When Ice and Water Overflowed the Susquehanna River, the Media Descended on Port Deposit

There are floods and there are cold snaps in Cecil County.  But in Port Deposit there were “ice gorges” and there were floods.  So frequent before the building of the Conowingo Dam, the ice jams periodically brought destruction to the old river town and other communities on the lower Susquehanna River.  They occurred when a spring thaw began breaking up ice in the middle and upper reaches of the river..

Towns people knew when to start bracing for it.  And just like today, when the Susquehanna River threatens to go on a rampage, reporters and photographers rushed to the paralyzed town, hoping to be able to supply the city editors with headline grabbing copy and pictures.

From the time the first publications appeared in the county, stories occupied the columns of the local papers when the “ice king” threatened Port Deposit.  Shenandoah (the pen name used the Cecil Democrat’s local correspondent) concluded his report this way in 1857: “But I can write no more.  I am at this moment where I used to live, but I am only staying here a few moments just now.  The house is surrounded with ice and water, and I am here, without fire, at 10 o’clock at night and alone, my feet sticking to the ice and frozen, my fingers almost frozen, and my candle almost gone! . . . Though almost frost bitten, I am yours, SHENANDOAH.”. 

A group of enthusiastic city correspondents covered the ice jam of 1876 and the Cecil Whig’s editor had something to say about this bunch: “These Bohemians generally love their todd and are excellent patrons of the drinking salons.  Every fresh drink they take they see the ice move and the water commence to rise in the streets and they go forth with flash news to their papers . . . and about every other morning the town suffers a submerge and the people, especially the women and children, fly to the hill side and narrowly escape a water grave in the city papers.”

When the ice king had a solid grip on the Susquehanna in 1893, residents of Roberts Island were completely surrounded by the gorge.  Perhaps passing too many idle moments in the taprooms, The Baltimore Sun and News American reporters conceived the idea of crossing the ice to the Island.  They got a resident, Lawrence Paxton, to guide them and armed with ice hooks and ropes they started.  With Paxton taking the lead, the two representatives “faint hearted and timidly picked their way, but anxious to immortalize themselves, gained courage as they followed in the wake of Paxton,” the Perryville Record reported.

On nearing the island, the Sun man was determined to be the first to arrive.  And as soon as he reached the land, “he proclaimed that in the name of the Baltimore Sun he took possession of Roberts’ Island.”  There they talked to Roberts whose home and farm occupied the tiny piece of land in the middle of the river, and tried to persuade the family to go back with them.  But the safety of his livestock troubled him so having their story they headed back to the comfort of Port’s saloons.

In time newspaper photographs added to the capabilities of daily newspapers to cover the story and when the city was in ruins photojournalists descended, documenting the scene of suffering, smashed buildings and huge icebergs on Main Street.  By the top of the 20th century picture postcards were available and these images were extremely popular. 

So media has always rushed to the lower Susquehanna whenever the area was threatened.  Of course, our methods for providing the news has changed since the time when ice jams were an all too frequent image.  Nonetheless, the general scene is familiar to residents of Port Deposit in the 21st century.  On a slow news day in the summer when a persistent thunderstorm gives the Susquehanna River drainage area a good soaking, satellite trucks are likely to descend on the narrow Main Street in Port Deposit to wait for the coming flood.  Beaming signals back to the Baltimore television stations, the broadcast journalists search for interesting footage and people to interview. 


When Ice Jammed the Susquehanna River and Threatened Port Deposit Photographers Were Quick to Respond.

Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, and other communities on the lower Susquehanna River have a long record of damaging ice floes and floods. When the towns were paralyzed by the ice jams, photographers rushed to the area to capture the scene. And when picture postcards arrived at the top of the 20th century, these regular disasters became some of the best selling cards.

Here are a few pictures from the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of these are from a private collection, but the historical society’s online archives has a long collection of images, which they have shared online.

Click here to see a collection of pictures of the ice gorges.

When Ice Gorges Terrorized Port Deposit and the Susquehanna.

