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Remembering Home Front Defense Workers Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice in Cecil County

As this Memorial Day — the time to honor those who died in the military while serving our country —  draws to a close, we also want to remember another group who made the ultimate sacrifice defending our nation.  These were Women Ordnance Workers (WOW) and men employed in the defense jobs in Elkton.  On the home front, they carried out dangerous assignments, producing munitions that were needed to win the war.

People frequently talk about the big 1943 explosion at the munitions plants, but there were others, and a census or registry of civilian defense workers has never been compiled.  It was perilous, and while non-fatal explosions occurred with some regularity,  a few were lethal.

Following what was described as Maryland’s worst munitions plant explosion in 1943, the Morning News wrote in an Editorial (May 5, 1943), “There is a little which can be said that will console the families who have lost one or more members as a result of this disaster.  Yet, if they will stop to reflect, they do have the comfort of knowing that their sons and daughters gave their lives just as surely and in a no less patriotic way than if they had died on the field of battle.  They too were soldiers in the great cause to which America had dedicated itself and to the success of which it had pledged all its human and material resources.”

According to our preliminary findings at least twenty-two members of this group died in Elkton.

Feb. 21, 1940 – Before the United States formally entered the war, two men lost their lives, and fourteen other employees were injured in an explosion, which wrecked two buildings and damaged others at the Triumph Fusee and Fireworks Company plant.  The plant employed approximately 500 people.  For some time, the company had been chiefly engaged in the manufacture of airplanes flares and other pyrotechnic equipment on Government contract.  Sheriff David J. Randolph and Deputy Ralph W. Robinson rushed to the plant as soon as they heard the explosion after calling for state police assistance.  Only one ambulance was available in Elkton, and it carried several of the injured to the hospital

  • Edward Knief, 38, Newark DE – died instantly.
  • Charles Willard Gatchell, 32 of North East, died at Union Hospital

July 24, 1942 – Victor Vardaro, 37, of Bear, died at Union Hospital the day after he received burns while closing the door to the power grinding room at Vardaro Fireworks Manufacturing Plant.  Vardaro was the manager of the plant, which was owned by his father, Alexander.

  • Victor Vardaro, 37, Bear, DE

May 5, 1943  —  The state’s worst fireworks-munitions plant explosion killed fifteen workers and injured about 60 more.  A series of blasts were followed by fires that destroyed two plant buildings and spread to three other structures of Triumph Explosives, Inc.

The explosion occurred in a building that was used to manufacture tracer bullets.  Seconds later an adjoining building blew up.  Fire companies from five communities aided plant firemen in battling the flames.  Later, fire broke out in a canteen filled with employees and that too resulted in many injuries.

The plant hospital was quickly filled, along with a 25-bed Civil Defense Emergency Hospital setup on the grounds, but the more seriously injured were rushed to Union Hospital.  Throughout the night medical personnel performed life-saving procedures.  Later, Bodies were taken to the Pippin Funeral Home on East Main Street.  Hundreds stood silently “outside under the old trees, which line the street,” as people entered the undertaking parlor to try to identify the dead.

Benjamin F. Pepper, President of the company, issued an appeal to the corporation’s 13,000-employees to return to work immediately.  “We will do everything in our power to prevent any similar accident and to fight on with you harder than ever before,” was printed on red, white and blue signs posted in surrounding communities.

After a seventeen hour shutdown thousands of workers “hushed and grim-faced slowly filed through the guard gates at Trumpj Explosive. ending the seventeen-hour shutdown that followed the incident, the Evening Sun reported (May 5 1943)

May 5, 1943 –

  •  Willie Craddock, South Boston, VA.
  •  Mauhee Nediffer, Allentown Hills, WV.
  • Susan Nolli, Eynon, PA
  • Charles Millman, Camden, DE
  • Della Truman, Cedar Grove, WV
  • Ellis Simmons, Elkton
  • Iva Young Ward, W.V
  • Wilson Warner, Elkton
  • Mrs. Hurley Galmore, Coatesville, PA
  • Christine Erby, Raleigh NC
  • Jake Peatross, Danville, VA
  • Gilbert Poore, Warwick, MD.
  • Harry Rias, Dover, DE
  • Chester Whaley, Wilmington, DE
  • Ivy Young, Ward, WV.

