As I motored alongside the Susquehanna River in my 2007 Aston Martin V8 Vantage, at almost every turn there were reminders of the fierce rivalries and strife that existed in this area over a period of centuries. Susquehannock and Seneca Native Americans fought each other for control of trapping. Pennsylvania and Maryland militias fought each other over colonial boundaries. Baltimore and Philadelphia battled for economic dominance. And canals competed against railroads for the lucrative transportation business. Such a trip might have been depressing, in view of all the viral, social, political, and economic challenges facing the U.S. currently, but being out and about more than made up for it.
Between the covid pandemic and too much consulting work, I was hopelessly overdue for a grand road trip. So in mid-September, I fired up the enthusiastic Vantage and headed north toward the Susquehanna River. I “neglected” to put on the unsightly front license plate, since I knew I would be taking a lot of photos.
A Size 48 Shoe?
My first stop was in the aptly named borough of Railroad, Pennsylvania, just over the Mason-Dixon Line from my home state of Maryland. Railroad flourished during 1840-1920 and was the site of a major freight depot on the Northern Central Railroad. The town also produced apple brandy, phosphate, and a primitive antiseptic known as flavine (made from coal tar). The U.S. mail has never been delivered door-to-door here—residents still go to the post office to pick it up.
Most of the buildings in Railroad Borough are made of stone or brick, like this beautiful old farmhouse.
The Northern Central Railroad started life in 1829 as the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, but the Pennsylvania Legislature would not permit it to enter York County. As noted, Baltimore, Maryland and York, Pennsylvania were bitter rivals for the economic markets of the Susquehanna River Valley. Eventually, the legislature gave in by dribs and drabs, and the Northern Central was born. Abraham Lincoln rode this line on his way to deliver his Gettysburg Address. Today, portions of the old railroad are used for the Baltimore Light Rail system and for the Steam Into History excursion line.
Moving on to the outskirts of York, I found Cookes House in between a city park and an industrial complex. It was built by Johannes Guckes in 1761. Local residents insist that Thomas Paine lived here in 1777-1778 while the Continental Congress met, when York was the center of government for the fledgling United States. (Historians are not convinced, but they’re a persnickety lot.)
In the historical photo, note that the house had been converted to a duplex. It has since been renovated and restored to its original configuration and now serves as a private residence.
With an Aston Martin, you always think carefully about where to park. I tried (and failed) to find a way inside the security fencing!
Leaving York, I naturally had to stop for a look at the Haines Shoe House. Mahlon Haines was The Shoe Wizard of Pennsylvania, and he never stopped looking for sensational ways to promote his shoes. He handed one of his company’s popular boots to an architect and asked him to design a matching house. The result was completed in 1949, when Mahlon was 74 years old. Newlyweds could enter a contest to win a week’s honeymoon in the shoe house, as could seniors who had never had a honeymoon. Each pair of winners would be attended by a live-in cook, maid, and chauffeur—and they received free shoes “to boot.” The shoe house is a size 48 (feet) and has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a shoetop terrace. Want to see for yourself? You can visit the Haines Shoe House from the first day of Spring through October.
Traces of Industry
If you follow Codorus Creek until it’s within a mile of the Susquehanna River, you’ll find the Codorus Furnace. It was built in 1836 and features an unusual, round construction. Even rarer, the original brick hot blast stove still survives at the top. It continued in operation until 1850.
The furnace sits on a precipitous cliff above Codorus Creek. Fortunately, the parking area wasn’t nearly so steep—and the parking brake on the Aston is quite effective.
This building was the furnace master’s house (near portion) and office (far portion). It was built in 1780 and would clearly benefit from a good renovation. Despite its vacant and deteriorated appearance, it’s someone’s current residence.
At the bottom of the cliff, next to the creek, lie the ruins of several buildings that were part of the furnace complex. I couldn’t get down there for pictures, but the Library of Congress provided this shot of the old bloomery forge from 1800. An earlier forge is said to have operated here in 1765.
