Sitting on a wooden bench overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Leonard and Rebecca Friedland were enjoying the peaceful and serene vista created by late fall sun rays sparkling like diamonds off the water. And they were trying to identify the many duck species at the water's edge.
The New York couple had just toured the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace, where they explored the waterfowling and decoy-carving traditions that have turned the historic city at the head of the bay into the "Decoy Capital of the World."
"This is just lovely so picturesque, an unspoiled beauty," Mrs. Friedland said. "It's such a rare treat to have so much public access to the waterfront," she added, her eyes sweeping over the wooden promenade that winds along the shoreline for eight-tenths of a mile.
The prime waterfront location has always played a major part in the town's history -- from when John Smith sailed up the Susquehanna River in 1608, to herring and ice harvesting on the river in the early 1800s. From the mid-1800s when steamboats passed through the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, to the 1920s when Babe Ruth hunted ducks on the Susquehanna flats, and, finally, to the present and tugboats pushing barges down the river and pleasure boats departing the city's marinas to sail the Chesapeake.
"The water is our most valuable resource," said Mitchell Shank, a Harford County councilman, lifelong resident of Havre de Grace and grandson of one of the city's most prominent citizens, the late master decoy-carver R. Madison Mitchell.
"We need to preserve our past so we can expand our future," he added.
Suffering from the urban decay that afflicted many cities along the East Coast, Havre de Grace began to fight back in the early 1980s and now, more than a decade later, there are numerous signs that the renaissance has taken hold.
Restored grand Victorian mansions with large verandas, copper-covered turrets and bay windows are neighbors to more modest turn-of-the-century cottages along tree-lined streets.
At the same time, developers discovered Havre de Grace and began building waterfront condominiums, with private boat slips, that sell for $100,000 to $300,000.
Single-family and townhome communities such as Bayview Estates and Grace Harbour have sprung up along the town's boundaries and are magnets for homebuyers looking for moderately priced homes in the $90,000-to-$150,000 range. Easy access to Interstate 95 is a bonus for breadwinners who are willing to drive about an hour to Baltimore or 90 minutes to Washington.
Ron and Karen Jablecki live with their three children in Fox Ridge, another development on the outskirts of the city.
Mrs. Jablecki, who grew up in nearby Level, wouldn't live anywhere else.
"We moved to Glen Burnie after we were married to be closer to our jobs, but I was so homesick, I couldn't wait to move back," Mrs. Jablecki said. "I missed the quaintness and peacefulness of the area and the friendly people."
Mrs. Jablecki said she likes living in a town where people still wave and chat.
It's the mix of housing available -- from new developments to historic homes -- that is appealing to many of the residents.
About 800 structures are part of the city's historic district, explained Mr. Shank's father, Ellsworth B. Shank, a local historian. While many have been restored or are awaiting face-lifts, years of modification to others have disguised the buildings' origins, changing some beyond recognition. Street names, such as Warren, Franklin, Girard and Lafayette, are reminders of the town's connection to the American and French revolutions.
Legend has it that when founded in 1782 the town was named Havre de Grace -- French for harbor of grace -- by the Marquis de Lafayette because it reminded him of Le Havre in France.
While homes are being restored, the city's business district is also being revitalized, but always with the idea of preserving a small-town atmosphere and quaintness.
Some stores closed because of competition from shopping centers and malls, but others, especially antique shops, have opened and are thriving.
Specialty shops that sell wooden decoys, carving supplies and bay-related merchandise cater not only to the town's residents but also to Havre de Grace's growing tourist industry.
"Tourism is the city's future," said Barry Anderson, special assistant to the mayor, "a clean industry that will provide jobs for the city's unemployed."
Mr. Anderson hopes that state and federal money can be secured with which to build a hotel and conference center on undeveloped waterfront property to accommodate tourists.
Midway between Baltimore and Philadelphia and within minutes of Interstate 95, Havre de Grace can attract "virtually millions who can have a waterfront experience within a two-hour drive," Mr. Anderson said.
That's how Ruth and John Jessup discovered the city. While driving from New Jersey to visit a daughter in Laurel, they stopped in Havre de Grace and were fascinated by the town's quaintness.