A century ago, whenever the Susquehanna River Basin suffered through a particularly tough winter—for weeks, the wind would howl, the snow would blow, and the temperatures would hover below freezing—the powerful waterway would ice over from New York down to Havre de Grace. But as those long blustery nights showed tentative signs of easing, people living along the Susquehanna started keeping a close eye on the river, for they worried about a sudden spell of warm weather or the arrival of heavy rain.
Under such conditions, winter’s thick white blanket of snow would melt quickly, the runoff inundating the river and breaking up the frozen surface, causing it to tumble violently downstream toward Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, Conowingo, Lapidum, and other places.

–On Labor Day: Remembering Those Who Died While Building the Conowingo Dam

Workers at the Conowingo Dam. source: Conowingo Visitors Center

Workers at the Conowingo Dam.
source: Conowingo Visitor’s Center

On this Labor Day, a holiday that honors American Workers and remembers the struggle to acquire better employment conditions, it’s a good time to share some research I have been doing on men who paid a high price erecting the Conowingo Dam.  An untold number were killed, injured or disabled while toiling away at the dangerous construction job in the late 1920s.

Some 5,000 people flocked to the rural northeastern Maryland area, seeking to earn good pay as the construction got underway.  About 3,500 personnel erected the hydroelectric plant for Stone & Webster and the Arundel Corporation, and the project generated associated employment opportunities.  There were laborers relocating tracks and building new stations for the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, contractors paving new highways, and crews erecting 1,000 steel towers to stretch mighty transmission lines toward Philadelphia for Day & Zimmerman.

It was nearly fifty years before Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guaranteed the right to a safe job.   Regulations adopted in the early 1970s, made safety practices, such as fall protection, machine guarding, and personal protective equipment a standard part of the job.  But this engineering feat took place long before there was much concern for occupational safety.

While these men struggled to earn a living wage to support the family, many of them suffered disabling injuries handing high voltage electric lines, tumbling from high elevations, managing explosives, and much more.  A number died while performing their duties.  Construction work is a dangerous business today, but in that era workplace safety wasn’t a high priority and broken bones, fractured skulls, amputations and other trauma was common.

While people often talk about worker fatalities at the Dam, a census or registry has never been compiled to give us some idea of the magnitude of the risk and to remember those who fell on the job.  So I have done some data-mining, making  an initial survey to identify those who lost their lives at Conowingo.  It was a dangerous work, and newspaper accounts of men in the hard-driving industry suffering serious occupational mishaps are frequent, once work on the project starts.

The first shovelful of earth was turned on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River and the first nail driven on the Harford County side on March 8, 1926, newspapers observed.  “Twenty carloads of lumber passed Port Deposit on the way to Conowingo, and carpenters and mechanis were rushed on the job on Monday by the early train.”  The clearing of dense woodland had already began, and steam shovels were starting to operate.

Sometimes a man unsecured by a safety harness or net fell into swirling flood waters or rocks a distance or there was an automobile accident.  For example, thirty workmen suffered trauma when a bus operated by the United Railroads between Baltimore and Conowingo skidded on an icy hill at the Dam and was upset.  The injured were rushed to the company hospital.

Other accounts involved single casualties.  Irvin McDowell was confined to his home near Calvert in serious condition, the results of running a nail in his foot, the Baltimore Sun reported March 25, 1927.  Alvan Prather, 25, of Inwood WV. was crushed while firing the engine drawing cars on the Stone & Webster Company’s railroad, running from Havre de Grace to Shure’s Landing.  In critical condition, he was rushed to the company hospital where physicians determined he had a double fracture of the left leg.  The right one was smashed so it was amputated, the Havre de Grace Republican wrote on October 15, 1927.

For this article, I focused on identifying occupational fatalites.  Here is the registry as it stands on Labor Day, 2015.  I will add names to it as others are identified.


March 20, 1926  — Alphonso Fortier, 21, Philadelphia; killed at Port Deposit three-hours after accepting employment with contractor building the hydroelectric plant;  helping to unload a derrick and other machinery from freight car; a heavy piece struck him, causing an internal hemorrhage from which he died an hour later.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, March 21, 1926.

August 8, 1926 — John G. Shelor, 21, Calvert, Cecil County; tractor used in pulling stumps turned over backwards; broken neck at the dam; Remains shipped to Christiansburg, VA for burial.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug. 12, 1926.