From any angle, the V8 Vantage is a strikingly beautiful automobile.
The “Muse of Susquehanna”
Continuing on, I crossed over the Susquehanna River from Wrightsville to Columbia. I’d been here before on a BMW Z4 trip in 2010 (see York and the Susquehanna). The town is full of beautiful residences and commercial buildings, and it was enjoyable to revisit them.
Back in 1718, a remarkable 21-year-old named Susanna Wright left her home in Lancashire, England and arrived in Chester County, PA, near Philadelphia. Eight years later, she traveled to the eastern shore of the Susquehanna, which was then a largely uninhabited frontier but is now Columbia. There she joined her father and brothers who were operating Wright’s Ferry at the river. One scholarly article describes her as follows: “An educated and energetic woman who never married, Wright thrived on this frontier, finding in it an opportunity to develop her many interests in medicine, horticulture, politics, law, and poetry.” Her close correspondents included Benjamin Franklin and the eminent philosopher-statesman James Logan, and she became known as the “Muse of Susquehanna.”
Susanna Wright treated settlers and Native Americans alike with her herbal remedies, raised thousands of silk worms (with Benjamin Franklin presenting a bolt of her silk to British Queen Charlotte), prepared legal documents, and helped settle property and other disputes. Her poetry frequently advanced the idea of equality between men and women. Her 1738 house still exists and now serves as the Wright’s Ferry Museum.
You can’t visit Pennsylvania without stopping to see some covered bridges—the state is famous for them. This one is Forry’s Mill Bridge, built in 1869 over Chickies Creek, and it remains largely original.
Hmmm, Siegrist’s Mill Bridge looks suspiciously like Forry’s Bridge, but it’s actually different. It was built in 1865 and crosses Chickies Creek only a mile away, but Tropical Storm Lee knocked it completely off its piers in 2011. Since then, the bridge has been completely rebuilt, using as many of its original materials as possible.
The mighty Aston Martin much prefers to be streaking along twisty roads at high speed, rather than being parked, but it never complains. And its new hydraulic door struts easily keep the doors open even when the car is perched at quite an angle, as here.
Names Are Like a Box of Chocolates…
In addition to covered bridges, Pennsylvania is famous for its colorfully named towns, such as Intercourse, Blue Ball, Letitz, Climax, Paradise, Lover, Noodle Doosie, Virginville, Bareville, and Mount Joy. Here we have the Central Hotel in Mount Joy, built in 1880 by brewer Alois Bube. The original 1859 brewery still stands behind the hotel and contains much of its equipment. Beneath the brewery lie catacombs that extend 40 feet below ground.
A fire destroyed most of the third floor of the hotel in 1893, including the original mansard roof, but the hotel remains an inn and restaurant to this day. And you can visit a museum in the brewery (see Bube’s Brewery for more information).
Everyone is familiar with Hershey’s Chocolate, headquartered in Hershey, PA. Many fewer realize that Lancaster County had about 20 chocolate factories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over 2,000 dairy farms in the area provided the milk needed. One of factories was the Nissly Swiss Chocolate Company, west of Mount Joy. E.L. Nissly had been making tobacco products for many years but needed a new business for his two youngest sons to run. The chocolate factory was built in 1920 but went bust in 1929 as a result of the Great Depression. After serving as a shoe factory, defense plant, flour mill, and many other businesses, the 3-story manufacturing building was repurposed in 1996 as the Nissly Chocolate Factory Apartments for low-income seniors.
Codorus Creek wasn’t the only waterway powering mills in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Pennsylvania. The Donegal Grist Mill got its power from (you guessed it) Donegal Springs Creek, starting in 1775. By the 1870s, a steam plant was introduced as a backup power supply for whenever the water was running low. The mill went through various ownerships before shutting down operations in 1925.
Milling was often a very prosperous business. In 1790, the owner of the Donegal Mill built this grand stone mansion. It was expanded and remodeled in 1810 and again in 1830, when the Ionic Order front portico was added. The Great Depression forced the sale of the mansion in 1930, and the building sat vacant and deteriorating for many years. Thankfully, Joanne and Franklin Zink inherited the property and restored it to its former glory.