June 21, 1943 – Three men died in a flash fire at Triumph.  They were dumping defective waste material in what is known as a fire pit, when an incident occurred.

  •  William Nelson Kellum, Carpenters Point
  • Samuel Perkins, Still Pond
  • William Smith, 37, North East

Sept. 6, 1943 – An explosion of undetermined origin wrecked a small building at Triumph Explosive plant about noon an 18-year-old.

  • Lester Billings, 18, Wilkesboro, NC

The registry probably represents an undercount as the primary sources for this preliminary registry are city and local newspapers, and the papers may not have covered isolated incidents.  We plan to continue adding information to this summary and will share it as we develop it.


Cecil County’s First Newspaper

The first printing press to ever rest on Cecil County soil came here 195 years ago. In that era, long before steam locomotives chugged along on rails or telegraphs tapped out lightning-fast messages, a young newspaper editor from Lancaster, Pa., named John McCord arrived in Elkton. He was also a printer since in those days the two jobs often overlapped.

For the entrepreneurial, yet inexperienced scribe, the task of getting his press moved here must have been a challenging undertaking. Although the record is silent as to precisely how he transported the heavy equipment, he probably loaded it carefully aboard a wagon for a bumpy journey over dusty country roads.

However, he went about it, the editor put the first edition of the Elkton Press in the hands of patrons the day after Cecil County celebrated the 47th anniversary of American independence in July 1823. McCord assisted by James Andrews and Samuel Stanbaugh, rolled up their sleeves and got ink on their hands as they toiled throughout the long summer publication day on the hand press.

Putting ink on paper is simpler today with laser printers, computers and desktop publishing software, but it was a complicated matter at the top of the 19th century. Each word had to be laboriously set by hand and each letter plucked from the cases of type. As the composition man worked, he placed individual blocks of words in a special frame until the entire page was laid out.

Each frame was mounted on the press, and an absorbent ball dipped in ink was rubbed on the type form. A helper laid a clean sheet of paper on the device, and by tugging on a lever, created an impression by causing a metal plate to press the paper onto the inked form.

Once one side was completed the type for the other side of the paper was set. Eventually the weekly four-page edition was ready to make its way into the hands of readers, who paid an annual subscription price of $2. McCord wrote that advertisements not exceeding a square could be conspicuously insert three times for $1.

After that July day so long ago, handbills, calendars, cards, stationery, legal forms and a variety of other printed matter started rolling off those clanking presses. But newspapers came floating out as well, spreading information to a waiting audience.

Perhaps to serve a wider audience, its name was lengthened to the Elkton Press and Cecil County Advertiser for a few years, starting in 1829. Although ownership changed a few times, the weekly last untiled 1832. That year, shortly after the presidential election race between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, the compositor set type for the last time.

An astounding number of publications followed. Newspapers blossomed in Chesapeake City, Elkton, North East, Perryville, Port Deposit and Rising Sun, as others rushed to serve readers. Over the course of centuries, the county has had over 40 different titles, often with many changes in ownership, format and titles.

You could say that McCord, Andrews and Stanbaugh pioneered the evolution of periodicals in Cecil County. Arriving in Elkton with a hand press and a font of type, these men were directly responsible for this county’s information age. Long before folks worried about young men marching away to the Civil War, the efforts of those publishing pioneers from Lancaster introduced home-based media that brought information to homes, farms and businesses.

Cecil County’s first newspaper

Eder on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

Eder was a station on the B & O Railroad. It was located near the bridge that carries Nottingham Road over the tracks, and is about one mile east of Mechanics Valley.  It was named for William H. Eder, who owned a large farm in that vicinity.

The Baltimore & Ohio railroad began providing service between Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1886. To accommodate freight and travelers in Cecil County a number of stations (8 or 9) were built adjacent to the tracks, and one of these stops was Eder.

