Port Tobacco boasts history, little else


February 24, 1991|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT TOBACCO -- As a major 18th-century port and th cradle of American revolutionaries, Port Tobacco has an illustrious past that few Maryland towns can match.

Now add another historic first: Port Tobacco (population 36) has become the smallest town in Maryland, according to the 1990 census.

Just how small is Port Tobacco?

"Well," said Mayor Frank B. Wade Jr., who heads the town commission, "with five commissioners and only about eight families, there's pretty good representation."

At Murphy's Store, just outside the town limits, "You'd be surprisedhow many people come in here looking for Port Tobacco," said Paul Goldsmith, a regular on the store's liars' bench. "We say, 'You're sitting in it.' "

Robert T. Barbour, 79, the Southern Maryland town's unofficial historian, said: "There's very little change in the families or anything else around here. There's very seldom any land for sale. Those who have it don't want to part with it."

Mr. Barbour's grandparents bought land in Port Tobacco in 1903, which makes the Barbours relative newcomers. Mr. Wade's roots in Port Tobacco date to the 17th century.

How did a town that more than two centuries ago traded Maryland tobacco and corn for Chinese silks and African slaves and boasted a bustling courthouse, two newspapers, three hotels and a score of shops shrivel up and nearly die?

Ecological disaster and political shenanigans helped Port Tobacco become, in the words of its preservation society, "The Town Time Almost Forgot."

In 1608, Capt. John Smith first saw the Indian village of Potopaco near the site of today's town. The name Port Tobacco is apparently a corruption of that Indian word.

But the frontier town where settlers literally kept the wolves from their doors did become a tobacco port, first on the west side of the Port Tobacco River and then, in 1727, at its present site on what was then the east shore. The Maryland Assembly ordered a acre town laid out there around a courthouse and jail.

Port Tobacco had by that time been the Charles County seat for well over a half-century. It was a naval port of entry and official inspection station for the hogsheads of tobacco rolled to its wharves and shipped off to the Old World.

Yet the planters who reaped prosperity by clearing the Port Tobacco Valley's wooded hillsides for corn and tobacco had also sown the seeds of the port's demise.

Deforestation eroded the land. Topsoil washed off the hills and into the river, clogging the shipping channel. By the late 1700s, the port that once accommodated three-masted schooners took only small craft. Today, the only remnant of the river in town is a swamp.

Still, Port Tobacco remained a way station on the Williamsburg-to-Philadelphia stagecoach route, tobacco money built stately 18th-century town houses, and the courthouse hummed with activity.

Estates in the hills overlooking town were home to John Hanson, first president of the Continental Congress; Thomas Stone, signer of the Declaration of Independence; Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, signer of the U.S. Constitution, and others of renown.

During the Civil War, Port Tobacco sympathized with the Confederacy. A town coach painter, George A. Atzerodt, was hanged for complicity in Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Port Tobacco's downfall came in the late 19th century. A new railroad bypassed the town in favor of La Plata, three miles away, and with it came pressure to move the county seat. Voters resisted such a move until, on a hot August night in 1892, Port Tobacco's courthouse burned to the ground.

Arson was suspected -- the court records had conveniently been removed and piled neatly on the lawn before the blaze began -- but "nobody was ever indicted," Mr. Barbour said.

Three years later, the county seat was moved to La Plata. Businesses and residents followed. Finally, Christ Church, which had stood next door to the courthouse for generations, was dismantled stone by stone and hauled away by ox cart to the new county seat.

"The real reason for getting the courthouse moved was that people had bought land near the railroad," said Mr. Barbour, a lawyer who has spent his career in the courthouse at La Plata but still seems miffed by the move. "There were land entrepreneurs in those days, too."

By the early 1900s, Port Tobacco was practically a ghost town. "Once a thriving town, it is now deserted and is but a place of bitter memories," The Sun reported in 1910. Mr. Barbour's grandfather was farming most of the land in town amid dilapidated buildings that he told The Sun he would tear down "if it were worth the trouble."

It took a 1945 article in a historical journal to awaken Marylanders to Port Tobacco's past glories and future promise as a restored town. Two years later, the Society for the Preservation of Port Tobacco was formed.

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