The Aston looks right at home on the Donegal property!
Finding Donegal Mills took me a few tries, and I ended up going by this Amish family three different times. Each time, they returned my wave with a cheery one of their own.
Shortly after passing the Amish buggy—I know, I know: I shouldn’t have flaunted my 379-horsepower advantage—I found the Byers-Muma house. It’s a classic example of a Pennsylvania-Dutch Colonial farmhouse. It started as a single-story home in 1740 and gained its second story in about 1805. By 1955, however, the building was being used as a barn, and it rapidly went downhill after that. It was rehabilitated in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s. The black and white photo from the National Register of Historic Places shows the house from the front.
The Infamous Simon Cameron
Over the course of many journeys through the Mid-Atlantic area, I’ve often run across Simon Cameron (1799-1889). He became wealthy through shrewd investments in publishing, railroads, canals, and banking, and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1845. During the Republican nomination battle in 1860 between Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, Lincoln’s campaign manager (against Lincoln’s wishes) offered Cameron a spot in the Cabinet if he would deliver the Pennsylvania Delegation’s vote for Lincoln. Cameron did, and Lincoln reluctantly named him as Secretary of War. In this Harper’s Weekly illustration of Lincoln’s cabinet, Cameron is shown sitting, third from right.
Now in charge of massive expenditures for the Union Army, as the Civil War began, Cameron set about rewarding his friends, punishing his enemies, and demonstrating his ineptitude. When Confederates destroyed a key portion of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Cameron refused to provide Federal assistance to this critical war asset. Not-so-coincidentally, Cameron’s own Northern Central Railroad picked up much of the slack, and its profits soared.
President Lincoln is widely reputed to have asked Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R., Pa.) if it was “true that Cameron would steal anything.” Stevens is said to have replied, “I do not think he would steal a red-hot stove.” Upon hearing this insult, Cameron demanded a retraction, and Stevens told Lincoln, “I believe I told you he would not steal a red hot stove. I will now take that back.”
Within a year of his appointment to Lincoln’s Cabinet, Cameron was ousted and demoted to Ambassador to Russia. After the Civil War, however, he was again elected to the Senate and was able to arrange for his son to succeed him in that position in 1877. With all that as background, here is Simon Cameron’s home in Lancaster County. It was one of five “summer homes” he owned, along with a mansion in downtown Harrisburg, PA. Cameron’s mansion had 12,500 square feet of space, which was possibly enough to hold his ego… Today the property is the Cameron Estate Inn & Restaurant, offering beautiful rooms and fine dining. The newer portion, to the right in the photo, was once the carriage house. Cameron’s granddaughter, Mary, kept her prized collection of Packards there, but now it’s a wedding venue.
Thousands of Scots-Irish families left Ireland during the 1845-1852 Potato Famine, and many of them were also Presbyterians seeking religious freedom in America. Although this part of Pennsylvania was still a frontier in the early 1700s, the Scots-Irish settlers in the area wanted a church. The Donegal Presbyterian Church was the result, built in 1732. The adjoining building on the right is an education center, built in 1958 to match the original church.
As I looped back to Columbia, I stopped for a picture of the 1930 Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. It stretches nearly a mile across the Susquehanna, making it the longest concrete multi-arch bridge in the world. The world’s longest covered bridge used to stand here, until it was burned by the Union Army in 1863, to keep Confederate General Jubal Early’s troops from crossing the river. The foliage-covered stone piers from the covered bridge can just be seen on the far side of the current bridge.
Wrightsville became a substantial manufacturing center in the 1800s, benefitting from its location by the Susquehanna River, multiple railroad lines, and the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal. Limestone was quarried nearby and heated in the kilns pictured here to produce lime. Wrightsville lime was shipped all over the world for use as fertilizer, plaster, white wash, and (perhaps most importantly) as a deodorizer for outhouses. While here, I met a young high-school student, who instantly recognized the car as an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. I was pleased to see that there are still some young car enthusiasts around, and my new acquaintance was thrilled to have a chance to sit in the Aston.
