Lost town put back on map Tourism: Promoters foresee London Town getting its digs in on the granddaddy of colonial heritage, Williamsburg, as the unearthed community yields its own treasures.

March 13, 1997|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

London Town, the lost ferry town slowly being uncovered on the banks of the South River, has something even the historic tourism mecca of Williamsburg, Va., lacks -- a big pile of more than 250-year-old garbage.

It's the best find of tavern trash, and it dates to 1725. Archaeologists and regional tourism officials watching the digs at the Anne Arundel County-owned park in Edgewater hope the refuse of broken Delft, bottle shards and oyster shells are the start of a major tourist attraction.

Promoters envision a place where visitors will come to get their hands muddy sifting for artifacts; watch the reconstruction of buildings and streets; and, eventually, wander about in a re-created, bustling town.

In mall lingo, London Town could become one of the "anchor stores" as Annapolis and sites south are packaged into a defined area of "heritage tourism," said J. Rodney Little, state historic preservation officer and director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

London Town thrived from the late 1600s to the mid-1700s as a tobacco inspection station and a stop for travelers using the ferry across the South River on the main road linking Williamsburg, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Project historian Anthony Lindauer is still piecing together the town's history, but he believes the loss of its designation as a tobacco inspection station in 1747 meant a sharp decline in traffic and business. The Georgian mansion built in 1760 by cabinetmaker and ferry operator William Brown is the only building that remains from the town.

Started in April

Archaeologists and volunteers have been digging since April, focusing on the cellar of Rumney's Tavern and several other building sites identified near the Brown mansion.

London Town spent more than 200 years buried, a history far different from that of Colonial Williamsburg, the grandfather of history-oriented tourism that attracts several million visitors a year.

Williamsburg functioned continuously as a city. While each generation changed its physical history, London Town's artifacts were sealed in something of a natural time capsule.

"Finding a cellar, this pure and undisturbed trash pit filled in 1725, is going to tell us an awful lot of what went on inside Rumney's Tavern," said Al Luckenbach, the county archaeologist. "We're literally finding the breakage of a bunch of rowdy sailors. The last Saturday night at Rumney's Tavern."

Such a find holds a certain cachet for professional archaeologists and historians, according to Robert Hunter, a consultant on ceramics to Colonial Williamsburg. "For the person who is interested in seeing the virtually untouched colonial site, it's a wonderful opportunity," he said. "You go to Williamsburg today and everything has been restored and interpreted In this case, it's an opportunity to rediscover the town of London Town and the people."

And local tourism promoters hope that many will want to rediscover London Town.

"London Town has certainly become one of the major items that we're mentioning to people," said Cory Bonney, director of sales and marketing at Loews Annapolis Hotel.

The hotel lobby features a display case with a cracked wine bottle, an English cooking pot, tobacco pipes and other London Town artifacts. Bonney said he sent out a mailer describing London Town to about a dozen colleges and universities with archaeology programs in hopes of attracting more conferences.

And the London Town dig may persuade leisure tour groups to spend an extra day around Annapolis to visit the site, he said. Longer stays translate into more tourist dollars.

Turn of events

It's all quite a turn of events for a park that was until last week known as London Town House & Gardens, run by a nonprofit foundation. The London Town Foundation Inc.'s board of directors voted to drop the "House & Gardens" and adopt a new logo -- a portly mermaid featured on several Delft bowls pulled from the tavern cellar. Ram's Head Tavern and Fordham Brewing Co. in Annapolis will soon begin brewing "Rumney's Ale" with part of the sales going back to London Town, said Susan Gearing, executive director of the foundation.

"It very quickly became apparent that we were managing much more than a public woodland garden and a [historic/colonial] house," Gearing said. "History is very good business, but I don't think that was recognized until just a few years ago."

She said buildings will be reconstructed using 18th-century methods; the restored gardens will be "a little messy" as they once were; and visitors may be able tour an underground learning center in what is now an abandoned sewage plant on the site.

The park, which plays host to weddings and other functions, had 12,000 visitors between June 1995 and June 1996. But since word spread about the archaeological finds last summer, twice as many people have come to the park than during the same period the year before, according to spokeswoman Christine Coffin.

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