Everybody quotes Ernest Hemingway, so why should I be different? This BMW Z4 trip featured sharp contrasts between the historical Haves and the Have Not’s, indicating that Fortune does not smile on all. The differences between the nearly abandoned African-American community of Olivet Hill, MD and the still-thriving historic river port town of New Castle, DE couldn’t have been starker. Both were fascinating, as was everything in-between.
With enough time for another road trip, but no time to plan it, I resorted again to one of Mad Map’s motorcycle routes—this time to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, rural Delaware, and New Castle. Including a couple of mostly unplanned side trips, I found a treasure trove of mansions and shacks, rich towns and poor, abandoned shacks and abandoned fortresses. I couldn’t have asked for more.
This part of the country was settled a long time ago (by U.S. standards), with many of the towns dating back to the 1600s. Everywhere I turned, there were places like this one, long-abandoned, but not long enough to have fallen down and been forgotten:
Old farmhouses are usually accompanied by old barns, and this one was no exception. Except that even the oldest, most-decrepit-looking barn can sometimes house things of great value—in this case, several classic Chesapeake Bay “log canoes.” In the 1800s, these sailboats were working craft, prized for their ability to bring oysters and other seafood back to port before they would spoil. By the late 1800s, there were nearly 10,000 of them sailing the Chesapeake Bay. Now, they are used principally for racing. (Have’s 1, Have Not’s 0.)
I suppose you could categorize the history of Eastern Maryland and Delaware into the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and so on. This house is on the Friendship Farm and dates back to 1782. (The Toyota Tundra pickup is an artifact from the 2000s.)
Other than leftover straw, it wasn’t clear if there was anything of great value in this old barn. (I could have asked, I suppose, but a large German Shepherd was doing all the talking.)
I’ve long wondered about the history of abandoned dwellings, such as this 2 1/2 story Victorian gothic revival farmhouse. It was someone’s pride and joy, likely built from the proceeds of successful peach and pear crops, and then things went wrong.
Interestingly, just a little ways farther up Route 213 (Augustine Herman Highway), I found this virtual twin, which is clearly still someone’s pride and joy. Look carefully—the two houses are nearly identical, and they’re not the only twins in Kent County, MD. Apparently it was a very popular design.
The nearby town of Galena, MD featured the imposing St. Dennis Catholic Church. It was preceded by two other churches, with the first having gone up in 1855.
Nearby, the Olivet United Methodist Church grew out of the ministry of Bishop Francis Asbury, a traveling preacher who first held meetings in Galena in 1773. (Coincidentally, I believe Bishop Asbury’s great-great-great-etc. grandson was my high school English teacher’s husband, and their son, Francis Asbury, married my best friend’s sister.) Anyway, back to the church: The first Methodist church was built in 1808 and in 1842 was moved aside and replaced with the current brick building. The early Methodists in America eagerly recruited both whites and blacks to their religion and believed that all were created equal. This practice stood in stark contrast to virtually every other religion in the 1700s. The Galena congregation had been made up of both whites and blacks, with the latter including both free African-Americans and slaves. But the Methodists’ beliefs began to change, and, when the new church was built, the African-Americans were soon relegated to the old church next door.
What I was really looking for were the ruins of the old, original church. It had been further moved a half mile across farm fields to the black community of Olivet Hill in 1863. Some years later, it collapsed (perhaps as a result of having been moved one too many times), and was replaced in 1907 with the much larger, fancier church building, shown below. In 1979, the roof of the newer church fell in, and the rest of the building collapsed as a result of Hurricane Isabel in 2003. (Historical photos courtesy of the Maryland Historical Trust.)
As it happened, I never found the church ruins. (Google Maps shows them at the end of a narrow, dead-end road that I overlooked.) But I discovered the Olivet Hill community, which thrived in the 1800s but since the early 1900s has gradually become nearly deserted. The small farms that were the backbone of the town were no longer efficient, and many of the young men went off to fight in World War I. The Great Depression didn’t help, either. A few families remained. This is what Wayman A. Blackston’s house looked like in 1985, when it was listed as a Maryland historical property. It had been built about 100 years earlier and represented the typical design of the community’s houses.
Sadly, this is Blackston House today. In fact, most of the houses in Olivet Hill are abandoned and many have collapsed. In time, the vegetation will cover over and destroy any remaining signs that a vibrant town was ever here at all. (But before it does, I’m going back to find the church ruins and the nearby one-room schoolhouse.)
This house in Olivet Hill was probably built in the early 1900s and is larger than most of the others—which has not saved it from the same fate, I’m afraid.
Inside, the main floor has collapsed, and the weather has taken its toll.
Judging by this room and its many books, the family liked to read. The books are slowly succumbing to the weather as well.