The Trinity Lutheran Church in Wrightsville is an impressive sight, with its towering spires and colorful brick exterior. It was built in the early 1870s, replacing an earlier church building that had been destroyed by lightning. (The first Lutheran pastor in Wrightsville was the Rev. J.B. Christ. I was not able to learn what the “J” stood for, but one can speculate…)
A Man, a Plan, a Canal, [not] Panama
Okay, not all canal-related palindromes work out. Remember the squabbling between Baltimore and Philadelphia about the Northern Central Railroad? Well, the same thing happened when the Baltimoreans wanted a canal from Havre de Grace, MD to Wrightsville, PA. After 15 years of arguing, the opponents finally realized that such a canal would provide transportation of coal from Pennsylvania to both of their cities. Work on the canal began in 1836, and the 45-mile venue opened for business in 1840. The Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal prospered initially but ultimately could not compete with the more efficient railroads. It ceased operations in 1894, but there are remains everywhere you look. This was the northern-most stretch of the canal.
A canal already existed on the other side of the Susquehanna, running northwest from Columbia to Clark’s Ferry, where it joined other major branches of the Pennsylvania Canal. When the Columbia-Wrightsville covered bridge was built, it incorporated an unusual, dual-level towpath that allowed canal boats to be hauled across the river in both directions simultaneously without colliding. Thus, canal traffic could continue alongside the Susquehanna for a total of 88 miles. (Bridge drawing courtesy of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Dual towpath photo courtesy of Susquehanna Heritage.)
The competition between the port cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia was emblematic of the broader border disputes between Maryland and Pennsylvania. These disputes culminated in Cresap’s War. Thomas Cresap (1703-1790), acting as an agent for Lord Baltimore, built a log blockhouse “fort” on Indian lands by the Susquehanna in 1730. He claimed the land for Maryland, although it had already been allotted by Governor William Penn for Pennsylvania. Cresap established a ferry in competition with Wright’s Ferry, which was only 4 miles to the north. He was unrelenting and would vigorously proselytize his views to anyone and everyone he met. Moreover, he and his fellow Marylanders would sometimes use force to evict Pennsylvania-based settlers from their properties. These actions did not sit well with his neighbors, who eventually banded together into a militia and attacked Cresap at his home. (Susanna Wright’s brothers were key members of the militia.) After burning Cresap’s cabin and taking him prisoner, the militia transported him to Philadelphia to stand trial. Speaking in his own defense, Cresap started by declaring, “Philadelphia is the grandest city I’ve seen in all of Maryland!” This plaque memorializes Thomas Cresap near the site of his cabin.
Maryland responded with militia raids of its own into Pennsylvania. British King George had to intervene, and the Pennsylvania-Maryland boundary disputes were not settled until the Mason and Dixon expedition in 1767. Back in 1737, Thomas Cresap, having outworn his welcome in Pennsylvania, moved back to the real Maryland and went on to cause trouble almost everywhere he went. (Ultimately, he expanded Maryland’s territory by roughly one third.) General Jacob Dritt bought the property that had been claimed by Cresap and built a stone mansion here in 1758. It stands virtually unchanged over 260 years later.
The Dritt Mansion now houses the Zimmerman Center for Heritage, with tours of the house and river year round.
The Aston Martin was a bit too wide for this path up the hill behind Dritt Mansion, so I hiked up the steep switchbacks to the meadow beyond.
The Dritt family cemetery lies at the top in a shady setting. Gen. Dritt is not here, having been buried in Maryland after drowning in the Susquehanna and being washed downstream a considerable distance. This tombstone is “In Memory of Elizabeth Dritt, Relict of Gen. Jacob Dritt.” Back in the day, “relict” was another word for widow.
