Preserving a blend of river, bay

Funds needed to pay Garrett Island loan

March 27, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

GARRETT ISLAND -- A mountain rises swiftly from the middle of this island in the mouth of the Susquehanna River, towering 114 feet above the surface and marking the divide between the uplands of the river valley and the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay.

A Pennsylvania developer had planned a hotel and conference center there to capitalize on the peak's expansive views of the river to the north and the bay to the south, until a local conservation group -- the Cecil Land Trust -- succeeded this month in cobbling together loans and investments to come up with $750,000 to buy all 189 acres of the island from him.

Now the trust has to find the money to pay the loan and figure out what to do with the island.

"The first thing we're going to do is try to get a conservation easement," says Bill Kilby of the land trust. "That way, if we have to sell it, at least nobody else can develop it."

It isn't that the island is pristine -- it was farmed in the 18th century and used for military training exercises during World War II.

It's just that it's different, says Peter A. Jay, a longtime farmer who formerly owned one of the local newspapers and also wrote op-ed columns for The Sun.

The island is in tidal waters, yet the water is fresh rather than brackish. Granite boulders surround most of the island, providing natural erosion control, but a sandbar stretches away to the south as on many a Chesapeake island. The black rock on the north side of the island gives way to sediment on the south.

"If you stand on the north end of the island, you feel the Susquehanna," says Don Baugh, director of educational programs for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If you stand on the south end, you feel Chesapeake Bay."

Members of the Susquehannock tribe inhabited the island long before Capt. John Smith sailed by in 1608 and included it on his charts in 1612. Edward Palmer, a member of the Virginia Co., owned the island in the 1620s but died before he left England to see it.

Isaac Watson farmed the island in the late 1700s, but it has been uninhabited since then. The B&O Railroad bought the island in the mid-1800s to help support a bridge carrying its tracks across the river, renaming it for John Garrett, a former company president.

Ed Abel, a York, Pa., developer who built Bulle Rock Golf Course in Harford County, bought the island in 1997 and began planning the conference center.

He and his wife, Susan, agreed to sell the island to the land trust after he bought 380 acres adjacent to the golf course off U.S. 40 south of Havre de Grace.

"My wife didn't want to sell it at all," Abel says of the island, but "we didn't want to see it spoiled and developed just for the almighty dollar."

For much of the past 50 years, Garrett Island -- a mile long and less than a quarter-mile wide -- was little more than a trash receptacle for motorists crossing the U.S. 40 bridge and the campers who built bonfires and left debris scattered about before paddling back to the Harford or Cecil County shores.

Charred wood, chicken bones, paper plates and flip flops of day-glow purple and orange litter the northern end of the island. An overflowing trash can occupies a spot under a tree.

"I don't know who they thought was going to pick it up," says Kilby. "We think we can organize a community cleanup and people will keep it clean."

Another campsite about 50 yards away is tidy, with benches built between trees and a swing hung from a high branch back in the woods.

Throughout the islands are remnants of other times.

The foundations of a shad processing plant, abandoned in the early 20th century when an upstream dam blocked the fish's annual spawning run, stretch off into the woods from a spot where sun-bleached oyster shells line the banks.

The mountain is a granite dome that represents the magma chamber of an ancient volcano, according to geologist Cynthia Rosetti. At its base, a low concrete wall stretches for several yards, probably the remains of a building that housed workers building the railroad bridge. Lengths of thick cable, covered with matted grass, lie under the bridges.

The south side of the mountain plummets to the flat lands of the island, where great blue heron and osprey perch in the trees and visitors can spot the occasional bald eagle.

The marked differences between the northern and southern ends of the island can help people see connections between the river and the bay, says Baugh.

"It shows that we can't clean up the bay without cleaning up the Susquehanna, so that's sort of a magical spot."

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