As I left Olivet Hill, I passed by one more ruined home, which appeared to be slowly sinking right into the ground. And in the distance, I saw a young African American teenager, trudging up the hill toward one of the few houses that still appeared to be occupied.
After this moving side trip, I continued on north of Galena, with moody thoughts of the ephemeral nature of life swirling through my mind. I soon reached Georgetown, MD and the Sassafras River Harbor, which showed considerable signs of life and prosperity. I parked to get some pictures, and promptly realized that the houses and buildings around me were also empty and boarded up. (At least they hadn’t collapsed.)
And for that matter, much of the marina had seen better days as well.
With all these reminders of the importance of Making Time Count, I hurried on in search of further adventure.
A little north of Georgetown, I spotted a stately mansion at the end of a long, shrub-lined driveway. The historical marker near the entrance identified it as Greenfield Manor, built in the mid-1700s. It had survived all these years in fine form and appeared to be part of a working farm.
Approaching Cecilton, I saw a Maryland historical-interest sign for a place called Mount Harmon. Assuming this was a church, I figured it would be worth the detour. It wasn’t (a church), but it was (worth the detour). After several miles, I came to the narrow, one-lane dirt road that led to the Mount Harmon plantation. Perhaps halfway along the 2-mile lane, I stopped to get a picture—only to realize that my path was blocked by an almighty, lane-absorbing, gigantic SUV. Not the sight you want to see after having bumped along a road such as this for a mile!
Fortunately, I only had to back up for a couple hundred feet to a spot that allowed the SUV (and the three others behind it) to pass by, all filled with dignified ladies apparently on their way to church, and all of whom waved to me in appreciation.
At the end of the lane, I found the historic tobacco plantation and its mid-1700s manor house. I also learned that it is open to the public (but only during May-October, and not on February 20th, the day of my visit.) The plantation started as a land grant in 1651 from Caecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, to Godfrey Harmon. Tobacco was transported by ship along the Sassafras River (saving the early farmers from having to wait for SUVs to pass on the one-lane road).
From Mount Harmon’s website, I later learned that the manor house has been beautifully restored to its original era, 1760-1810.
No one was around, so I drove around the manor for photos. On my way out, I saw a sign with an arrow pointing toward the tobacco “prize” house. (They were called “prize” houses because they had a large wooden screw for compressing tobacco.) Suspecting this would be well worth a short side trip, I angled the Z4 through the gate and down the path in the indicated direction. The path was just a pair of dirt tire tracks, and soon even those disappeared—leaving me driving along a pretty grass pathway next to fields and ponds. I had no idea whether one was actually supposed to be driving along here or not, but I continued on hopefully.
I parked at the Mount Harmon landing and walked the short distance to the river. Did I mention that it was a beautiful day, with lots of sunshine and a temperature that climbed steadily until reaching the mid-50’s?
I opted not to drive all the way to the prize house, since (i) I wasn’t sure where it was, and (ii) the grass pathway looked to continue on indefinitely, and I still had no idea whether I was allowed to be there or not. (I still don’t know!) (But it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission…) So, I headed back to civilization at that point. (Per the website, the prize house has indeed survived all this time and can be toured as well. But no indication of whether one drives there or walks there.)
The primary destination of my trip was New Castle, Delaware, and it was still a long ways away. And it was already 12:30, so I really needed to press on. But not before spotting another historical marker, which led me on another lengthy detour in search of the St. Francis Xavier Church, also known as “Old Bohemia.” After finally arriving, I immediately realized that I’d been there before on (yet) another Z4 trip. But it was good to see this remarkable survivor from the late 1700s still standing proudly.
After filling up the BMW and me, in that order, in nearby Warwick and then trying to retrace my steps back to Route 213, only to end up on the wrong side of the Bohemia River and having to further backtrack, I finally returned to the historical marker that had set off this detour. Vowing to press on for New Castle, I made it all of 1.2 miles before I stopped to get a photo of “The Anchorage.” (Honest, I can’t help it! Even in some place like Nebraska, I would probably stop every mile to get another picture, just in case that field of wheat was any different from the prior 1,285 ones…)
Anyway, The Anchorage was the home of the Lusby’s in the early 1700s, and the dwelling was expanded several times over the years. Ruth Lusby married Commodore Jacob Jones in 1821, and the couple lived here until his death 30 years later. Commodore Jones had served on The Philadephia when it ran aground at Tripoli during the first Barbary War. The crew was imprisoned, but Jones was later part of a prisoner exchange. He commanded The Wasp with great distinction during the War of 1812, capturing several British ships and being awarded a gold medal by the U.S. Congress.