August 11, 1926 – George D. Whiteside, 22, pipefitter’s helper; run over by a train at the plant; remains shipped to his home in Champlain, NY.  He was a college student employed at the dam for the summer.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug 12, 1926

August 3, 1926 (date is estimated).  An unidentified African-American laborer was bitten by a copperhead snake while clearing ground for the new dam.  Source:  Cecil Whig, August 7, 1926

December 21, 1926 — William J. Elliott, 46; killed at Conowingo Dam when he fell from a stone conveyor.  Funeral was held at Havre de Grace and services were in charge of Harford Klan.  Source:  Cecil Democrat, December 25, 1926

February 18  1927 —  Soon after reporting to work, George Graybeal, 35, became sick and went to the office of Dr. Mohr, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s physician at Conowingo.  where he died.  He and his father and a brother came from North Carolina to Cecil County to work on the project.

March 8, 1927 — Adam Gelensky, 42, an employee of the Arundel Corporation was found on the Octoraro Creek Railroad Bridge with both legs severed after begun run over by a train.  He died about four hours later in Richards’ Hospital.  The body was turned over to undertaker Patterson of Aikin.  An effort was being made to locate relatives at Brockville, PA.

April 18, 1927 — William Tuance was instantly killed while work for Stone and Webster at the Dam, when he was struck by a heavy piece of timeber.  His remains were taken to the undertaking establishment of Pennington & Son at Havre de Grace.  Internment was made at Angel Hill Cemetery.

April 25, 1927.  Chief George R. Chapman of the Conowingo Fire Department was killed when the fire engine overturned near the Dam in Harford County.  He was buried at Loudon Park Cemetery.

June 29, 1927 — Frank McCann, 27, sustained injured by falling a distance of nearly a hundred feet while at work on the Dam died.  He was from Detroit, MI and his body was shipped home.

July 18, 1927 — Stephen Collins, 28, Baltimore; killed instantly when he fell from the crest of the dam to rocks beneath.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, July 18, 1927

July 18, 1927 — O. P. Shelton, 32, Florida; killed instantly when he fell 140-feet from the crest of the dam to rocks below.  Source:  Baltimore Sun:  July 18, 1927

November 14, 1926 — Joseph Damfamete; employed by the Arundel Corporation; died of a fracture skull at Havre de Grace Hospital; struck on head by falling plank.  Source:  Cecil Whig, November 20, 1926

November 21, 1927 — Hunter H. Bettis, 17, son of Lonnie Bettis, Havre de Grace; employed by Stone & Webster; drowned while walking along the edge of coffer dam, carrying a heavy bay of rivets.  He lost his balance and fell into thirty-five feet of water.  Source:  Nov. 26, 1927, Cecil Democrat


This is the census I have developed thus far.  However, Corner William B. Selse of Darlington, commented that more than twenty men had lost their lives on the project, while investigating the death of Hunter H. Bettis.  He added, “the number is low considering the fact that on average of 3,500 employees have been employed there for nearly two years,” he informed the Baltimore Sun.

Curtis S. Poist of Port Deposit once wrote a Baltimore Sun article called “Helping Build Conowingo Dam.”  “There was no way telling how many men were killed on the job,” he wrote.  “Often the word would go around that a man had been killed, but I never saw a fatal accident.”   The workmen spoke so many languages, came from so many parts of the world, nobody knew much about anybody else.  Usually a man was known only by the number on his badge.   So if he fell into an excavation along with several tons of wet concrete who was to miss him let along mourn his passing?”

The registry probably represents a significant undercount as the primary sources for this preliminary registry are newspapers.  I’m planning a visit to the Maryland Archives soon for another investigation and will pull death certificates for these men and others I am able to locate.

Still on this Labor Day it is appropriate to remember the fallen workers thus far identified.  I will update this registry as more workers are identified.

