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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.

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Senator Robert Kennedy’s Funeral Train Passes Elkton

Late in the afternoon of June 8, 1968, the long-delayed funeral train carrying the body of Senator Robert F. Kennedy to Washington passed through Elkton. It was around 6 p.m. and the train was about 4-hours late. Larry Beers, a teenager, took his 8-mm home movie camera and captured the scene that hot June afternoon so long ago. Recently the footage, which had been unseen for nearly 50 years, was retrieved and Professor Rein Jelle Terpestra digitized the film. Here is Larry’s 3-minute film with some introductory comments and a few additional photos.

The Age of the Automobile Arrives in Cecil: 1st License Issued to Port Deposit Resident

The automobile age has arrived in Rising Sun in this postcard issued around the time of World War I.  source:  personal collection

The automobile age has arrived in Rising Sun in this postcard issued around the time of World War I. source: personal collection

In a time when horses, carriages, and bicycles provided transportation, the sight of an automobile could cause a commotion, but little did anyone know how unsettling that first view could be for “Poor Excuse.”

It was Friday, April 13, 1900, a day for bad luck, when the Adams Express delivery horse trotted up to the corner of Main and North streets.  A quick glance up the street caused the normally mild-mannered animal to take his owner, B. M. Wells, on a mad dash through the center of Elkton.  The spectacle of a strange machine breezing along had proved too much for the animal.

The driver of the contraption, the first “horseless carriage” seen in the county seat, was making his way between New York and Washington, D.C.   Curious people rushed to the curb to catch a glimpse of the member of the “locomobile Club of America” rolling along.

Mr. & Mrs. Harry Decker pulled up to the Howard House in their automobile in August of that year.  After spending Saturday night there, they got an early start the next morning as the New Yorkers continued on, heading to the Texas oil fields.

These new-fangled machines sometimes were temperamental.  A big red “Panhard (Paris) driven by a 20-horse power gasoline engine” passed through in 1902, but ran out of oil on the outskirts of Elkton.  The tank was refilled at the store of John E. Gonce, the Elkton Appeal reported.

Automobiles were here to stay, and it wasn’t too many more years before passing cars no longer caused a stir.  By August 1905, Harvey Rowland and Lewis Abrahams rode from Port Deposit to Atlantic City in their vehicle in five hours and twenty minutes.  Charles R. Ford owned the first one in Elkton, a fine Pope Runabout in November 1905.  As Ford was learning the “tricks of his new stead”, the Cecil County News wrote, “Good luck to you, Charlie, and may you never slip a cog or run out of gasoline.”  Mr. Carter of Singerly had a fine runabout in August 1906.

Local automobilists became common.  D. J. Ayerst, Dr. H. A. Mitchell and Frank B. Evans turned out in their vehicles for the Elkton Halloween parade in 1911.  A striking feature was “Ayersts’ Cadillac Motor Car, elegantly and strikingly decorated,” according to the Cecil Whig.  Edward W. Taylor bought a new Ford touring car to add to his livery fleet in 1913.

With the auto here to stay, the State of Maryland enacted a registration and licensing law, the first one in Cecil going to Lewis Abrahams of Port Deposit.  “My great uncle Lewis Abrahams who lived till his 84th year in 1964 at Port Deposit . . . was very proud of holding the first license issued for an automobile in the county”, the Rev John J. Abrahams noted several years ago.   “He and my grandfather began the first car dealership in Port.”  Lewis owned a 4 horse-power Locomobile and was issued license no. 502.  In Fair Hill, Edward H. Strahorn owned a Thomas B. Jeffery 7 ½ horsepower vehicle, issued license 537.  John E. Good in Perryville had a Peerless Motor Car, holding registration 656

The Metz Automobile sold by E. Balderston & Sons , Colora.  source:  Cecil Whig, May 22, 195.

The Metz Automobile sold by E. Balderston & Sons , Colora. source: Cecil Whig, May 22, 1915.