Native Americans had lived in the Susquehanna Valley for roughly 12,000 years before European settlers arrived. By about 1575, the Susquehannock, for whom the river is named, were the dominant tribe in the area. For 100 years, they specialized in trapping and the fur trade. This peaceful meadow on top of the hill overlooking the river was the site of the last major Susquehannock village. (The Susquehannock image below is from John Smith’s map of his 1608 expedition up the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehannock village/fort illustration is from Herman Moll’s map of 1720, courtesy of the York Daily Record.)
Over time, Seneca and other tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy waged war on the Susquehannock for control of the fur trade, and European diseases such as smallpox took a drastic toll as well. In the space of just 30 years (1670 to 1700), the mighty Susquehannock Tribe went from between 5,000 and 7,000 members to only about 300—and sadly, their days were numbered, as recounted in Seek and Ye Shall Find (A BMW Tour of Lancaster County).
Was it a Dream or Not?
With thoughts of regional Indian wars in my mind, I continued south along the river on Long Level Road. I failed to locate any ruins of Lock Two on the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal, but I did spot the Ebeneezer Baptist Church, just for my staunch Baptist friends Cathy and Kim. (Pennsylvania has a rather unkempt number of telephone poles and power lines, almost everywhere you look. I’m not above deleting such lines in Photoshop to achieve a better picture—but I didn’t even try to tackle this complicated mess.)
From there, I deviated west in an effort to revisit Felton, Pennsylvania. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, I’d gone to a little business called Octagon Spares, which sold MG parts, to look at a 1949 MG TC that was for sale. I’ve always admired these diminutive British sports cars, and I was interested in buying one. The owner of Octagon Spares led me across the road to a warehouse. As we entered, my jaw dropped at the site of roughly 50 classic sports cars. There were Alfa Romeos, Maseratis, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, and much, much more. The owner of Octagon Spares had a major sideline in buying and selling sports cars, and I would have happily owned any one of the beautiful cars in his warehouse.
The MG TC needed paint, but the wood body framing was solid and the engine ran well. But when I tried to sit in it, I realized that I was far too tall to ever be able to drive one. All TC’s are right-hand drive, and the gearshift lever was literally jammed into the back of my left knee. And my right foot easily covered both the tiny gas and brake pedals. Reluctantly, I gave up on the MG.
Right next to the MG, however, was a beautiful blue 1967 Ferrari 330 GTC—another in my long list of favorite sports cars. Its price was $70,000, which was very reasonable at the time. I should have bought it, since now they routinely sell for $600,000 and up, but I didn’t have $70,000 (sigh). Having gotten oil on my fingers after checking the MG’s dipstick, I asked the owner if he had any paper towels. He said, “Sure, but they’re in my other warehouse next door.” We went in to that one, and my eyes immediately lit on the original 427 Shelby Cobra sitting just inside the door in bare aluminum. Elsewhere were dozens of other Ferraris, Aston Martins, Jaguars, Austin Healeys, and every other car I’d ever dreamed of owning.
I thanked the owner for his time as I was leaving, and he casually mentioned that he had more cars stored in another 5 warehouses and barns around the area. I marveled at this collection of priceless cars in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania and reluctantly headed back home. Now, in 2020, I wanted to see if I could find those warehouses again.
In Felton, I spotted this tastefully hot-rodded 1932 Ford sedan. No, it wasn’t a classic sports car, but I felt that I might be getting close.
Cresting a hill on Main Street as I left town, I immediately spotted the two large white warehouses from my memory. I had found the location! But was there any indication that Octagon Spares still existed? Well, a classic MGA in the yard was a good sign. There was also a Jaguar XJ8 sedan parked in the drive.
In my favorite scene from the trip, there was also this classic 1932 Ford roadster “highboy” hotrod, parked in a rustic setting that looked right out of the 1950s. Unfortunately, no one was home on this Sunday afternoon, and the warehouse doors were all closed.