A timetable for the railroad appeared in an October 1886 edition of the Elkton Appeal. It showed that there were two trains a day stopping at Eder. A westbound train was scheduled at 7.24 a.m. and an eastbound one stopped at 6:51 p.m.

For additional photos related to this post visit Delmarva History on Facebook.

Eder Station

Eder Station on the B & O Railroad.
source: Library Comp;any of Philadelphia, Online Collection.

The Great Rising Sun Train Robbery

RISING SUN, Jan 2, 1885 — A passenger train that was making its way through the gloom of a winter night was robbed outside Rising Sun 131 years ago. Admittedly, it was not a great holdup, for it only involved a watch or two and small sums of money. Nevertheless, a raid on the rails in Cecil County, one causing fear as highwaymen cleaned passengers out of valuables, was a singular occurrence in this area.
The scene could have been straight out of the Wild, Wild West. Two young crooks, guns hidden away, quietly boarded a local train. Once the cars rumbled away from the station, however, they drew their revolvers and one of them began racing down the aisle, robbing terrified passengers. Within a couple of minutes, as quickly as it had begun, it was over, with the holdup men jumping off the train.
Newspapers throughout the region covered the crime. City papers “brought out their big type” to dish it up in the “liveliest style,” the Cecil Democrat, an Elkton newspaper, observed. Locally, journalists said they would try not to present a sensational story, but the most correct version possible.
Here are the details drawn from the local press. As the shade of winter darkness began settling on the Chesapeake, the evening accommodation out of Baltimore started its Jan. 2, 1885, run on time at 5:10 p.m. Scheduled to terminate in Oxford, Pa., the trip rolled uneventfully along until the locomotive shrieked to a stop in Rising Sun, where two young men with tickets for Sylmar boarded.

The Sylmar Train Station,, courtesy of the West Nottingham Historical Commission.

As the cars shook and rumbled, rolling slowly up the dark tracks toward the Mason-Dixon Line, the men handed their tickets to Capt. Ed Gilligan, the conductor. Just outside town, the two abruptly jumped from their seats. One of them pointed a derringer at head of a brakeman E.H. Tarring. The other robber started down the aisle, threatening passengers and demanding their money, watches and jewelry. One man handed over a dollar. The editor of the North East Star, G.A. Garey, “bought the desperadoes off with a watch.” An “old Quaker, named Passmore, slid his gold watch and chain worth $150 and $500 in money into the top of one of his boots. ‘I haven’t anything for thee,’” was his quiet remark, the Star reported. Passengers were holding up their hands in terror, but upon their declaring that they had nothing, they were left unmolested.
As soon as the robber had gone through the car to the rear, where his comrade was holding the brakeman, the two opened the door and disappeared into the darkness. The whole affair had lasted but a moment or two.The brakeman notified the conductor, who ran back as the robbers jumped from the train. The cars continued to Oxford, where news of the offense was telegraphed to Philadelphia.
Officials there speedily dispatched a special train with a posse of Philadelphia detectives. It reached the crime scene about 2 a.m. Saturday and pursuit was begun at once. The detectives scoured the neighborhood. There was a rumor that this was the work of a notorious bunch that terrorized Lancaster County, Pa., the Abe Buzzard gang. But the trail lead them to Calvert, and there the two suspects, Bud Griffith and William Trainor, were captured, the Wilmington Morning News reported.
On Saturday evening, they were put on a special train to Elkton, where they were lodged in jail. One of the city papers reported that at stations along the route crowds collected to get a glimpse of them and they were greeted everywhere with howls and shouts of “How are you, Abe Buzzard?” and “Hello, Jesse James.”
With the desperadoes secured away in the county jail, Cecil’s association with a great wave of train robberies that reached its height in the 1870s had passed. But county scribes had a little more to say about the subject. Philadelphia newspapermen set up a howl about the holdup as if there “was danger that Jesse James and all the western highwaymen … were advancing on the City of Brotherly Love,” the Cecil Democrat reported.
These highwaymen were wanting in every essential trait requisite to make successful train robbers was the reality, observed the editor. That “two callow youths” had no better sense than to rob passengers on the Oxford train out of Rising Sun and that they chose to commit the robbery in a thickly settled part of the country within four miles of where they lived was the proof. The final evidence, having no better sense than to rob an editor and a printer: “Printers and editors rarely have any money, and never have any about them when riding on railroad trains. Jesse James knew this and he would not have tackled one of them under any circumstances,” the Democrat noted.
As for the cause of the startling crime, it was reading “the abominable trash with which the country was flooded, yellow back literature, which was doing so much to demoralize our youth,” the Elkton Appeal observed.