Duyckinch, Sterret & Co. of Rising Sun established the first dealership in Cecil County in 1909, handling Hupmobiles, Invincible Schachts, and Oakland Machines.  They had a fine section of Regal Automobile and “everyone was invited to call at the garage to inspect these beauties and see their efficiency demonstrated,” the Midland Journal reported the next year.

Warren Boulden Sr., built a 3-car garage in Elkton, opening his business in May 1911.  Carrying a full line of automobile supplies, the Whig added that “Mr. Boulden has given this business a study, and is a competent mechanician.”

“Poor Excuse” wasn’t the only one appalled by these contraptions.  In Elkton, Council’s hackles had been raised by speeding automobilist frightening horses and endangering pedestrians so the commissioners adopted an eight MPH speed limit.  Rising Sun decided that 10 MPH was a safe and posted signs reading “automobiles blow your horn at dangerous crossing and curves,” in 1911.

Within days of the new law going on the books, the vigilant town officer, Bailiff George Potts issued Elkton’s first speeding ticket, arresting a Baltimorean.  In Chesapeake City in 1915, the authorities were determined to break up reckless driving, and Bailiff Samuel Biggs arrested five automobilists for failing to sound horns at cross streets.  One of those arrested was Philip L. Garrett, Wilmington attorney for the Delaware Automobile Club.

About this time, the Cecil Whig observed that the reason Port Deposit had far more vehicles than the Elkton was simple economics.  Everyone knew that you didn’t make much money practicing law, as wealth came from enterprises, such as manufacturing and transportation.

The automobile age was on in Cecil.  Click here for additional photos

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The State of Maryland drivers license and vehicle registration for Lewis Abrahams of Port Deposit. source: Maryland State Archives.

Steamboating Days in 1916

In the early years of the 20th century steam boating days on the Chesapeake Bay commenced slipping slowly away.  But in the summer of 1916, Elkton obtained renewed service, the Philadelphia and Baltimore Steamboat Company (Ericsson Line) launching a new line with connections to Baltimore.

Leading up to the return of a regular schedule on July 1, a number of arrangements were taken care of. The company bought an attractive steamer, the Carmania in Mobile Alabama to ply the route, and leased Jeffers’ Wharf at the foot of Bridge Street.  Last minute preparations involved cutting a basin in the vicinity of the mill wharf, allowing the boat to turn for the trip back down the winding Big Elk Creek.

Throughout that hot summer before World War I, the Carmania called at Elkton tiny port on the Creek.  It departed each morning for Betterton, Chesapeake Haven, and Town Point and returned in the afternoon.  Passengers desiring to go to Baltimore could connect with the Philadelphia boat at Betterton.

There were special evening excursions too.   On a sweltering Wednesday evening in July, she ran a special moonlight cruise, taking people down the river to get relief from the intense heat that made the evening uncomfortable.  The Elkton Cornet Band furnished music on the expedition to Town Point.

The boat completed the season for 1916.   It is unclear if some service returned in 1917, but in 1918, a government report noted that line had been abandoned.

Click here to see additional photos — Steam boating Days on the Big Elk Creek

The Steamer Carmania. An unamailed postcard from 1916.  source:  personal collection

The Steamer Carmania. An unamailed postcard from 1916. source: personal collection

An Old House Research Question: When did the Pennsylvania Railroad Move the Dwellings

The original tracks ran alongside the old Cecil County Jail.

The original tracks ran alongside the old Cecil County Jail.

Over time, physical changes occur to a community’s built environment. Most are subtle, as when a backhoe goes to work digging up a new foundation or a bulldozer extends a street so a small parcel of land can be subdivided into building lots.  But as decades pass by more radical transformations occasionally materialize, many of those leaving behind no hint of earlier times.

Between the two World Wars, one of those epic alterations took place in the center of Elkton as the Pennsylvania Railroad electrified the northeast corridor and improved its right-of-way. The significant local enhancements included moving the tracks nearly a quarter of a mile to the north, the elimination of dangerous grade crossings, construction of two overhead bridges, the extension of municipal streets, and the erection of a new passenger station.

Once the engineers developed plans to straighten the tracks, the company purchased a great deal of land. In between wrangling for a deal with individual property owners, the PRR negotiated with the town council and the State Highway Administration to get an agreement to eliminate several busy grade crossings and build elevated bridges at North and Bridge streets.