I was so excited to locate the place after all these years that I forgot to get a photo of the warehouses. Here is one that I pulled from Google Maps street view—and it shows the same MGA and Jaguar that I saw, although they are in different places. There’s also a decidedly non-British Honda S2000 roadster. (Sacrilege! Although they are excellent sports cars.)
Subsequent online surfing identified a company called Octagon Autos that is still operating from this spot, selling classic British car parts. Google Maps indicated that there is also a smallish salvage yard behind the barn in the above photo. Octagon Autos has a small inventory of sports and other cars for sale—but no Ferraris, Cobras, or other high-end vehicles. However, they did list a 1933 supercharged MG J2 roadster. I’ll drop them a line and ask what became of the owner of Octagon Spares and his astonishing collection of sports and GT cars that, in today’s market, would be worth many millions. For now, I’m just glad to confirm that my distant memory was not a dream!
The Ma and Pa Railroad
Heading back toward the Susquehanna, I found the austere Guinston United Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1773 and replaced a log church from 1754. In contrast to the older Donegal Springs church, there is a single main entrance, rather than separate entrances for men and women. A newer sanctuary now holds the services that have continued ever since the 1700s, while the old stone church is used for special events only.
The Village of Muddy Creek Forks deserves much more attention than the few minutes I gave it as I passed through. It started life in 1750 with a gristmill and really prospered when the Peach Bottom Railroad came through. At least three more mills were built, along with houses, barns, and a large general store/train station. When the railroad shut down, however, the village began to shut down as well. Starting in 1986, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society has been restoring this area and operating excursion rides on the “Ma and Pa Railroad,” as it is affectionately known. The photo shows what was the Grove Mill complex, with the mill at left, a grain elevator in the middle, and a warehouse on the right. The historical photo of the same area is courtesy of the Preservation Society.
A 1912 Invention That Will Last 2,000 Years
I finally returned to the Susquehanna and parked to get a look at the Holtwood Dam across the river. Although my Aston has never been driven in snow, and seldom in rain, and I’ve sworn to avoid unpaved roads, sometimes you have no choice. Fortunately, the well-compacted road did not kick up any stones—just a little dust.
Despite rain on the prior day, there was almost no water flowing over the Holtwood Dam. Still, it was an impressive sight and even looked a bit alien, spreading across an otherwise natural setting. Holtwood is the oldest of the three hydroelectric dams on the lower Susquehanna, having been built during 1905-1910.
At first, the 220 tons of mechanical weight and water pressure would wear out the roller thrust bearings in the dam’s generators in only 2 months, requiring frequent and expensive replacements. In 1912, a little-known college professor and engineer named Albert Kingsbury talked the Pennsylvania Water & Power Company into trying his revolutionary thrust bearing that maximized the benefit of oil in separating rotating and stationary surfaces. The first-ever Kingsbury Thrust Bearing was installed in one of the generator units at Holtwood—and immediately failed. Kingsbury analyzed the failure, improved the manufacturing tolerances, and talked PWPC into a second try. The modified bearing is still there, having operated now for 108 years without replacement or repair. Based on measured wear to date, the bearing is expected to last another 1,300 to 1,700 years! Kingsbury’s design revolutionized hydroelectric generators, allowing use of far larger units in dams throughout the world. His thrust bearings were also used extensively by the U.S. Navy in World Wars I and II. He is shown on the right in the historical photo at Holtwood, courtesy of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
I well remember replacing the worn-out crankshaft thrust bearing in my MG Midget’s engine back in 1969. The rest of the engine was worn out, too, having run all of 45,000 miles since new, and that led to my first experience rebuilding an engine. But that’s a story for another day.
What Has More Horsepower than Two Porsches?
In the 1830s, when the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal was operating, there was only limited practical knowledge of electricity, and tallow was still a primary source of lubrication for gears and bearings. Nonetheless, when I located the ruins of the canal’s Lock Twelve, I was still impressed by its engineering. These stones had to fit together sufficiently well to hold thousands of gallons of water, and the lock gates at either hand had to be operable by a lockkeeper’s own muscles. The walls here are about 12 feet high, and the lock is 170 feet long. Although the locks operated pretty efficiently, canal boat traffic jams were still quite common. Sometimes boats would have to wait multiple days before they could navigate the lock from one level of the canal to another.