Remembering the Service of Sheriff Sam du Pont

Sam du Pont established the K-9 corps at the Sheriffs Office source: Baltimore Sun, July 6, 1969

Sam du Pont established the K-9 corps at the Sheriffs Office
source: Baltimore Sun, July 6, 1969

Headlines across the nation put a favorable spotlight on Cecil County in the autumn of 1970, following the local election.  A member of the Du Pont family, Samuel Francis du Pont, had become sheriff and curious journalist from some of the nation’s largest dailies sensed that there was a unique story here.

He certainly wasn’t after the $125-a-week salary or the free room and board in living quarters on the 2nd floor of 19th century jail.  Samuel Francis du Pont, great-great grandson of Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, the founder of the family chemical empire, preferred to live at his spacious estate, Hexton, overlooking the Sassafras River.

Sam started in policing in the late 1960s, a period characterized by much civil unrest across the nation.  A presidential commission investigating the riots had determined that law enforcement should be more professional and to implement the reforms in the Old Line State, the Maryland Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was created.   Governor Spiro T. Agnew appointed him to the agency charged with  implementing uniform training standards, supporting college programs in criminal justice, and providing better equipment in 1968.

To get some practical experience, he joined the Elkton Police Department.  Working as a K-9 officer, providing his own German Shepherd and a specially equipped station wagon, he started patrolling the streets of the county seat that year.  He also attended the Maryland Police Academy, becoming one of two locally certified officers to graduate from the new program.

A formally trained local officer was something of a rarity at that time.  Rookies were typically given a stick, handcuffs, badge, and gun and told to hit the road.

Moving to the sheriff’s department in May of 1969, he became one of eight men policing the county and taking care of the other duties, such as jail and court security.  But this deputy differed from the other men in two special ways, the Baltimore Sun noted. “He’s the only one who works with a police dog. Sam, his year old station wagon, and a 4-1/2-year-old German shepherd made up the K-9 corps for the sheriff’s force. The other difference is that he is the only deputy who catches night shift every work day. Police dogs are most effective at night so the K-9 corps is on hand when it is needed most.”

Seeing firsthand the need to provide leadership and strengthen law enforcement locally, he campaigned for the top job in 1970.  (One of the issues centered around where the sheriff was going to reside.)  The Republican defeated former sheriff and state trooper Juicy Kaplan in an area where Democrats held a 2 to 1 majority.

“Perhaps I had a little different approach. . . ,” he explained to the Washington Post. We needed “a more professional approach and so we won better salaries” for the deputies and improved jail conditions. The inmates appreciated their new keeper. One man serving time for assaulting his wife told the Washington post. “He’s just like another guy. Most of the prisoners like him. He’s fair.”

Du Pont didn’t like to talk about his family history, reporters often observed, preferring instead to discuss what he was doing to protect and serve the citizens. The most serious problem was living down his name, the New York Times thought. Many county residents feared that the Wilmington Du Ponts were trying to take over. Others worried that he was going to use the office as a platform to climb higher in politics. “But he didn’t want to write laws like his cousin (Rep. Pierre du Pont).”

He implemented critically needed enhancements for county law enforcement.  Hiring standards and training were strengthened, as he wrangled a pay raise of from $600 to $1,400 for the men, with a salary topping out at $8,300. Circuit Court Judge J. Albert Rooney, noted that relation with the court had improved markedly, remarking that the officers that came before the bench were better qualified and more prepared.  Staffing was increased and improvements were made in the 19th century jail.

No du Pont had considered this line of work before, according to the Washington Post. They had enacted laws as U.S. Senators, administered them as commissioners of various agencies, interpreted them as judges, but this wasn’t for Sam. “I never really wanted a desk job. Never had a lot of desire to go with the company. I’m proud of my heritage, but it’s not my bag,” he told the reporter.

Sheriff du Pont served the citizens of Cecil County during a period when the criminal justice system had to evolve to deal with the challenges of a troubled decade, the 1960s.  He worked hard fighting crime and fighting for a few thousand more dollars at budget time.  He could have spent leisure time on his estate on the Sassafras River, flown his plane, piloted his tug and other boats, worked with thoroughbred horses, or looked after business in about anyway he wanted.

Instead he preferred to be a public servant, getting his start pulling lonely graveyard shift with his K-9 partner. As the lights when down in Cecil County, they started their workday, prowling the outlying country roads, from Bald Friar and the Lancaster County Line to Crystal Beach and the Sassafras River, while searching for trouble. Along the way he worked his way up to the top cop’s job.

