John Denver, a Past President of the Maryland State Firemen’s Associaton, Talks to the Singerly Listening Station

John Denver (center), in a photo from his time as president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association.  HIs two vice-presidents stand with him.

John Denver (center), in a photo from his time as president of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association. HIs two vice-presidents stand with him.

John Denver, a past president of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, joined the ranks as a probationary member of the Singerly Fire Company in 1968.  Over the decades, he served the company in many positions, and two years ago he served as in the senior leadership position with the State Association.

In this session with the Singerly Listening Station, an oral history project of the Elkton Fire Department, John shares his stories about the company.  This is a brief outtake from a much longer interview, which is being archived for future projects and research purposes.

Singerly Firefighter Robert McKinney

Firefighter Robert McKinney in the center of the photo.

Firefighter Robert McKinney in the center of the photo.

Last month, Singerly Fire Company launched an oral history project to document the Department’s story.  The project is initially focusing on recording interviews with the most senior members.

As the initial interviews are collected, we are sharing brief outtakes from the much longer sessions.  In time, as the initiative advances, we will use the raw footage from the extended tapings to interpret the company’s history and produce materials to share the Singerly Story.

In the meantime, we are sharing these segments as we continue our work

Firefighter Robert McKinney shares his story, in this interview from July 12, 2014.  Bob joined the company in 1969, and served in many positions.  He was often the company’s top responder to alarms.

Click this link to watch the presentation.

Links to High Quality Digital Content for Local & Family History Research in Cecil & Harford counties

Since there is an enormous, rapidly growing body of research information available on the web, there is a need for a curated landing page, a place in the public commons on the net, to help someone digging into the past. This opportunity to help researchers is something I encounter often during public lectures and courses as I get questions about how to find helpful e-information. As a result, I beta tested some curated social media products and apps, such as and

I have decided that the best way to point someone to valuable e-resources is to simply create a series of web pages, based on that test. Thus I have established this series, which focuses on linking to quality family and local history research resources related to the Delmarva Peninsula. This section of my website provides links to digital repositories, which have richly organized information and provide access to collections of quality resources for family and local history resources.

The landing page has general resources and the supporting pages are divided into major regions on the Peninsula.  Select your region of interest and on the page you will find topical headings to direct you to rich content. The pages will concentrate on linking to high quality digital repositories of online data to help local and family history researchers.

Hopefully this helps you with your study of the past. If you have suggestions for additions or how to improve the product email me. I will continue to monitor the web and e-news outlets for developments, which should be added to the pages and add items as they come up, in order to help all of us with research in the region.

Click here to go to curated links site.

This curated site links to rich content digital pages, which help with family and local history research on Delmarva

This curated site links to rich content digital pages, which help with family and local history research on Delmarva


Diggins Works With National Park Service to Nominate Two Cecil County Sites For Underground Railroad Listing

By Milt Diggins

Myths and legends abound about the Underground Railroad. Old houses with a secluded space set off speculation that it was a station on the Underground Railroad, despite the lack of documentation. Quilts hanging up in yards supposedly gave secret signals to escaping slaves. The Underground Railroad was presumably a vast sophisticated network that brought thousands upon thousands of people out of slavery. The traditional history of the Underground Railroad justly heralded the efforts of white men and women who helped freedom seekers, but often neglected to mention the free blacks who assisted and the freedom seekers who escaped on their own initiative.

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Milt Diggins, 2nd from left, meets with members of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture

Broadly defined to include individual efforts to seek freedom as well as organized and spontaneous efforts to assist freedom seekers, the Underground Railroad played an important role in our national heritage. In the 1990s the national government recognized the need for an accurate depiction of the Underground Railroad in order to preserve that heritage. Congress charged the National Park Service with organizing and coordinating a national effort to gather and verify the accuracy of Underground Railroad stories tied to sites and trails, and to promote partnerships and educational programs to share those stories.

The National Park Service website Network to Freedom ( provides a fuller explanation of their Underground Railroad Project. The website also features a database of designated Underground Railroad sites, facilities, and programs. Teachers and organizations offering programs can find a wealth of educational resources. Another section of the website presents Underground Railroad history through essays, individual stories, research reports, a map, a timeline, and multimedia.

Cecil County did not have any officially designated UGRR sites. In April, the National Park Service, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Tourism, asked if I would select, research, and verify the UGRR connection with a few county sites or trials, and submit detailed applications in July. If the applications are approved, the National Park Service will officially designate the proposed sites as UGRR sites. I focused on transportation links for the nominations.

