Mackall, a Confederate General from Cecil County, appears on the pages of this just released volume.  Mackall, a graduate of West Point, grew up near Childs.  When the war broke out he resigned his U.S. Army commission and joined the confederacy.

A state historical marker near the boyhood home on Blue Ball Road provides additional information on Mackall.  And here is a link to an article Milt Diggins did on the general.

The boyhood home of William Whann Mackall is just south of Childs on Blue Ball Road.

The boyhood home of William Whann Mackall is just south of Childs on Blue Ball Road.


Harford and Cecil counties Described in 1807 Publication

Harford and Cecil counties shown in the map published in 1807 in Joseph Scott's Geographical Dictionary

Harford and Cecil counties shown in the map published in 1807 in Joseph Scott’s Geographical Dictionary

In the decades before state directories and other similar resources appeared, there were gazetteers or geographical dictionaries.  These valuable titles, many over 200 years old, examined an area in some detail, presenting information about a community, its landscape, political economy, business enterprise, and natural resources.

Today Cecil and Harford county genealogists and local historians will find these works to be helpful as they offer detailed insights about the counties, towns and villages. Since hard to find details, such as social statistics, are contained in the works, I often consult the volumes when trying to understand the changes that have taken place in the area over the centuries.

In Maryland and Delaware “A Geographical Description of the States of Maryland” published by Joseph Scott in 1807 is helpful. As 18 pages focus on Cecil and Harford counties, it contains a large amount of productive information.  In addition to details on most of the towns and villages of any size, there is lots of copy discussing the state and each county.

To give you an idea of the content, here is some of what Scott said about Bel Air. “Bellair” is a post town and seat of justice, 23 miles from Baltimore. It ‘has an elegant court house and jail, and a Methodist meeting house” and in the vicinity a county poor house. The town contained about 160 inhabitants in 1800 and there were four licensed taverns, three stores, two blacksmith’ shops, two joiners, one chair maker, one shoemaker, one wheelwright, and one taylor. By comparison, Abingdon had abou5 56 dwellings and 240 inhabitants. It also had about eight stores filled “with the produce of the West India islands, and the various manufacturers of Europe,” along with one tanyard, and several tradesmen’s shops.

This title was once hard to access.  I purchased one from an antiquarian bookstore in New England decades ago so I could have it instantly available for my research needs.  Before that I had to make a trip to a special collections library.

But now thanks to the Digital Public Library of America and other public domain e-content providers, we all have instant access to this and many more titles.

Click here to go to the Digital Public Library of America’s catalog item for this product.

Cecil County described in Joseph Scott's Geographical Dictionary publisher in 1807.

Cecil County described in Joseph Scott’s Geographical Dictionary publisher in 1807.


Harford County described by Joseph Scott in his book published in 1807