On Borrowed Time: Solving a Cecil County Genealogical Mystery

The pocket watch engineer George Askew carried on the fatal run between Baltimore and Philadelphia.  source:  Lance McPherseon

The pocket watch engineer George Askew carried on the fatal run between Baltimore and Philadelphia. source: Lance McPherson

ELKTON — On a cold grey February day a few years ago, Lance McPherson, a special agent for the federal government, called to to ask for some helping with solving a family history mystery associated with an old, inoperable pocket watch, which was in his custody. On this trip, he was seeking to uncover information about the curious timepiece, its hands forever frozen in time at 8:35.

The odd relic had nothing to do with his job, however, as it was a family heirloom, which belonged to his great grandfather George Benjamin Askew, an engineer on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. The watch was a central part of a genealogical mystery, which he was trying to solve as family lore carried down through generations had it that Askew died in a railroad accident in Elkton.

This 105-year-old story was what caused the investigator with the Office of Personnel Management to become the family history detective, seeking out the circumstances and facts surrounding his relative’s death and the curious object that had been handed down from relative to relative.

McPherson noted that over the years he tended to be the family historian and wound up with many family documents. Once he decided to begin the search for the bits and pieces, he began by examining an autobiography written by his grandmother. Only 12 years old at the time of the accident, she wrote “Oh’ what sadness hovered over our once happy home.” She also notes that the engineer’s body was recovered the day before his birthday, nine months and nine days after he feel into the icy water of the Big Elk Creek.

McPherson, having the basics from this document, searched online genealogical databases, which gave him census registers and other digital evidence. That examination produced the framework, but he wanted to color in the details. That was going to take some old fashioned investigative work.

With the date and location of the accident in hand and still seeking to piece together the chain of events, we turned to some other sources for help. Aging old newspapers contained clues, as the weeklies headlined the story about the railroader’s “odd death.” These publications are often a treasure trove of information for anyone doing genealogical research. As doors continued opening, we located the coroner’s inquest report. He used that detailed insight to do some fieldwork observations, surveying the natural environment along the creek where bridge abutments from the railroad remain in the area where the body was recovered.

Here is the story these documents tell. Before the sun came up on Chesapeake Bay on Saturday, Jan. 3, 1903, 38-year-old engineer Askew eased extra freight No. 161 out of the Baltimore rail yard for a routine early morning run to Philadelphia, one that he made many times during his 18 years on the rails. Up for a promotion to an engineer on prestigious passenger runs in a few days, he surely thought this one would be a piece of cake as he looked forward to returning home to his wife and five children. The new position would mean shorter runs and more money.

Rumbling northward over the Susquehanna, nothing marred the run. However, as he approached Elkton about 8:43 a.m., the train whistle screeching for the station and crossings, a valve acted up. As the locomotive rushed toward the Big Elk Creek, he reached out beyond the cab to assess the problem. Suddenly his head struck one of the girders of the narrow bridge, violently throwing him from the train.

The train’s fireman, seeing him whirled out of the cab, brought the train to a hurried stop. The crew rushed back to the bridge, but all they found was his blood stained cap and a ragging torrent of a creek. Unable to find Askew, they backed to Elkton to get aid. Help rushed to the spot and before too long a large crew of railroaders were dredging the stream. A heavy overnight storm flooded the area, so the water was raging and workers were unable to find the body. Finally, the railroad company offered a $50 reward for the recovery of the body.

While the family grieved, winter slipped by, giving way to summer, but still the beloved father’s body remained unfound. A waterman gathering driftwood noticed a corpse in brush a mile below the tracks in October. He immediately thought the body was that of the long missing railroader. His identity, though obvious by the crushing injury to head, was clearly established by finding Askew’s watch, keys, and lodge book in his clothing, the Cecil Whig reported.

Through his family history detective’s work, McPherson notes that he had “an interesting revelation.” The news account in the local newspaper indicated that the accident occurred “around the time the railroad watch stopped at 8:35. The revelation came when “I realized that I had that watch in my possession. No one ever noted that it was his watch or that it had spent nine months and nine days underwater with him,” McPherson said.

In wrapping up this case, however, he noted that “the watch and identity are now back together after 105 years.”


Engineer George Askew. Source: Lance McPherson

Steamboating Days in 1916

In the early years of the 20th century steam boating days on the Chesapeake Bay commenced slipping slowly away.  But in the summer of 1916, Elkton obtained renewed service, the Philadelphia and Baltimore Steamboat Company (Ericsson Line) launching a new line with connections to Baltimore.

Leading up to the return of a regular schedule on July 1, a number of arrangements were taken care of. The company bought an attractive steamer, the Carmania in Mobile Alabama to ply the route, and leased Jeffers’ Wharf at the foot of Bridge Street.  Last minute preparations involved cutting a basin in the vicinity of the mill wharf, allowing the boat to turn for the trip back down the winding Big Elk Creek.