In Historic Election in Rising Sun, Women Vote for the First Time in Cecil County

A ballot box from Carroll County, MD. used in 1900.  source:  Maryland State Archives.
A ballot box from Carroll County, MD. used in 1900. source: Maryland State Archives.

 In an era when women across the nation crusaded to gain voting rights, Rising Sun led the way locally in 1916, allowing ladies to cast ballots in a county election for the first time in Cecil’s history, the Midland Journal reported.

The question that faced taxpayers heading to the polls was whether the town board could refinance a $16,000 debt with the issuance of 20-year bonds.  These instruments would replace short-term loans, which paid for the waterworks installed two years earlier, sidewalks already laid, and apparatus for fire protection already purchased.

Short term notes carried this public debt, so the issuance would not increase the tax rate, the town commissioners assured residents.  In fact, lower interest rates would give the municipality a way to minimize cash outlays, giving the budget a bonus savings of $140 a year, if the voters approved.

This was a “good practical business proposition, and one which those who have the interest of our town at heart” should endorse the town newspaper, the Midland Journal,  editorialized.  This savings was “an item of no small consideration.”

The Legislature’s authorized all municipal taxpayers of legal age to vote on the question, which was decided favorably.  Seventy-four voters approved, while two opposed the matter.  The town’s newspaper editor said he didn’t know if the increased franchise affected the results, but the near unanimous count suggests that practically all the citizens favored the action.

This happened as Maryland and national women’s suffrage associations waged campaigns for the franchise.  It was unsuccessful in Maryland, the lawmakers failing to amend the state constitution or to approve the 19th amendment.  But on August 26, 1920, the position of Maryland politicians was irrelevant, after a sufficient number of states ratified the  amendment, giving all women the right to vote.

As ladies across the country struggled with the national campaign, Rising Sun had held a historic vote, allowing women to go to the polls four years before the ratification of the 19th amendment created a more universal franchise.  The presidential election of 1920, where Warren G. Harding, Republican, and James M. Cox, Democrat, were the nominees, was the first time most female voters in Cecil County and the nation exercised the power of the ballot box.  It was old news by that time in the northern Cecil County town.

A financial statement of the Commissioners of Rising Sun, MD., 1908

A financial statement of the Commissioners of Rising Sun, MD., 1908

rising sun 991as

The Rising Sun Town Hall


Taking a Stand for Equal Treatment on the Mason Dixon Line in 1904

A match book cover for the Madison House in North East notes that the place on Route 40 is just below the Mason Dixon Line.

A match book cover for the Madison House in North East notes that the place on Route 40 is just below the Mason Dixon Line.

Nearly sixty years before Freedom Riders started a campaign to open restaurants, motels, bars, and other public places to all travelers on Route 40, Cecil County found itself in the middle of another Civil Rights divide.   The Maryland Legislature decided the State needed a “Jim Crow” law in 1904 that required steamship lines and railroads to maintain “separate but equal facilities.”

Once the segregation requirement went into effect on July 1, 1904, African-American ticket-holders on the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington Railroad trains and the Ericsson Line steamers heading south from northern points had to move to the “colored compartment” after the train rumbled across the Mason Dixon Line.

To comply with the Maryland regulation signed by Governor Edwin Warfield, the railroad constructed Jim Crow coaches at the Wilmington shops.  Two worked the Delaware Road, traveling branch lines up and down the Delmarva Peninsula.  These were ordinary coaches, divided off by partitions capable of seating 15 people at one end of the car with a sign saying “colored” on the compartment.  On the main line, the accommodation train running down to Baltimore had a “colored coach” attached.

