A 'Graceful Harbor' - And A Graceful Town In 1813 A Lone Man Fought To Save Havre De Grace From The British, And It Is Easy To See Why.

Posted: January 01, 1989

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. — The graceful harbor is no longer the economic muscle of this charming little town, but it is still its soul. This is a town that has grown outward

from the waterfront but has never turned its back on it.

Perched at the point at which the mighty Susquehanna River flows into Chesapeake Bay, Havre de Grace is neat, pretty and interesting. Near its center are a much-used waterfront park and a marina big enough for a much larger community.

The marina, in fact, is a pleasant way to while away an hour or two on a sunny afternoon, meandering along its walkways and deciding which of the vessels you'd like to climb aboard and sail away to the Bahamas.

Yes, the town is aptly named - "Harbor of Grace." It's hard to believe, in fact, that only one man cared enough about the place to put up a fight against a British invasion.

But that was in 1813. Nowadays, an invader would have to think twice, what with the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground (and museum) being only three miles away.

Invasions these days are best undertaken by car. This little pearl of a town is about 90 minutes from Philadelphia, a swift trip on Interstate 95. If you take this route, you have a chance to arm for the invasion with maps, brochures and other useful data. Between the exits for North East, Md., and Havre de Grace on I-95, there is a service area called Maryland House, which contains a Maryland tourist-information office.

Once you leave I-95 at the Havre de Grace exit, follow the signs for the business district, and you will find yourself on Union Avenue. Union Avenue gives you a good feel for what the town is like. It is a quiet, pleasant street lined with substantial, graceful houses, some dating from the 18th century.

Union has only about a dozen blocks. It takes you to the most photographed structure in the area, the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is open to the public between 1 and 5 p.m. on Sundays.

The lighthouse was built 14 years after the 1813 invasion, but it occupies the patch of land on which citizen John O'Neill single-handedly manned a battery of cannons in a futile attempt to repel the British fleet. One of the cannons is still there and is suitably inscribed.

O'Neill was wounded and captured, and the British sacked and burned the town. He was released, however, after his daughter, Matilda, spoke on his behalf to Adm. George Cockburn. The admiral presented her with a jeweled snuffbox as a tribute to the courage of father and daughter.

The O'Neills became one of Havre de Grace's leading families, and the house they have occupied for 158 years, a charming and slightly eccentric conglomeration of styles, can be seen on Washington Street near Bourbon Street.

The house is in the middle of the block, on your right as you head toward the lighthouse. Look for the brick chimneys with the flaring tops. The house has been altered much over the years, but some portions date from around the time of the British invasion.

Near the lighthouse, at the foot of Lafayette Street, is another of the town's major attractions, the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, at the foot of Giles Street.

Duck decoys are quite big here. In fact, a decoy festival is held every May. The museum building was originally a service building for the Bayou Hotel, that handsome structure - now an apartment building - just across the road.

The Decoy Museum not only contains old and new decoys, but also tools and equipment used by early decoy-makers, plus paintings, drawings and photographs. There is a small gift shop, where you can buy decoys of varying sizes and at various prices. The museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. every day but Monday; admission is free.

From the museum, you can head back through town on Market Street, which runs by the waterside. You will pass the Tidewater Marina, alluring for boat lovers. Scores of sailboats and motorboats are anchored there, many of them for sale. It's a good place for wishful thinking.

Farther on, Market becomes St. Johns Street. Opposite a little plaza dedicated to the French Gen. Jean Baptiste Rochambeau is the town's mini-mall, site of a few shops, a pint-size Mexican restaurant and the Chamber of Commerce headquarters.

Here, you can get lots of material about the history and attractions of the Havre de Grace area - such as the Steppingstone Museum, on Quaker Bottom Road northwest of town.

Steppingstone concentrates on the rural arts and crafts of the period between 1880 and 1920. It is in a farmhouse furnished with period pieces in its formal sitting room, sleeping quarters and kitchen. The garden provides a fine view of the Susquehanna and, in the nearby shops, you can watch craft workers demonstrate their skills. The museum is open weekends from May to October.

If you plan to stay overnight, you may want to check out the motels along Route 40, also called Pulaski Highway, which skirts town to the north. But surely the most interesting place to stay is the Vandiver Inn, in one of the town's many grand Victorian dwellings, at Union Avenue and Revolution Street.

The inn has only eight rooms, each with distinctive period decor. The best thing about staying at the Vandiver Inn is dinner, an elaborate affair prepared by innkeeper-chef Charles Rothwell, who holds a silver medal from the American Culinary Federation. Rates per night, double, range from $69 to $85, including breakfast. Add $60 to include dinner for two (that's with gratuity and tax). If you want dinner without a room, you have to call 48 hours in advance to see if there is an opening. The inn does not have a liquor license.

The three major restaurants in town are within a block of one another. MacGregor's, a steak-and-seafood place that becomes a lively singles bar after 9 p.m., is at the foot of Franklin Street. Just behind it, nestling on the water, is the Bay Steamer, which specializes in seafood. On Union Avenue at Franklin is the Crazy Swede, which has good food and a convivial bar.

Outside town on Route 40 is another good, moderately priced seafood restaurant called Bayou. Next to it is a good Chinese restaurant with bar, San Lin Garden.

If you are in the mood for a stroll, go to the Chamber of Commerce and get a printed map and brochure. (If the chamber office is closed, pick up a tour brochure at the city hall on Union Avenue.)

The most historic house on the tour is the Rodgers House at 226 N. Washington St. The building was constructed in 1780 and restored in 1981. George Washington made a number of stops there between 1787 and 1795.

It was the home of John Rodgers, naval hero of the War of 1812 and later assistant secretary of the navy. His son (also John), who served with distinction in the Union Navy during the Civil War, also lived there.

An interesting group of houses on the tour includes those built around 1840, when Havre de Grace was a booming shipping center serviced by a canal and railroad line. Three of the most intriguing can be found near the

intersection of Fountain and Union Streets - the Hall House (1835), the Hoke House (1838) and the Sappington House (1838). All are of the brick- construction style that has come to be called Canal Era.

Another group of houses on the tour dates from the Victorian era, when canneries and other industries created a new wave of prosperity for the town. A good example is the Seneca Mansion on the northwest corner of Union and Pennington Streets.

Any visit to Havre de Grace ought to include a side trip to the Ordnance Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where the Army tests weapons. It's a short drive south on Route 40. The grounds around the museum are festooned with tanks, cannons, personnel carriers and other vehicles dating from World War I. Inside, the exhibits go farther back, to the Revolutionary War.

The museum contains weapons from all over the world, as well as uniforms and vehicles - everything from handguns used in the Civil War to booby traps rigged by the Vietnamese in the 1970s.

The weapons and devices range from the effective to the downright silly, including a German invention that never worked, a sort of bomb on wheels. It was supposed to be rolled into enemy ranks by remote control and set off.

There is a Gatling gun that fired 3,000 rounds a minute during a special test program in 1904. The Army decided not to manufacture the guns, however,

because nobody at the time could envision a situation in which so much firepower would be needed.

There is also what the museum calls the most comprehensive collection of rifles and carbines in the world. Outside is the Atomic Cannon, produced in the premissile days after World War II. The cannon weighs 166,000 pounds and could fire conventional or nuclear shells up to 18 miles. It was never used.

Admission to the museum is free, as is parking. It is open from noon to 4:45 p.m. every day but Monday.

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