Despite these and numerous other detours and photo stops, I finally made it to New Castle. There I discovered a wonderfully scenic and historic city, not unlike Annapolis, MD. Almost immediately I saw a stunning mansion surrounded my smaller houses on all sides. With some effort, I found the way to the mansion and ended up in its parking area. It appeared to be undergoing some repairs, and I asked a workman if it would be okay to get some photos. He said that would be fine—and only later did I realize that the repairs were minor, the owners were home, and I was blithely walking around on their property! The home proved to be the Lesley-Travers Mansion, built in 1855.
The view from the back was even more glorious, and I learned that each room in the house was “stacked,” that is, had an identical room above it and/or below it, even in the basement (which had once been the servants’ quarters). I now have a new, favorite, wish-list place where I’d like to live.
The Library of Congress furnished these pictures of the interior of the Lesley-Travers mansion. (Somehow a jousting lance doesn’t look quite as menacing when it has a large lightbulb on the end of it.)
As the shadows began to lengthen, I got in a quick walking tour of the rest of New Castle. The town green was laid out by Petrus Stuyvesant in 1655 and featured a gallows in the good old days. The Amstel House was built in the 1730s and is open for tours…
…this house should get an award for the most prominent chimneys…
…the original hexagonal library is now a museum…
…and Dutch House is also open for tours and is the oldest surviving building the New Castle (late 1600s).
The Immanuel Episcopal Church was built in 1703 but burned in 1980. It was rebuilt using the original foundation and walls. The fire probably explains the differences between my photo of the interior below and one from the Library of Congress, taken in 1936.
Looking out over the church’s graveyard, the town arsenal is visible in the background. It was built in 1809 in anticipation of the War of 1812.
About all that’s left of the pre-Civil War New Castle – Frenchtown Railroad is this ticket office. It’s been spruced up a bit since the historical photo was taken (courtesy of the Library of Congress).
I couldn’t help noticing how many of the old houses had ship models in the front windows. Seems like a fitting custom for a once-major port city.
The Read House is also open for tours, along with its formal gardens.
The New Castle Presbyterian Church was built in 1707 and used until 1854. And no, this is not a later church on the original site—it’s the actual church from 1707. Not lost, not forgotten.
Even the backyards were attractive.
Hmmm, who knows what else lies beneath the surface of the town?
With my sunlight threatening to expire, it was time to head for home. A quick stop at Fort DuPont was required, naturally. It served as a military site as far back as the War of 1812 and became an “official” fort at the time of the Civil War. It was closed at the end of World War II. This panoramic picture from the Library of Congress shows the facility in its heyday.
These days, most of the buildings are closed and forgotten (even the ones featuring bars in the windows). There was a very large prisoner-of-war camp here, but the prison barracks have all been torn down. The second photo below shows the entrance to the fort’s pump house. A short hike takes one to the remains of the fort’s batteries.
This looks for all the world like a movie theatre—and subsequent research showed it to be the War Department Theatre from 1933. The building to its right is the front of Burbank Hall, the fort’s headquarters building. (It’s also the long building shown in the middle foreground of the panoramic photo.) It is apparently slated to become the Delaware Military Museum, given enough time and funding.
Delaware has made a portion of the abandoned base into a State Park, although it’s hard to tell where one part stops and the other starts. This point of land looks out at the Delaware River and Pea Patch Island in the distance.
You do remember Pea Patch Island, don’t you, home of the massive Fort Delaware? (If you need a refresher, check out Fort Delaware.
With one last look at the Delaware River shoreline, it was back on the road.
In Port Penn, once the largest port in the area, I chanced upon Linden Hall. It was built by a local merchant in 1834 in an attempt to capitalize on the trade flowing up and down the Delaware River. Soon, however, the Chesapeake-Delaware Canal enabled ships to bypass this part of the river, and 20 years later the railroads took away the rest of the business. Fortunately, the stately house lives on.
With some reluctance, I turned inland from the Delaware River but was soon rewarded by these views of Augustine Creek.
One more stately farmhouse, as the sun began to set…
…and a shot of the Augustine Inn, once an impressive 18th-century hotel for weary travelers and now a (not so) upscale biker bar. The welcoming committee was not on hand when I stopped. Plus, the place was closed (either temporarily or permanently—it was impossible to tell), so I didn’t get to see the stuffed moose head that hangs over the bar. Next time. Maybe… Did I mention that Augustine Beach used to be a prime resort area, right up until New Jersey built the Hope Creek / Salem nuclear power plants on the exact opposite side of the Delaware River? Business kinda dropped off after that, for some reason.
All told, it was a fascinating journey of Have’s and Have Not’s, and a wonderful reminder of the rich history of our country. I’d started this trip at 7:30 am, and, following a lengthy and unnecessary, Garmin-induced detour on the way home, I arrived back at 7:50 pm. A fun adventure all around, which I recommend to all fellow 2- and 4-wheel BMW enthusiasts in the area. (I can give directions if anyone wants to head directly to the Augustine Inn…)