As Legend Has It, A Resort Town Born Of Love

POSTMARK: EAGLE HARBOR

April 04, 1993|By KATHERINE DREW DEBOALT

Mary E. Coleman knows that being the town mayor comes with its share of headaches.

For much of her 12 years as mayor of Eagle Harbor, Ms. Coleman's biggest concerns as an elected official have been stray dogs, loose cats and one wayward goat. Who says a political career is all speechmaking and breakfast meetings?

It seems Eagle Harbor's remote location -- perched in the southernmost tip of Prince George's County -- has made it prime dumping ground for unwanted pets and abandoned litters of puppies and kittens. Couple this with the dogs and cats that roam the narrow town streets and a resident goat that occasionally breaks loose of its chain, and 82-year-old Ms. Coleman has practically found herself a full-time second job.

"We've got cats going south," she said. She routinely catches the critters in have-a-heart traps and delivers them to county animal control officials. "But when someone tries to keep a hog in here, that's when we'll get 'em." (It is illegal, she said, to keep a hog in an incorporated town in Maryland.)

Eagle Harbor, with a population of 45 year-round residents, is the second smallest incorporated settlement in the state, Ms. Coleman said. Established as a summer resort for well-to-do blacks when most of the state's beaches were still segregated, Eagle Harbor is laid out on a neat grid along the banks of the Patuxent River.

To reach it, a visitor must travel south and east almost to the Charles County line, leaving behind the suburban sprawl that seeps out from Washington. Passing through towns with names like Horsehead and Aquasco, a traveler makes a final left-hand turn onto Eagle Harbor Road across from an old tin-sided building with a faded sign proclaiming, "Andrew J. Grimes and Sons: General Merchandise, Undertakers, Funeral Directors and Embalming."

Once inside Eagle Harbor, the route becomes Trueman Point Road (named after the Englishman who first landed his ship there), passes through the town and runs right into the slow water of the Patuxent.

William Diggs, a summer resident who, at the age of 79, claims he is "shaking 80 to pieces," has been crabbing and relaxing in Eagle Harbor since he was a young man. A historian who runs the Afro-American Heritage Museum in Pomonkey, Charles County, Mr. Diggs said Eagle Harbor and Cedar Haven, which sits not far down the road, were once neighboring tobacco farms owned by two white brothers.

According to legend, Mr. Diggs said, both farmers were in love with black women who persuaded them to sell parts of their farms along the river.

"They persuaded the men, 'If you love us so well, why don't you take the land and split it up and sell it to our people?' " said Mr. Diggs. He has a copy of an advertisement for Eagle Harbor properties; it was given to his grandfather during the 1920s. "And people went down there and bought pieces of land so that they could catch a few crabs and elevate themselves and their children."

Residents of Cedar Haven got together and named many of the town's streets after famous black figures, including educator Booker T. Washington and Maryland-born astronomer Benjamin Banneker, Mr. Diggs said. And before their village paved its roads a few years ago, Cedar Haven children routinely came by Eagle Harbor to ride their bikes and skateboards, he said.

Eagle Harbor has both paved roads and street lights, but some of the bungalows and small houses still have no running water; they have outhouses. This hasn't deterred the longtime visitors. Most of the year-round residents started visiting Eagle Harbor during summers long before they ever spent a winter there, and many of them are now retired.

"It was all lawyers and doctors and undertakers in the beginning, but we old folks started moving in and now it's an old-folks' place," said Florence T. Jackson, 82, a town commissioner. She began visiting the town during the 1940s when she lived in Washington. Ms. Jackson and Ms. Coleman, who worked for the federal government together as young women, now live a few houses apart. This enables them to visit easily and share a long-haired white stray dog who eats alternately from each woman's porch.

On a recent afternoon, the two women sat in Ms. Coleman's living room as her gas heater worked vigorously to beat out the early spring chill. Ms. Coleman, her hair piled in braids on her head, peers out the window from her seat in a comfortable lounger as Ms. Jackson alerts her to each passing dog. The mayor appears a woman who truly enjoys her job.

Hints About Eagle Harbor

Winter population: 45

Summer population: 200

Only incorporated Maryland town smaller than Eagle Harbor: Port Tobacco, Charles County.

Established: 1928

Big event: "Town Day," when residents gather during the first weekend of August for a parade, cookout and games.

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