Location has made Cecil County a significant transportation link on the east coast. Waterways and roadways in Cecil County have carried traffic between Philadelphia and Baltimore ever since the colonial period, and in the 1830s one of the nation’s earliest railroads linked the two cities. This transportation heritage offered the best candidates for UGRR nominations. Frenchtown, the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal have documented UGRR stories. I researched and wrote up applications for two obvious trails used by UGRR conductors and freedom seekers: The Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad station and steamboat ferry at Perryville, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

If the applications are approved, summaries of 200 words or less will be available on the Network to Freedom website, and the detailed applications are available on request through the website. The following are the summaries for the two nominations (The C&D summary is slightly larger than the one on the application):

The Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad Station and Steam Ferry Landing site in Perryville, Maryland, at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, is relevant to the resistance to slavery. The site is associated with famous and lesser known escapes, and one kidnapping and rescue of a free Pennsylvania citizen. At the Susquehanna River, trains stopped in Havre de Grace, passengers and cars crossed on the railroad ferry, and resumed their journey from the Perryville station. Frederick Douglass escaped on this railroad in 1838, and the Crafts in 1848. Charlotte Giles and Harriet Eglin escaped from Baltimore on this railroad. Henry “Box” Brown was freighted across on the ferry in 1849. Rachel Parker was kidnapped on the last day of 1851 by Thomas McCreary, who Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists referred to as “the notorious kidnapper from Elkton.” Part of the drama of her abduction, her rescue, and her pleas for freedom unfolded at Perryville. In 1853, Aaron Digges, fleeing from a Baltimore butcher, entered the train at the Susquehanna crossing, but he fell into the hands of Constable Thomas McCreary. In 1854, Henry fled from John Stump, who owned the land at Perry Point, by taking the train out of Perryville.

The US Army Corps of Engineers currently owns and operates the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. This canal, build in 1829 by investors, provided a route for freedom seekers on steamboats, schooners, and other water craft. Boats entered at Elk River in Cecil County, Maryland and exited at Delaware City, New Castle County, Delaware. This eliminated approximately 300 nautical miles between Baltimore and Philadelphia. This Chesapeake Bay to Delaware River route to Philadelphia was also safer for smaller watercraft than a voyage into the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. William Still and Sydney Gay recorded escapes on steamboats and schooners passing through the canal from Baltimore, Norfolk, and Richmond. Local newspapers reported unsuccessful canal-related escapes, and complained about suspicious Philadelphia oyster boats assisting escapes. When some freedom seekers fled from the lower Eastern Shore, a newspaper commented that the close watch kept on the canal would make it difficult for them to pass that way.

Part of the c hart of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays showing the Upper Peninsula.  Published by Fielding Lucas Jr., Baltimore, 1840.  Source:

Part of the c hart of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays showing the Upper Peninsula. Published by Fielding Lucas Jr., Baltimore, 1840. Source:



Photographing an Execution

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A ticket to the last hanging, signed by Sheriff Biddle

Mounted on the wall in Sheriff John F. DeWitt’s office in the antiquated 19th century Cecil County jail were two photographs he proudly displayed and discussed. When someone first visited the county’s top lawman, in the space that was full of career related memorabilia, he often directed the visitor’s gaze to these images.

Those old pictures from long ago showed a young man, 23, spending his last minutes on earth in the Elkton jailhouse yard. In those days, the local lockup, the equivalent of Maryland’s Death Row in that time, was the place where felons were executed, the gruesome task falling to the local sheriff.

Jack particularly enjoyed sharing the narrative about those moments permanently frozen in time with fresh journalists, who stopped by his office for some reason or another. Impressionable teenagers, especially troubled ones, were targets too, getting the full treatment.  And he would use the images while extolling his criminal justice philosophies to any curious types. He was ten steps to the right of Attilla the Hun (or something along that line) was one of the things he would squeeze in.  Of course, he was a strong supporter of the death penalty.

Convicted of the murder of Judge Albert Constable, John M. Simpers, spent his final days in  cell two on the second floor of what had become known in the 1970s as the “DeWitt Hotel.”  It was the same one occupied by Truss, Cooper, and Stout. as they awaited their fate on Cecil’s death row, years earlier.

Minutes before 10:00 a.m. on October 20, 1905, Sheriff George C. Biddle and Deputy J. Wesley McAllister entered the cell, which had been under a constant around-the-clock death watch for days, to escort the doomed man outside.  Harry Moore had acted as the day watch over Simpers, while Sheriff Biddle and Deputy McAllister divided the long night hours. 

In the yard, the convict ascended the gallows, with the two lawmen at his side.  All the gruesome equipment was ready for this day, the one designated in the death warrant.  The Scaffold had been completed and tested earlier in the week by contractor Calvin Merritt, who had built “each death machine” that had been “used in executions in Cecil County for the past thirty-five years,” the Cecil Democrat observed.  The black cap used to mask the face was made by Charles Purnell and the rope was supplied by Fisher Bros., of Philadelphia.

