A trespasser alone with the deer and the litter

March 23, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The local papers reported recently that a big developer has bought Garrett Island, a trespassers' paradise in the Susquehanna River between here and Perryville, and plans to do big but yet-undisclosed things there.

The announcement produced the usual exultation by the people who persist in describing Havre de Grace as a future Annapolis just waiting to happen, but it struck me as sad news. So as I hadn't been on the island in years, I thought I'd better get out there and do some trespassing of my own before the bulldozers and the armed guards arrived. I did so by rowboat, on a gray morning that was threatening snow.

The island's a mile long and less than a quarter of a mile wide, making it about 150 acres. It's a mile upriver from downtown Havre de Grace, which took about 20 minutes to row, against the current and a chilly north wind. I landed at low tide, tied the boat to a tree, and walked up into the woods at a place where a beaver had recently felled a small tulip poplar.

This place has more history than will ever be known. The Susquehannock Indians used it often, and hundreds of arrowheads have been found here. John Smith sailed past in 1608, but he didn't get far; although there are depths of more than 80 feet just off the island, the Susquehanna is navigable for only another three or four miles.

Around the same time, the Virginia Company granted the island to its first prospective developer, an Englishman named Edward Palmer. Palmer, no doubt at a London news conference, announced plans to build a university here. Nothing happened, but the island was known for years by his name.

More than a century ago, it was acquired by the B&O to facilitate construction of its Susquehanna River bridge, which opened in 1885 and now carries CSX freights. The railroad renamed the island for John Garrett, a former company president, but otherwise left it alone. Woods grew up on land that had been cleared and farmed. Wildlife flourished. Lovers, poachers, picnickers and other trespassers came, sometimes camped, and went away.

Litter from above

Many of them, like the Susquehannocks, left their debris. Old bottles and cans are plentiful, especially near the shore. A bridge built in 1940 carries U.S. 40 high above the island, enabling people who will never set foot on it a chance to add to the litter by heaving it from their cars.

But much of the place is still almost parklike, thanks in part to the abundant deer who live here and keep the underbrush down. It's easy walking. I hiked up the middle of the island and climbed the rocky promontory near its north end. From there I had a fine view up the river, looking out over the railroad bridge, which is more than 100 feet above the water. A northbound CSX train rumbled past as I sat there.

Some especially intrepid trespassers used to come to the island by walking over the railroad bridge, then dropping a rope to the ground and climbing down. Norris Crites, who used to be the local game warden, once told me with some relish about being tipped off that a pair of poachers was coming over one night by that route. He got to the island first and greeted them as they reached the ground.

As I made my way back down the slope to the shore I thought I heard a pileated woodpecker, but never saw it. Plenty of other birds were in evidence. It being a cold, raw day well before the usual boating season, there wasn't another human being anywhere on the island, but it was a great spot to see and hear human activity from a distance.

A tugboat, the Night Hawk, pushed a load of crushed rock downriver from the Arundel Corporation quarry on the Harford County shore. There was firing from the Havre de Grace Police Department's shooting range, now located in what used to be the town's riverside dump. A Metroliner rushed by over the Conrail bridge just south of the island. Route 40 hummed constantly, almost overhead.

The railroad people at CSX, the successor corporation to the B&O, clearly had no interest in their island except insofar as it supports their bridge. They sold it to the developer for under $300,000, it's said. The developer, undeterred by any natural obstacles, is excitedly talking about bridges to the mainland, major construction, who knows what else. Maybe he'll build Edward Palmer University here.

It's too bad nobody else stepped forward to buy this place for the beavers, the deer, the ducks and the other trespassers. But that's progress, I guess. Rowing away, maybe for the last time, I made good time. Wind and current were with me, which is easier than pulling upstream.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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