Secrets beneath London Town South River landmark: Archaeologists unearth remains of 18th century tobacco port.

August 30, 1996

IN ITS GLORY days, more than 260 years ago, London Town on the banks of the South River rivaled nearby Annapolis. It was a port officially designated for export and import. Yet in 1747, this prosperity ended when a new Tobacco Inspection Act was enacted and London Town could no longer serve as one of the ports for tobacco export. Did Annapolis' envy of a neighboring community cause this diminution in London Town's status? We will probably never know for sure because no documents about the decision have survived.

Archaeologists who have been digging in hard clay since April say they can find much more about London Town's past, though. They believe remains of as many as 100 buildings may be clustered around the groomed grounds of London Town House and Gardens, a 23-acre county park that was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

"You could work here for a lifetime," says Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel's county archaeologist. "There's that much here."

Ironically, the outstanding Georgian dwelling that today is the sole remaining building in London Town mirrored the decline of the once-thriving port. It was constructed after the enactment of the new tobacco act by William Brown, who worked as a building contractor and also operated the South River ferry and an inn at London Town. The large house, measuring 50 feet by 40 feet and 49 feet high, proved to be such a drain on Mr. Brown's resources, though, that he went bankrupt. In 1828, the house and 10 acres of land surrounding it were acquired by Anne Arundel County, which operated an almshouse at the site until 1965.

Anne Arundel is rich in hidden archaeological treasures and has done more than any other Maryland jurisdiction to unearth them. This is important because such relics provide modern-day researchers -- as well as the rest of us -- with a window on the everyday life of some of our earliest communities.

London Town's location on the South River is spectacular. Once the relics of its glory days are unearthed, it could become a major tourist attraction. Usually tight-fisted County Executive John G. Gary seems to have recognized that and has earmarked $50,000 for excavation work. It is a sound investment.

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