When you park an Aston Martin at an obscure historical site, you might be fairly confident of having the most interesting car in the area. But sometimes you discover other candidates, such as this Porsche Speedster and Porsche 930 Turbo. (The former might well be a Beck or other replica, since original Speedsters in this condition are $350,000 cars.) Still, the V8 Vantage has roughly the same horsepower as both of these Porsches combined and handles far better than either one. And it remains one of the most beautiful automobiles ever made.
Hallucinations, Stone Cottages, and a Bridge Too Far
By now I was about walked out, with sore feet, ankles, and knees. I skipped my planned hike to find Lock 15 and instead went looking for what was left of the Ma and Pa Railroad. These tracks were in better shape than I expected, given that they haven’t been used since 1978. This stretch of the railroad, running between Delta and Red Lion, was the last to be shut down.
Nearby, a herd of ponies was galloping along, having escaped from a merry-go-round or other arcade ride.
Even more strangely, local Pennsylvanian Druids had built this beautiful little recreation of Stonehenge out of old bottles. I know I was tired, but I don’t think I was imagining any of this…
Reality returned in the form of solid stone when I arrived at Coulsontown, just outside of Delta, PA and only a quarter mile north of the Mason-Dixon Line. There are four of these stone houses here, all with slate roofs, and they are virtually identical to the houses of slate quarrymen found in northwest Wales. That’s less surprising than it might be, given that slate was a major industry in this part of Pennsylvania in the 1800s, and the majority of residents here were immigrant quarrymen from Wales.
The houses were built between 1845 and 1865, and each one has two rooms downstairs and another two upstairs. The large building stones are Cardiff Conglomerate, which is not found anywhere in Pennsylvania outside of this immediate area. As indicated in this photo, one of the cottages is in somewhat dire condition but is undergoing repair. Slate was a major industry here from the 1840s through the 1920s. By 1931, the slate quarries were abandoned. Currently, two of the Welsh cottages are inhabited, and the other two are owned by the Old Line Museum in Delta and are undergoing renovations.
Speaking of the Old Line Museum, here it is. The quaint building used to be the First National Bank of Delta, and the museum is named for the nearby Mason-Dixon Line. Among its exhibits, the museum features a beautiful, seven-foot-tall clock made of slate. I arrived too late to visit, but I’ll be back.
“Peach Bottom” slate from Delta was judged the finest slate in the world at England’s Crystal Palace Exposition in 1850. Although Delta’s population has declined to only about 700, the town still has a number of impressive buildings and an unusual history. This is the Rehoboth Welsh Chapel, which still holds services in both Welsh and English. Its choir even won a prize at the prestigious National Eisteddfod of Wales, the largest festival of music and poetry in Europe.
And, just for Cathy and Kim, here is the First Baptist Church of Delta (safeguarded by yet another web o’ power lines).
Before leaving town, I attempted to find the ruins of the 1875 Delta wooden trestle bridge for the Ma and Pa Railroad. It is one of very few such bridges still in existence anywhere in the U.S., and I desperately wanted a look at it. I found Bunker Hill Avenue without difficulty, and I knew I was close—but I hadn’t expected this road to be wildly overgrown by trees, shrubs, and other insidious flora. The clear portion of the road was approximately one-half as wide as the Aston Martin. Moreover, I spotted a distinctly unfriendly-looking fellow in camouflage gear staring intently at me as I approached in the Aston. And whatever he was holding in his hand, it was not a coffee mug…
Well, I’ll find that trestle bridge another day! In the meantime, here are a few of photos of it, courtesy of Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD Rails, and the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society, respectively.