He was directly responsible for bringing county policing into the modern era as he professionalized the work.

The police force, commanded by Chief Thomas N. McIntire, Jr. stands in front of headquarters in 1968. Office Purner is in the 2nd row, 4th from left. Photo Credit: Veasey

The police force, commanded by Chief Thomas N. McIntire, Jr. stands in front of headquarters in 1968. Officer du Pont is on the right with the K-9. Photo Credit: Veasey

A gentleman sheriff named Du Pont source: Washington Post, May 27 1971

A gentleman sheriff named Du Pont
source: Washington Post, May 27 1971

Hack’s Point: A Natural Spot for Summer Visitors

While Cecil County has always been an attractive spot for vacationers, the arrival of the automobile age after World War I accelerated that trend as new waterfront communities started popping up.  Desiring to escape, the oppressive heat and humidity of July and August, visitors from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Lancaster and other nearby urban areas motored here, seeking to spend long summer weekends in breezy cottages on the shores of the rivers.

As more and more visitors discovered the attractive beauty of the easy to reach county with five rivers, developers started buying up farmland and erecting cottages at desirable locations.  One of those communities was Hack’s Point with its excellent waterfront beaches on the Bohemia River.

In the middle of the roaring ’20s a Baltimore developer, Miller-Nelson, Inc., spotted the potential for the seasonal draw  and began putting in cottages.  In 1926, John Wallace Scott sold 50 acres of ground on his Hack’s Point Farm, adjoining Scotchman’s Creek, to the corporation for $20,000.  This place, with its broad waterways on several sides and the Creek was sure to catch refreshing  breezes and the attention of city dwellers seeking relief in those days before air conditioning.

The new owners had the property laid out in lots, a number of which had already been sold to people who were to erecting cottages, the Cecil County News reported.  On those sultry days of summer, lots of people were eager to get away, and Miller-Nelson had recognized the business opportunity.

This attractively situated point’s  history, however, goes back to the earliest days of the colony.  Stephen Hack was granted the first patent in 1658 and the name for the place has been carried down through the centuries.

A ferry operated from the point, helping ease the trip across the river, in the first half of the 19th century.   But In January 1853, the Legislature incorporated the Bohemia Bridge Company, authorizing the enterprise to build a bridge over the waterway at or near the ferry.  This would enhance the value of a considerable portion of the property of the county, as well as be a convenience a large number of citizens.

At that time the county was paying an annual sum of eighty dollars to keep up the ferry and if the commissioners desired they could contribute that amount annually to help cover the cost of operating the toll bridge.  It took a number of years before the span was built, but in July 1867 David Palmer was awarded a contract for $20,700.  The bridge opened in November 1867

Hacks Point was always a choice spot so as automobiles roared into the 1920s, increasing mobility, the alluring point, an ideal place for fishing, bathing, and boating, found many Delaware residents seeking summer cottages here.  In July 1940, the Wilmington Sunday Star observed that the “place was mostly populated by people who want quiet and colonial back home refinement.”

An advertisement in the Sunday Star in 1940 said that the fine shaded beach and boating facilities made an ideal place to build or buy a summer cottage.  And it was “easily accessible to Wilmington. “

The gossipy social columns in newspapers were soon filled with seasonal news about vacationing on the Bohemia.  A group from the Norwood Methodist Church enjoyed camping at Hack’s Point in August 1933.  The trip was made by motor and boat, the Chester Times reported.

More developments were platted after World War II   Hacks Point Manor was recorded in September 1946.  An advertisement in the Sunday start noted that Hacks’ Point was “Wilmington’s newest summer vacationland.”   It had exceptionally fine water front homes with every modern convenience for part-time or year round use.  A cottage on the water was available from J. Reese Short, Cecilton ,for $8,500 and one just off the water could be hand for $6,400 in 1950.

This clean, restricted, highly desirable community offered a wide choice of fine locations, an excellent community beach, fine bathing, boating and fishing facilities, the newspaper continued.  Other developers submitted plans for Hack’s Point in July 1951 and August 1963.