The segregated cars appeared promptly on July 1, the midnight train reaching Elkton being equipped in accordance with Maryland’s rule.   About noon that day, a Philadelphian, an African-American, objected to the order at Iron Hill.  After a “parley” with the conductor, he was put off the train in North East.  “His actions showed pretty conclusively that he was hunting for trouble in order to bring suit against the railroad company,” the Cecil County News informed readers.

But the practical working of Jim Crow got it first real test as the people observed Independence Day in 1904.  The Elkton African-American community sponsored a grand picnic, celebrating the Fourth of July.   Several hundred people from Pennsylvania and Delaware received invitations so the coaches were crowded on the holiday with festive passengers heading to Elkton.  Most of them were surprised, this being their first experience with the “Separate Car Act.”   While riding quietly along on the coaches with white ticket-holders, the conductor called out as they rumbled across the Mason Dixon Line, “colored coach in the rear.”

As the significance of the conductor’s announcement surprised many, some moved to the segregated seats, but several refused to obey the Jim Crow law.  The conductor thus ordered the train held at Iron Hill Station, and a number of passengers were put off, having to walk to Elkton.  A band from Newark was in this group, as they refused to move.  One African-American passenger, a lawyer made “a ten-minute speech, in which he tried to console his companions, asking each one to try to find out just exactly who was responsible for the obnoxious law,” the Cecil Democrat reported.

A page from the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Guide published in the 1850s describes the Mason Dixon Line.

A page from the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Guide published in the 1850s describes the Mason Dixon Line.

A few days later a train was delayed at Perryville because of refusal to give up the seat and move to the designated coach.  In North East William King, an African-American from Philadelphia was put off the train.  When the train reached Iron Hill the conductor read the Maryland law to him.  He refused and at North East the railroad man forcefully ejected him from the train.

Sheriff Biddle made the first arrest in Cecil County for a violation of the new Jim Crow Law.  When a southbound train reached Elkton, James Griffin refused to go to the designated seats.  Sheriff Biddle was notified and he placed Griffin under arrest, taking him to the jail.   The next day he appeared before Magistrate Henry Gilpin who held him under $200 bail for his appearance in the September term of the Circuit Court.

On the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, William T. Finley, an African-American physician from Atlantic City was traveling on the Philadelphia and Baltimore Steamship Company (The Ericsson Line) to Baltimore.  He filed a suit to recover $5,000 in damages for having been subjected to the Jim Crow Law of Maryland.

Finely purchased a first class ticket for passage from Philadelphia to Baltimore. About midnight when the steamer reached the Maryland Line, he was aroused from his sleep by an official of the company who ordered him to the upper deck of the boat.  When the doctor objected, saying he had purchased first-class passage, he was told that the “colored apartment was above.

"William Henry Harrison Hart" by William Dana Hart - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Henry_Harrison_Hart.jpg#mediaviewer/File:William_Henry_Harrison_Hart.jpg

“William Henry Harrison Hart” by William Dana Hart – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Henry_Harrison_Hart.jpg#mediaviewer/File:William_Henry_Harrison_Hart.jpg

Another person who had the courage to resist the order to move was an attorney and Howard University Professor of corporate law, William Henry Harrison Hart and his sister Clementine Bartlett of Washington, D.C.  Conductor George C. Alcron sent for the sheriff and when the southbound 12:34 pulled into the Elkton Station Deputy Sheriff J. Wesley McAllister boarded.  “At the sight of the officer the woman gracefully yielded and took her place in the car.  The lawyer was given the choice of the proper car or the jail, and refusing the former was escorted to a cell,” the Cecil Whig reported.

Hart spent two days in the Elkton Jail, the Whig wrote, noting that the professor was “somewhat of a philanthropist.”   He conducted a school for boys, the Hart Farm School and Junior Republic for Dependent Colored Boys, largely at his own expense.  It was situated on 700 acres of land he also purchased.   “He is a lecturer at the Howard (colored) University Law School and is said to enjoy the esteem of the Bar and Courts of the District, having served for twenty years.  He will probably take through trains, to which the law does not apply, hereafter, when passing through Maryland.”

