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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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.  .