Today this tiny Cecil County resort continues to thrive.

For additional images click here.

hacks point 017a

At the confluence of the Bohemia River and Scotchman Creek in Hack’s Point.

The Boulden Ford Building Hummed With Activity of Auto Trade For Most of the 20th Century

An early advertisement in the Cecil Democrat.

An early advertisement in the Cecil Democrat.

The appearance of the first “locomobile on Main Street in 1900 heralded the beginning of a new era, which would dramatically change Elkton, an old colonial town.  On a Friday in April at the top of a new century, “the sight of the strange machine proved too much for ‘Poor Excuse’ Dr. B. M. Wells’ horse, and a wild dash resulted.  Dr. Wells was also the Railway Express Agent in town and the animal was used to the routine of well-traveled route.

“Poor Excuse” wasn’t the only one appalled by the automobile.   The town council posted large signs on the outskirts of the municipality giving notice to automobilists not to run faster than eight miles per hour in 1911.

From its beginning, Elkton has depended on transportation to drive its development.  Its role as a place on one of the most important commercial corridors on the Eastern seaboard has continually shaped its development.  But, now the pattern of growth and change would accelerate because of cars and trucks.

As the auto industry was progressing through its tentative phase locally and nationally, Henry Ford organized the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, MI in 1903.  He began producing the Model T Ford car  in 1908, which initially sold for $850.  The windshield, top, and headlights were extras.

In 1911 the automobile was here to stay, the Cecil Democrat declared.  That same year Warren W. Boulden Sr. started an independent dealership, the Elkton garage.  He erected a roomy structure on Main Street at the foot of Bow St.  It offered a full line of automobile supplies and services and there were vehicles for hire.  Boulden had given this business a careful study and was a ”competent mechnician,” the Cecil Democrat reported.  In 1913, he signed an exclusive contract with Henry Ford, opening the first Ford dealership in the county.

Business was growing rapidly and sometime prior to the summer of 1915, Harry R. Boulden acquired a lot next to the Howard House on North Street.  As warm months got underway, newspapers reported that significant improvement was being made on North Street for Boulden had hired a contractor, William Stephens, to build a new garage.

Ground on the lot between the Howard House and Edward W. Taylor’s livery office was broken Monday, July 12.  The one and two-story brick building with concrete floor and a large arched entrance for vehicles contained a garage, sales room, and parts department for the agency on the first floor and five offices on the second floor.

With the roaring ‘20s underway, the Cecil Democrat reported tin 1924 hat the agency had the “finest garage building – fully 10,000 square feet given over for the storage of cars, repair department, Etc.”  Throughout most of the 20th century this fine old structure in the center of Elkton hummed with the activity of the trade, served as the headquarters for the growing family auto dealership.

By the end of the 1970s, Warren W. Boulden & Sons stopped using the structure for its business.  In June of 1986, the Mayor and Commissioners of Elkton acquired the space as its municipal building.  In October 1988 a new town hall was dedicated in the former automobile sales and service shop.  In 2001, the building was sold to the Cecil County Commissioners.

In time, the county built a new facility at the edge of town and in recent years the building has been on the market.  But this month the Cecil Whig reported that restauranteur Denis Minihane plans to open a brewpub in the vacant building.

The historic building at 107 North Street, a valuable cultural resource in the community, is a relic from the time the automobile was in its infancy.  Built just as Cecil roared into the age of modern transportation, it was designed to house a commercial car dealership and garage.

As the automobile age exploded and horses and carriages faded from the streets of the old colonial town, Warren W. Boulden & sons put more and more customers on wheels and the family business prospered.  It now appears that there will be once again another historic use for this interesting structure, which helps anchor the central business district and contributes significantly to the town’s cultural heritage.

A more detailed structural history was published on the Historical Society of Cecil County Website in 2006

Boulden Ford on North Street son after it opened.  Source;  Historical Society of Cecil County  http://www.cecilhistory.org/researchreports/boulden.pdf

Boulden Ford on North Street soon after it opened. Source; Historical Society of Cecil County http://www.cecilhistory.org/researchreports/boulden.pdf