The Big Elk Creek in Elkton, winding its way along what was once the town’s southern border, is commonly associated with perennial flooding these days. But once upon a time this waterway nurtured and strengthened the development of the county seat as the place bustled as a center for water transportation.
During the 19th century, industrial development changed the makeup of Elkton and water traffic became central to the area’s commerce. Scott Fertilizer Plant and the Radnor Pulp & Paper works, were two major enterprises tennating the creek bank at the southwest corner of Bridge & Main streets. The Big Elk was clogged with steamers, schooners, tugs, barges, and sailing vessels conveying goods to and from the town wharfs, during this era. Pleasure craft also crowded the waterway.
As the 20th century dawned, Elkton’s Harbor was still active. But shoaling was starting to restrict the narrow creek, and a representative of the Scott Fertilizer Company, wrote the federal government the summer of 1899 about the problem. Fannie, a steamer which has been coming to Elkton every year since she was built, might not be returning because of the difficulty in getting up to the dock. “The truth is the river is practically unnavigable for vessels drawing over 7 feet of water except on very favorable tides, and unless steps are taken promptly to dredge the river another year’s navigation will have to be abandoned except for the smallest craft.”
Ulysses S. Grant was president when Congress first appropriated funds to remove sediment from beneath the waters. The last time federally funded workmen scooped mud out of the estuary Woodrow Wilson was president. The problem was that the stream was filling with sediment, much of it silt carried down-stream during freshets. This left Elkton with a narrow, meandering waterway that was navigable only with great difficult.
In 1874, when congress first financed the removal of a century’s worth of silt, workers dredged a channel six feet deep. Next year, the “mud machine” was back, scooping out more clay, sand, and stone. Soon after the nation entered World War I, federal improvements last took place. Shortly afterwards, government engineer’s advocated discontinuation of the undertaking as the channel couldn’t be maintained at a reasonable cost, they argued.
Commercial interests started vacating the stream in the early 1900s. The “boat-building yard on the Little Elk has been abandoned, as has also the steamboat line to the wharf at the Bridge Street bridge,” a report noted in 1918. By 1911, the boatyard was in Chesapeake City. In 1918, a fire destroyed the fertilizer company. A steamboat last came to Elkton in 1917.
Then came the final blow. Route 40, the new dual highway south of town, was planned, and the “Roads Commission” wanted to construct a fixed span bridge over the Creek. A state survey showed water traffic for the past 20 years had so decreased that it would “not warrant the expense of a draw bridge,” the Cecil Democrat reported in 1938. General opposition to a fixed span developed and the Democrat editorialized, that “without a draw bridge, the prospect of using the creek for industrial purposes would be killed forever.” Despite the local resistance, they built the fixed span bridge.
That “mud machine” came back up the Big Elk Creek one last time between 1971 and 1973 for a state-funded operation. Elkton had secured a grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to build a “municipal marina” on the old waterfront. Complete with dredging of the channel, a boat launch, 72 docking slips, and bulkhead. But shortly after the work was completed Hurricane Agnes hit the area and the twisting stream again filled with topsoil.
Today the waters of the Big Elk meander past Marina Park undisturbed. No longer do power boats, three-masted schooners, tugs, or pleasure craft churn to and fro on Elkton’s once crowded waterway. An occasional flood disturbs the serenity, but not the whistle of the steamer or the shouts of dock-hands.