Throughout that hot summer before World War I, the Carmania called at Elkton tiny port on the Creek.  It departed each morning for Betterton, Chesapeake Haven, and Town Point and returned in the afternoon.  Passengers desiring to go to Baltimore could connect with the Philadelphia boat at Betterton.

There were special evening excursions too.   On a sweltering Wednesday evening in July, she ran a special moonlight cruise, taking people down the river to get relief from the intense heat that made the evening uncomfortable.  The Elkton Cornet Band furnished music on the expedition to Town Point.

The boat completed the season for 1916.   It is unclear if some service returned in 1917, but in 1918, a government report noted that line had been abandoned.

Click here to see additional photos — Steam boating Days on the Big Elk Creek

The Steamer Carmania. An unamailed postcard from 1916.  source:  personal collection

The Steamer Carmania. An unamailed postcard from 1916. source: personal collection

Insurance Survey Maps From Philadelphia Free LIbrary Show Details on Many of Cecil County’s 19th Century Mills

While digging up some historical records on a property in Cecil County, I discovered a large body of helpful online maps published by the Philadelphia Free Library. This urban institution has substantial online collections, including a large holding of maps.

The resources that helped with my investigation was the Hexamer General Survey collection. Between 1866 and 1895, Ernest Hexamer sketched out detailed plates on nearly 3,000 industrial and commercial properties in the Greater Philadelphia area, including Delaware and Cecil County. These meticulous illustrations included breweries, textile mills, printers, car works, dye and chemical plants, planning mills, and much more.  The renderings were created for fire insurance underwriters and are similar to the Sanborn Maps, which are available for many Delmarva communities.

Hexamer was a German immigrant, according to the blog, Hexamer Redux. “He began his career creating insurance maps in New York City.  In 1856, he moved to Philadelphia and established the fire insurance map business in the city.”

For researchers there are a number of fascinating local industrial plates, depicting the larger mills and industrial facilities. A highly detailed plate shows the landscape of the McCullough Iron Works in North East, and includes descriptive information about fire protection. Other companies include the Providence Mills owned by William H. Flitcraft & Company and William Singerly; The Shannon or Stone Chase Mill; the Octoraro Mill; West Amwell Mills and more. Several of the larger manufacturers have products that were updated periodically.

In addition to floor plans similar to architectural drawings lots of additional details are provided. There are notes about the construction, fire protection, occupancy, and other elements of interest to an insurance carrier.  Many include perspective sketches of the actual building, which is great.

This will be a valuable resource for many Cecil County researchers. In the age before electrification the county’s creeks provided the source of energy and there were many mills situated on the banks of the streams.

Thank you Philadelphia Free Library for making this excellent resource available digitally.

The Childs Paper Mill, 1880, from the Hexamere Map Collection.  Source:  Philadelphia Free Library

The Childs Paper Mill, 1880, from the Hexamere Map Collection. Source: Philadelphia Free Library


Providence Paper Mill, 1890, Hexamer Map.  Source:  Philadelphia Free Library

Providence Paper Mill, 1890, Hexamer Map. Source: Philadelphia Free Library

North East Mill, 1876.  Source:  Philadelphia Free LIbrary

North East Mill, 1876. Source: Philadelphia Free LIbrary


Spotlight on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

Mike Dixon:

We always look for the weekly posts on this Old Book, The Delaware Historical Society blog by Ed Richi, the curator of prints. This week he is focusing on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Originally posted on This Old Book:

Announcement for the opening of the C&D Canal  as provided in the Delaware Gazette newspaper in October 1829

Announcement for the opening of the C&D Canal as provided in the Delaware Gazette newspaper in October 1829

It was during this week in the year 1829 that the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal opened. The canal connects the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River, and therefore provided an immensely important commercial and leisure route between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The canal shaved three hundred miles off the shipping route between the two cities. This week we spotlight a rare book in the Society’s collection written by Joshua and Thomas Gilpin entitled “A Memoir on the Rise, Progress, and Present State of The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, Accompanied With Original Documents and Maps.” It was published in 1821, well before the canal was completed, and therefore offers invaluable insight into the creative planning, practical concerns, and the individuals involved with making the canal a reality. The book also contains rare maps. It…

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President Taft Speaks to Crowd From Porch of Howard Hotel in Elkton

In the middle of a heated four-way presidential contest, a special train screeched to a stop at the Elkton station one Saturday in May 1912. On board for a quick whistle stop tour of Maryland was President William H. Taft.

When he arrived at 11:45 a.m., he was met at the station by a committee with automobiles and was quickly whisked to the Howard Hotel for a quarter-of-an-hour reception.  Promptly at 12:00 p.m. the Chief Exectuive was introduced by William T. Warburton and for three-quarters of an hour he spoke about the issues of the day.  Houses, stores, and officers were decorated in his honor, and the Cecil County News reported that a crowd of about 2,000 listened to the speech.