In Search of a Ghost Town
Leaving Delta, I crossed the “Old Line” almost immediately back into Maryland. Continuing on, I located this unusual, bullet-shaped old furnace. It is the Stafford Flint Furnace, part of what was once a sizable industrial center from the mid-1700s until the area was destroyed by ice flows in 1904. The furnace was hidden by bushes, trees, and vines until 2010. Flint was heated in the Stafford furnace to remove impurities and then milled into a fine powder for use in making porcelain pots and pans and fine china. Previously, I was unaware that flint was used for anything other than primitive tools, starting fires, and setting off amunition.
At Deer Creek, I found more signs of an old railroad. The tracks ran precariously on a ridge between the Susquehanna River to the north and the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal to the south. Strangely, I have not been able to determine what railroad this was. Peach Bottom? Ma and Pa? It doesn’t show up on any of the old maps of the area (whereas the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal appears on all of them).
The rails crossed Deer Creek on this iron bridge. Note the massive amount of debris deposited against the bridge piers during prior floods.
I had visited the Susquehanna State Park at Rock Run 10 years ago (see No Wine, Lots of Snow—A Tour of Northeast Maryland), and it was fun to briefly retrace my steps. As I wrote back in 2010, “Rock Run Manor House was built by John Carter in 1804. It was later the home of General James J. Archer, before he resigned his command with the U.S. Army and joined the Confederates. He proved to be a fierce fighter and commander, despite poor health, but was captured at Gettysburg by the Union forces. He never made it back to Rock Run, dying of disease shortly after being exchanged back to the Confederacy. He was fortunate to have lived that long—16 years earlier, he had fought a duel in Texas and was wounded. His “second” at the duel was Thomas J. Jackson, later known as ‘Stonewall.’”
The gristmill at Rock Run is an impressive sight, dating from 1794 and continuing in operation until 1954. As shown in the old drawing (courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources), the canal ran directly next to the mill.
As I continued on under the pipe carrying water to the mill, the road became substantially narrower and bumpier. It was still paved, however, and it led me to the ghost town of Lapidum, MD. Captain John Smith had sailed up the Susquehanna to this region in 1608 as part of his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. The town of Lapidum got its start in 1684 and quickly became a center for farming, fishing, and harvesting ice in the wintertime. Good ol’ Thomas Cresap established a ferry here in 1729 (before moving upriver and causing his ruckus). With the advent of the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal, the town gained a church, school, warehouses, mill, and a three-story hotel. Wharves were built to accommodate ships, since Lapidum was one of the highest deep-water ports on the Susquehanna. But after railroads began to dominate transportation and canal business subsided, Lapidum began to fade away. The population dwindled, and much of the town was destroyed by floods and ice flows. The hotel was the last to go, being torn down in the 1960s after serving as a fishing lodge. As B.B. Bellezza put it in his Outta the Way! blog, “Lapidum became … a grim reminder of what can become of a town when commerce and economics fail to keep up with a rapidly changing world.” Today, virtually nothing is left of Lapidum, although the stone foundations of the hotel are still apparent.
Lapidum also operated this lock on the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal. It is in surprisingly good shape and looks more modern than Lock 12; I suspect it was rebuilt at some point after being damaged by ice. In contrast, the water in the canal would certainly benefit from a bit more current.
The End of the Line
By now it was early evening, and it was time to point the Aston Martin toward the last destination of the day: the southern end of the S & T Canal at Havre de Grace, Maryland.
The trip afforded a great view of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which carries U.S. Route 40 over the Susquehanna. One and a half miles further on, the river joins the Chesapeake Bay.
Here is the canal’s “outlet lock,” by which canal boats would exit from the canal to the river. The lockkeeper’s house in the background was approximately twice as large as the others on the canal. At its peak, the S & T Canal served 8,000 boats annually.
After a full day of touring—and contemplating the rivalries and strife of the past—it was time to motor briskly on back to Catonsville. The Aston Martin had run flawlessly all day and was a joy to drive. Blasting along the windy roads paralleling the Susquehanna was terrific fun, and the car was equally at home just trundling from one photo stop to the next.