Hart also practiced law for the United States Treasury and the United States Department of Agriculture, and served as the Assistant Librarian of Congress.  He was the first black lawyer appointed a special U.S. District Attorney for the District of Columbia, in 1889.

The attorney challenged Maryland’s law that made it a crime for blacks and whites to ride together in the same car in the courts.  He was traveling in the whites only section, which had been okay until he crossed the Mason Dixon Line.  Having refused to move into the blacks-only car, Hart was charged and convicted of violating the “separate car law” and was fined $50 in the Circuit Court.

The fine was not paid, the defendant immediately filing an appeal with the Court of Appeals.    The lawyer added that if necessary, he would take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as the Jim Crow Law was not only unconstitutional, but was also in conflict with the Interstate Commerce Law, the Baltimore Sun reported.

When the State vs. Hart made it ways to the bench at the Court of Appeals, the judges “sustained the Jim Crow Law, but held that the provisions of that measure cannot apply to interstate passengers,” as the distinguished Howard University Professor argued, the Washington Post reported.  Hart was on a through train from New York to Washington so the decision of the lower court was reversed but the law was sustained.

Hart did not like Rosa Parks become a household word, observes C. Frazer Smith in “Here Lies Jim Crow:  Civil Rights in Maryland.  “Such moments of defiance got little attention and probably not by accident.”

Maryland lawmakers had created this legislation after the Supreme Court legitimized segregation in the case of Homer Plessy v. Ferguson. a decision that upheld the constitutionally of state laws requiring  segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of separate but equal.

Incident continued but after a number of decades enforcement of the frequently modified legislation quietly stopped.  Finally in 1951, after many years of trying to repeal the laws requiring separation of passengers on intra-state railroads and steamboats, it was put to rest in 1951, the language being pulled from the State Codes.

Every challenged injustice building up to the post-World War II Civil Rights movement put a spotlight on the fight for equal rights, while chipping away at Jim Crow.  The brave stand of Hart and others had made it clear that segregation wasn’t permitted for interstate passengers traveling on Maryland railroads and steamships.  Each step inspired other advocates to push for equal treatment, and Cecil County, bordered as it is by the Mason Dixon Line on two sides, sometimes found itself on the front lines  when people had to take risks, standing up for equal treatment.

Cecil County Circuit Court docked showing the case of State of Maryland v. Hart.  Source:  Court Docket, Cecil County Courthouse

Cecil County Circuit Court docked showing the case of State of Maryland v. Hart.

On the Mason Dixon Line between Westminster, MD and Gettysburg, PA.

On the Mason Dixon Line between Westminster, MD and Gettysburg, PA.

A Susquehanna River Village That Vanished — Conowingo

conowingo 241as

In current-day Conowingo, the visitor finds 20th century roadside businesses.

If you are the type who likes to find lost villages, we have a little journey you might enjoy.  To start ask someone for directions to old Conowingo.  But be watchful for that accommodating person might send you to a stretch of highway near U.S. 1 and Route 222.  That commercial area is lined with a collection of roadside shops, gas stations, restaurants, and taverns, businesses that rose up in the 20th century after the demise of the earlier town.  The location you are seeking was nestled nearby in a hillside at river’s edge.  It was once a thriving town that met a watery death in the name of progress.

At least you are in the neighborhood so journey down Mt. Zoar Road to a cove where the Conowingo Creek meets the Susquehanna.  That is as far as you can go to reach your destination for you are shortly looking across a broad lake at the gentle, rolling hills of Harford County.   Not too far from this idyllic setting, near the arched railroad bridge, rests the lost hamlet beneath the impounded water.

The story of the demise of this once bustling place, a spot where generations lived and died, ended one winter day in 1928 as waters of the dam slowly climbed over the buildings, erasing all traces of the community.

Although memories of the church, school, general store, garage, and inn have largely faded, the written record contains the story.  Back in 1993, Ralph Reed, who was born in a house next to the river, recalled that the place “was dear to us and we thought it was going to last forever.”  However, it survived only until Jan 18, 1928, when the dam’s final eight floodgates closed and the Susquehanna slowly backed up into town.