He was then hurried back to the station, returning to the President’s car for a brief rest, the special leaving for Aberdeen as soon as the tracks were clear.

President William Howard Taft speaking from the porch of the Howard Hotel in May 1912.  source:  personal collection.

President William Howard Taft speaking from the porch of the Howard Hotel in May 1912. source: personal collection.




Adding Cecil Kirk, a county Lawman, to the Sheriff’s Wall

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Sheriff Cecil Kirk

When Benny Kirk visited the Sheriff’s Office in Elkton a few years ago, he paused to look over a series of photographs hanging on the wall. These weren’t mug shots from recent arrests or some of the most wanted criminals that caught his attention. They were aging images of men who served the county as its chief law enforcement officer over time. A bunch of them were there, all except one. It was his great-grandfather Cecil Kirk, who was elected to the position in 1905.

Having noticed the gap, Benny was on a mission to supply a photo of his relative so he contacted another family member, Sally McKee. As a genealogist and volunteer with the county historical society, the Rising Sun resident is a wealth of information and she helped out. Not only did the family historian have photos and documents, but also the appointing commission. Once the image was copied, Sheriff Barry Janney added this long ago public servant to the “Sheriff’s Wall.

As a candidate with Cecil’s minority Republican Party, the popular farmer was elected to public office three times. Before his criminal justice stint, he served as a delegate in the legislature and after doing time at the jail, he took on the responsibilities of the Clerk of the Court.

It was a Friday in December 1905 that the Principio area farmer moved to Elkton with his wife, Alice, and an infant, settling into the commodious apartment the county provided for its chief lawman. It was on the second floor of the jail. This old lockup built for chicken and horse thieves, drunkards, unruly types, cold-blooded murderers, and evildoers was going to be home for this young family.

Curtis Davis Kirk, Benny’s father, was just over one year old when the family started living with criminals and undesirable types of all classes. The next spring (1906) Sally’s mother Anna May was born in the lockup. Some years after the family returned to farming, Anna May walked into Colora school one morning dressed in blue. “Oh we have a little bluebird,” someone remarked. “No I’m a jailbird,” her mother uncharacteristically responded, Sally recently recalled. Another child, Cecil Dare, was born after the lawman finished his term.

To take care of his many duties, including enforcing the law, keeping criminals behind bars, and serving the courts, he had one deputy. Myron Miller filled that roll, the Rising Sun newspaper, the Midland Journal, reported. By-the-way, the paper also noted that he was the first sheriff from the Rising Sun area since 1857. That around-the-clock responsibility was a lot for two men in a county of 25,000 people for they would often have 20 criminals behind bars.

These jobs were usually family affairs, in those days. While the sheriff and his deputy took care of law enforcement activities, the responsibility for looking after the jail in those days often fell to the wife, when the men were away.  She was often helped by a trusted prison, a trusty.  And Alice, his wife, probably cooked two meals a day for this gang of jailbirds.

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The sheriff investigates the murder of Captain Joseph Hilton on his sloop, “Golden Light,” in the Elk River. Thomas R. Witcraft was arrested for the crime. source: Cecil Democrat, January 12, 1907

During his first two-year term, dangerous police work was sometime required. Five days after taking on the job, he got a Sunday evening call to rush to Chesapeake City as a disturbance was going on. He brought his man back to Elkton, to appear before a magistrate the next day. The next month, the officer got a Sunday night call to rush to Cowentown to help a Pinkerton Detective and Railroad Officer capture a forger.

In 1907, he received an urgent telegram from Baltimore advising that a gang of armed desperadoes had practically taken charge of a northbound P. B. & W. freight train. A conductor managed to throw off a note at a signal tower, alerting the operator to flash a message to Elkton, the Midland Journal reported. As he hastily rounded up and swore in a posse, a dozen citizens, to help, another urgent telegram arrived, this one from Perryville. The gang shot and robbed two hobos, forcing them to jump from the moving cars.

When the freight stopped for a signal at the Elkton tower, the robbers took flight as they were outnumbered and outgunned by revolvers and shotguns. With shots ringing out the sheriff’s posse captured all of them,, lodging the dangerous types in the county pen.

The 75-year-old Cecil County political leader, lawman, and successful farmer passed away in 1944. He was survived by his wife, Alice, one daughters Mrs. Paul McKee (Sally’s mother) and two sons Curtis (Benny’s father), and Cecil Jr. of Colora. He was buried in Hopewell Cemetery. Now thanks to the efforts of the family, his photo has been added to the Sheriff’s wall at the agency’s Elkton headquarters.

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The Commission for Sheriff Cecil Kirk.

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Benny Kirk arranged to have the sheriff added to the sheriff’s wall.

Sally McKee examines the sheriff's commission.

Sally McKee examines the sheriff’s commission.

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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