A photographer permanently captured this autumn scene in a series of shots up to the point where Sheriff Biddle picked up a hatchet and cut the rope, causing the death trap to spring open and the body to shoot downward. The Washington Post described what the camera didn’t capture: “like a flash the body of the murderer shot downward, swayed back and forth, turned around, and then became still. In twelve minutes the jail physician pronounced Simpers dead.”

Until 1879 legal executions had been public spectacles, drawing large, frenzied crowds as people gathered to watch convicts die. But a new state law stopped this and the last previous one before this took place in the yard at the jail in 1893.

The Simpers execution in 1905 was conducted in the presence of about 35 people and not more than a hundred gathered outside the granite wall while the hangman discharged his disagreeable duty.  But two outsiders got a view of it, perched in the topmost branches of trees in front of the jail. “People pressed through the yard after the body was born out and viewed the gallows, but few obtained, few if any souvenirs of the gruesome event,” the Appeal wrote.

The body remained “suspended until about 10:30 when the noose was loosened and lifted and the corpse was placed in a temporary box which was borne through the jail yard gate to the waiting wagon of Undertaker Clark S. Grant of Cherry Hill, according to the Elkton Appeal. He removed it to his premises in that village and interment took place in a more corner of the county burial ground, the Potter’s Field.

A photographer was there to capture those last minutes in a series of pictures.  Jack had two of them in his office, and many other local people have copies of  shots showing the moments leading up to the cutting of the rope.

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Sheriff DeWitt in his office in the old jail, sometime in the 1970s. One of the photos of the last hanging is on the wall behind him.  This picture was taken by the library to promote reading.  You will notice that he is holding “Crime and Justice.”

There are a number of these around the community, including the ones in the Sheriff’s office.  When examining them, look carefully for differences as a number were snapped, recording those rapidly passing seconds.  When the “black cap was drawn over his face to shut out earthly sights before the fatal plunge,” seems to be when the photographer stopped snapping photos. Or perhaps those final images were kept close and never circulated beyond the criminal justice system.

These two were given to me by the Sheriff sometime back in the 1970s. I also remember Mr. Dan Henry an elderly deputy  saying that he was one of the kids in the tree.

At this point, I don’t know who the photographer was, but given that we know the names of individuals in this trade in the county seat, we should be able to figure that out. I will update this once I examine the business directories.

Other executions were photographed around the nation in this era, as a Google search will show.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County.  This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County. This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County.  This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County. The black cap is getting ready to be pulled over the convict’s head before the rope is cut. This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

CAB Accident Investigation Reports for Eastern and Pan American Airlines Crashes in Cecil County Available Online

CAB Investigation Report for Eastern Airlines Crash in 1947 near Bainbridge, MD.

CAB Investigation Report for Eastern Airlines Crash in 1947 near Bainbridge, MD.

The National Transportation Library of the Department of Transportation has digitized numerous collections, in order to provide easy access for DOT library customers and researchers. In that array of helpful research materials are the investigations of aircraft accidents, 1934 – 1965, the investigations of railroad accidents, 1911 – 1993, and much more. Here is the link to the DOT library’s digital collections.

Of particular interest to researchers in Cecil County are two commercial airplane accidents. One involving an Eastern Air Lines Flight took place near Bainbridge Naval Training Center May 30, 1947.  The other involving Pan American World Airways took place at the edge of Elkton December 8, 1963.

We had previously linked to those materials at the digital library but since readers often report trouble with the links, we are providing copies of the official Civil Aeronatics Board investigations here.

Here is th elink to the 197 Bainbridge Crash.

Here is the link to the 1963 Pan Americn Airlines Crash.

Singerly Listening Station Continues: An Interview With Chief John Turnbull (retired).

Recording Chief Turnbull's stories.

Recording Chief Turnbull’s stories.

The Singerly Listening Station was open on July 12, 2014, and many of the most senior members of the fire department stopped by the company museum to share stories about serving the community decades ago.  In this session we listened to past Chief John Turnbull talk about joining the ranks in 1963, some of the unforgettable incidents he was involved in, his time in charge of the department, and the changes he has seen.

Thank you Chief Turnbull for your service and for helping document the Singerly Story.  This is a brief outtake of about 11 minutes, from a much longer interview. The longer recordings will be archived for research purposes, while we are streaming this segment.

Fifteen members participated in this initial oral history session, and we will be sharing more of those installments in the weeks ahead.  We will also be doing  additional interviews as we finish processing this initial batch of material.

Past Chiefs, John Turnbull (right) and  Rodney Founds at the Station 13 dedication in 2013.

Past Chiefs, John Turnbull (right) and Rodney Founds at the Station 13 dedication in 2013.