Farmers and villagers uprooted by the construction of the large hydroelectric dam gathered on the hillside to watch as the village met its watery doom.  As the sun went down behind the western Hills of Harford County, old Conowingo slowly vanished beneath the water.

Port Deposit’s Curtis Poist recalled that final day in a 1975 piece in the Baltimore Sun.  “Many of the people who had lived in Conowingo were on hand to watch.  Many of them insisted on lingering around their old homes sites, retreating only as the water backed up and drove them away . . . All day long they watched from a distance as the backwater inched its way over the bluffs and up the gullies until at sundown only the tree tops and the roofs of an occasional house and barn remained above water to identify the place which had once been home.”

The Conowingo Dam opened in 1928.

The Conowingo Dam opened in 1928.

The 4,648-foot dam with 53 gates regulated 105 billion gallons of water impounded behind the structure and generated electricity for the growing industrial nation.  The building of this massive public works project drastically changed the rural area as work crews began arriving.  It required some 4,000 workmen and the creation of a temporary village to house the families.  “Any able bodied boy or man who wanted a job could get one at the dam site at 35 cents an hour for common labor, 60 cents” for skilled laborers Poist noted.

In 1989 David Healey interviewed Curtis Ragan, 84, whose father was the town doctor.  “It was a busy place, always something happening here.  The town had a post office, hotel, restaurant, train station and several businesses.”  The spot where people gathered in town was the hotel, he told Healey.  “I never hung out in the hotel myself.  I was too young for that.”

The Maryland State Gazetteer for 1902-03 provides a little more information.   In the decade before a utility harnessed the power of the river, it had a population of 350 people.  Two doctors, Samuel T. Roman and D. M. Ragan, cared for the sick.  Lodging was available from John T. Adams and E. P. Bostick, while Thos. Coonie baked bread and cakes for townspeople.  Merchants included Chas A. Andrew, Geo. Brewinger, Wm. Gross, E. B. McDowell, and W. W. McGuigan.  There were tradesmen such as John C. Smith, blacksmiths; Jas. Ritchey, shoemaker; and Robt. McCullough, Harnessmaker;  W. R. Love was the postmaster.  Mills were:  Allen & Wilson, flint mill; Jas C. Bell, saw and flour mill; and the Susquehanna Paper Co.  A daily stage provided transportation to Rowlandsville, Berkley, Darlington, Delta and other places.

Regan’s wife, Hazel, taught school in the town’s two-room schoolhouse.  Since she was the only teacher, she taught all seven grades in one room.  She also had to sweep the floors, carry water, and cut firewood for the schoolhouse, he recalled in the Healey interview.

But once the Philadelphia Electric Company became interested in harnessing the power of the flowing water as a source to power turbines, it meant the end of the town.  After the one-mile-wide and fourteen-mile long lake was created by the dam, water covered 9,000 acres of habitable land, obliterating the old landmarks and farms, the Sun reported.  Gone were the “historic Conowingo Pike, the old Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, the ancient bridge, the old canal, towpaths and the toll house.”  In their place was a new Conowingo Bridge across the crest of the dam with a great lake on one side and a one-hundred foot waterfall on the other.

The project, which had started in 1926, had been a tremendous undertaking.  In addition to building the massive dam and power house, it had been necessary to relocate 16 miles of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to evacuate and demolish an entire village, reroute historic Baltimore Pike over the dam, and build a 58-mile electric transmission line to connect with the Philadelphia Electric system.

Today at this serene spot, it’s hard to believe that such a lively community thrived here near a cove just north of the large dam, for the backwaters of the dam have erased the physical evidence and an uninterrupted tide of time has eroded away most living recollections.   But it hasn’t been forgotten for its stories survive in aging newspaper clippings, history books, and the stories of  subsequent generations.  And it is the source of frequent inquires by curious types.

For a collection of photos from the old Conowingo village click here.

On Dec. 21, 2013, the longest night of the year, winter twilight descends on the Conowingo Dam.

On Dec. 21, 2013, the longest night of the year, winter twilight descends on the Conowingo Dam.