As the plan moved forward, this design disrupted long-established street patterns in the older section of town and reoriented growth toward Elkton Heights, a new development on the edge of the county seat. In the area of North Street the realignment of the roadway required the Company to acquire a number of residences on either side of the street.  Around August 1931, the PRR sold nine of those recently acquired buildings to local parties, the price ranging from $300 to $500.  The company had paid as much as $10,000 for some of them, the Cecil Democrat reported.

Several of the houses had been lifted from their foundations in August 1931 ,and were “being moved intact to what is known as Elkton Heights, about seven hundred feet further north,” the Cecil Democrat reported.  The balance would soon follow, as the new owners had agreed to promptly remove the dwellings.  Two had been bought by John Lawrence of Newark, and one each by Argus F. Robinson, John W. Alexander. W. Holt McAllister, George P. Whitaker, Cecil P. Sentman, Thomas W. Simpers, Taylor W. McKenney, and Robert V. Creswell.  George Moore of Newark and Woodall & Son of Elkton handled the moving contract, the Cecil County News noted.

The work was hastily accomplished as the contractors on this major Great Depression era public works project anxiously wanted to get the long-delayed project moving. When it was over about 1935, the Pennsylvania Railroad had completed improvements amounting to over $1-million locally, not including electrification. Beyond that, street patterns familiar to a generation of people had been altered.  And  homes that once lined North Street had been moved to the newest development, Elkton Heights.  Today they continue to line some of the attractive streets in this subdivision, appearing as if they have been there from the first.  There are few traces of the pre-electrification era in Elkton.

Pennsylvania Railroad plan for improvements in Elkton, 1930.  Source:  Hagley Museum and Library

Pennsylvania Railroad plan for improvements in Elkton, 1930. Source: Hagley Museum and Library

A 1931 Sanborn map showing the new concrete bridge.  Source:  Historical Society of Cecil County Collection

A 1931 Sanborn map showing the new concrete bridge. Source: Historical Society of Cecil County Collection

 

A postcard showing a portion of North Street where the changes occurred.  C 1920s.  photo source:  personal collection.

A postcard showing a portion of North Street where the changes occurred. C 1920s. photo source: personal collection.

A 1922 Sanborn map showing the North Street area  before the houses were moved. Source:  Historical Society of Cecil County Collection.

A 1922 Sanborn map showing the North Street area before the houses were moved. Source: Historical Society of Cecil County Collection.

 

 

Elkton Police Arrest of Ambassador From Iran Causes International Incident in 1935

Elkton Police Chief Jake Biddle in 1935.  Source:  Baltimore Sun

Elkton Police Chief Jake Biddle in 1935. Source: Baltimore Sun

If there was anything remarkable about that Wednesday in November 1935 in Elkton, it was the new policeman directing traffic on the main thoroughfare from Washington to New York. Seventy-year-old Chief George Potts, having maintained tranquility in the town for twenty-eight years, had recently retired.  The rookie, Jake Biddle, was going to make a fine replacement as the top cop in Cecil County’s largest town and its two-man force, the locals remarked.

Eloping couple were streaming into the courthouse, while the marrying parlors were packed with nearly forty weddings, but that was routine.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House struggling with the nation’s economic woes.  Far away in the Middle East, the ruler of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi was on the throne, but few people recognized his name.  As far as anyone knew, it was going to be another unremarkable day for the town of 3,000 people.

But once that shiny Packard blasted onto Main Street “at a terrible speed,” the town was caught in an incident involving international law, wounded Iranian dignity, and disruption of diplomatic relations.

Chief Biddle was downtown when he noticed the fast-moving vehicle.  In it was Iran’s ambassador hurrying from Washington to New York for a dinner date, along with his British born wife, a pet dog, and the chauffeur.  When the policeman gave a blast on the whistle the driver pulled to the curb.  As Biddle walked up to the Packard, he wasn’t put off by the lettering on its side that read “Ghaffar Khan Djalal, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Imperial Majesty the Shah of Iran.”  The diplomatic license plate didn’t register either.

