In the early part of the 20th century Port Herman was the place to be during the hot, humid months of summer. The small, waterfront community on the Elk River shore attracted city folks seeking to lighten the oppressiveness of the season by catching fresh breezes and enjoying the cooling water.
It all started about 1843 when Robert H. Thomas, an entrepreneur from Philadelphia, purchased a large tract along the Elk River from John Rawlings. He planned to develop the land that had been part of Augustine Herman’s vast Bohemia Manor estate, and in short order improved his holding. Streets, such as Cherry, Front, and Second, were laid out and land was subdivided into building lots.
The businessman also built a steam saw and plaster mill, while also commencing a large steam driven cotton factory, the Cecil Whig reported. Mr. Thomas’ involvement with steam and the capabilities provided by his saw mill must have created an interest in boat construction for in August 1852 the Whig noted that he was having a steam boat built.
Port Herman’s “little steamer,” the John C. Groome, was launched that year. The vessel needed no wharf because she was only 21 feet wide and with a shallow draft it was designed to run to Elkton, Head of Sassafras, Head of Bohemia and other narrow tributaries inaccessible to larger steamers.
Working out of Port Herman, the vessel was running up the waterways at the head of the Chesapeake when the next sailing season arrived. An auxiliary boat, she connected with the Philadelphia and Baltimore boat, the Lady Wilmer, at Port Herman.
Sometime In the 1850s Mr. Thomas sold his building lots to Thomas Marshall, James Van Horne (a steam boat captain), G. A. Thompson and others. During his time he built a few more boats. When the executors settled his estate in the late 1850s, there was one unfinished vessel on his Port Herman property.
Area farmers used Port Herman and its facilities to ship crops to city markets. There was a wharf, warehouses, and a store on the 1877 atlas of Cecil County.
The year the steamboat launched was a time for big happenings in Port Herman. A few months after that important event, the Postmaster General gave villagers a place to post and pickup mail. “Seventy inhabitants and fifty families living within two miles of Port Herman now had regular mail facilities, the Cecil Democrat observed.
Thomas C. Mashall served as the postmaster, according to government records. In his first half-year of business the postmaster collected $3.17 and received $3.28 in compensation. Somehow, about two months before the pivotal, bloody Civil War battle at Gettysburg, the federal bureaucracy found time to shut down the little station (April 7, 1863).
A school, the Town Point School, opened in 1877, just outside the village. Located where the road branches off to Town Point, it was adjacent to the store of W. S. Way, Esq, on land previously owned by Col. Joshua Clayton. It superseded an earlier one listed in county records as being in Port Herman. The building was sold for $166 in 1938, according to “Cecil County, Maryland Public Schools 1850-1958.
A large boarding house or summer hotel, the Elk River House, opened in September 1888. Having rooms for 50 boarders, Thomas Griffin built it for Wm. J. Fears. Two years after the hotel opened, the Elkton Appeal editorialized that the number of city residents who could afford to spend summer time in the country was increasing. “This is seen in the numbers who have visited the few boarding places that have been open the past summer along our rivers.”
Port Herman’s hotel capitalized on the growing vacation trend, becoming an annual gathering place for long vacations. A July 1919 advertisement said, “Elk River House Now Open – boarding by meal, day or week. Automobile and yachting parties taken care of – WM. FEARS.”
The year before World War I was a progressive one. Citizens formed the Town Point Improvement Association, which had better roads for the area as its chief goal. Everyone residing in Town Point Neck was invited to join.
On the Fourth of July 1916, the Improvement Association hosted the “first celebration” on the banks of the Elk River, surrounding the hotel.” Celebration-goers were favored with the finest weather, as several hundred visitors in automobiles and boats attended.
It was a great day in the village. There was a parade, a patriotic speech, songs, and refreshments, in the morning. After lunch, boat and tub races and a ball game were featured. Illuminations, fireworks and a phonograph concert in the evening finished off a perfect day.
In the midst of a fierce storm of wind and rain, ground was broken for the new Town Point. M.E. Church in February 1916. By September, residents were invited to take part in the “most important event in the history” of the village, the laying of a corner stone of the new Methodist Church. Previously the church had met in a building that was either a vinegar mill or a blacksmith shop, old postcards indicate.
They weren’t going to miss a summer holiday that year before the Great War disrupted life. On Labor Day, the American Mechanics raised a flag and conducted a patriotic program at the school, which had been enlarged to accommodate the increasing population of the area. After the celebration everyone marched over to the church where a lawn party was held.
Today the Elk River House is on the market, according to a sign on Front Street. But in 1998 I had the pleasure of speaking with the elderly owners, Francenia Johnson. She recalled hearing older residents talk about the summer hotel. “The Ericsson steamer would bring vacations down from Philadelphia each Saturday during the summer and the hotel would send its wagon down to the wharf to pick up the guests.
After World War II, Mrs. Johnson recalled that Bob Fears had a public beach along the shore. To accommodate guests, he built a concession stand, a bathhouse and summer cottages. The cottages were rented for the season, she remarked. And each year when the summer months rolled around, the village freshened up as guests looked forward to a vacation here. Dips in the river, crabbing, canoeing, rowing and launching, all the favorite water sports were on the schedule. Of course, there were walks on the beach, dances, enjoyable meals, camping, music, picnicking and much more at this breezy spot on the Elk River.
A unique part of Cecil County’s history is preserved in this picturesque, little riverside community.