Stories about what happened next vary widely, but whatever the case, the run-in escalated. One local paper said, “When Biddle approached the car, the minister, who it is said had been drinking pushed him away, and when Biddle refused to allow the envoy to proceed, he got out of the car and engaged in a scuffle. “  So unruly had the diplomat become that handcuffs were snapped on his wrists, the paper continued.  Constable Clayton Ellison who lived nearby was roused from a catnap by the disturbance so he rushed over to help as did old Chief Potts as a growing crowd watched the tense, unfolding scene downtown.

Producing his State Department credentials and business card identifying his lofty position, the Persian Prince asked to straighten things out by calling Secretary Cordell Hull, the Far East Desk or someone in Washington, D.C.  But the officers weren’t letting a little noise distract them from their sworn duty to uphold Maryland Traffic Laws.

At some point the bunch was carted off to the jail. When it was explained to the jailer that the minister of Iran was involved, he wasn’t impressed either, accustomed as he was to so many marrying reverend in the Gretna Green.  “Minister, eh?  Just another preacher.  Throw ‘em in the cell!” quoted the Associated Press.

Everyone had concluded the same thing.  From the crowd watching the police action to Biddle and the deputy at the jail, it was universally agreed that he was a “marrying minister” trying to grab some of cupid’s lucrative Elkton business.

At the lockup, the ambassador again protesting that his diplomatic immunity was violated, asked to call Washington, but the request was denied. When the lawmen found that the trial magistrate wasn’t available they packed up the group for a trip to North East.  There the justice of the peace, George C. Rawson, thought the situation was a little ticklish so he allowed the Persian representative to call the State Department.  When the Far East duty officer got the judge on the line, the charges were quickly dropped as the magistrate told everyone in the hearing room that a “foreign minister can do no wrong.”

Once the judge determined that not all speeders could be treated equally, it wasn’t long before the Elkton police discovered that they had stumbled upon one of “Washington’s prize foreign squawkers,” as a local newspaper labeled the emissary. Djalal grumbled to New York Papers, saying that the “Elkton police were no diplomats,” or a least that’s what the headline screamed.  As soon as he returned from New York, where he “rushed for an urgent official engagement” he would make a formal complaint with the State Department, he assured newspapermen.

The Shah of Iran was outraged, when he heard that police officers grappled with his dignitary . . . snapping the degrading shackles of a criminal on his wrist” as Time reported.  After a protest was lodged, federal investigators took affidavits, followed by closed-door meetings with officials at the highest level of government.  To pacify Iran, the officers, Biddle and Clayton, were convicted of assault and fired, while the president, governor, and mayor issued formal apologies.

It might have all faded into the mist of time right there but for an enterprising photographer from the Baltimore Sun. He got three of the lawmen to pose for picture a few weeks after with a caption reading:  “These gyves [shackles] were snapped on Iran’s Envoy.”  Local authorities thought they could quietly reinstate the officers, but the photograph and their action once again grabbed headlines.  This touched off another international incident for an apology was no longer sufficient for the now furious shah.  He ordered the minister recalled, closed the embassy, and evicted U.S. representatives from Persia, breaking off all diplomatic relations with the United States for three years.

So how did it all end? With the federal government carefully monitoring municipal actions, Biddle quickly hung up his holster and badge at the order of the town council.  The rookie chief returned to farming at a quiet spot far off the main New York to Washington, road traveled by dignitaries.  As for Elkton patrolmen, they steered clear of run-ins with foreign ambassadors or at least we have found any additional references to trouble with the agency in the Journal of International Law.  And diplomats, envoys, and marry ministers for that matter were likely to use a little more caution when traveling through this corner of northeastern Maryland.

BS MD BIDDLE DIPLOMAT A

Following the arrest of the Ambassador of Iran, Cecil County lawmen display the handcuffs used to shackle the ambassador while he was transported to the jail. From L to R: Sheriff Eugene Racine, Constable Clayton Ellison, and Elkton Chief Jake Biddle. source: Baltimore Sun.

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.