Union Hotel Restaurant evokes past

History: Perched above the Susquehanna, this restored log cabin offers diners a taste of yesteryear.

October 26, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON A QUIET stretch of Route 222, several miles north of Port Deposit, a modern traveler could be lulled into thinking that time has stood still. Miles of uninterrupted trees bend over the road: stately pin oaks, graceful sycamores - even native paw paws, heavy with fruit.

Occasionally, through the dense foliage, the Susquehanna flashes a glimpse of its quicksilver smile. High above, an osprey shrieks, piercing an otherwise silent afternoon.

Off to one side, on a slight rise a few hundred feet up from the river, a graceful log home stands alone, its exterior looking much as it might have 200 years ago. A sign out front identifies the establishment as the Union Hotel Restaurant, circa 1790, and invites the traveler in.

Janet Dooling, its 62-year-old owner, bought the house 24 years ago, with her then husband, and has called it home since. She lives on the top floor of the house, above the restaurant that has maintained a loyal following since she opened it 20 years ago.

"When this came up for sale, we were living down the road," says the self-professed restoration and antiques lover. "We went and looked at it, and we saw that a piece of clapboard siding had come off the house, and underneath that we could see the logs."

They turned out to be hand-hewn hemlock logs, harvested from the once-abundant groves of hemlocks in the area. But while the trees had long since disappeared, the logs in the house were in beautiful condition in 1979 despite, or perhaps because of, having been covered with siding for nearly a century.

"Vandals had been here, and it was a mess," Dooling recalls. "It was a vacant apartment building at the time. We bought and preserved it. If it weren't for us, it probably wouldn't exist today."

Dooling and her family labored on the house for several years, uncovering the original dirt basement and restoring many of the house's original features, including stone fireplaces and hardwood floors.

In the process, they discovered pieces of past lives.

"We found lots of Indian arrowheads and a beautiful hoe. We also found a penny from 1793 and pieces of old Chinese export pottery," she says.

Casually, Dooling recounts that for several years the house also had ghosts, among them a "dusty man" and a woman who appeared in Dooling's bedroom from time to time.

Dooling researched the house's history, tracing it to the late 1700s, when it was known as Gillespie's Log House and belonged to James Gillespie and his wife, Martha.

According to land records from 1794 in the Historical Society of Cecil County, the land Gillespie purchased to build the house originally belonged to a man named Heath. The property was listed at the time of sale as "Heath's Adventure."

In her search, Dooling also discovered that the house was a brothel during the construction of the Conowingo Dam in the early 20th century.

In 1981, the Doolings opened a tavern in the house, deciding to rename it the Union Hotel, an appellation that dated from the mid-1800s.

During that time, one of Gillespie's descendants, also named James, operated it as a tavern and hotel, serving the many merchants and seamen who plied the busy waters of the Susquehanna, as well as travelers crossing the river for points north and south.

"The property was 147 acres then and went down to the river," Dooling explains. "Lee's Ferry was there [operating between Cecil and Harford counties], and behind the building was the Great Port Road."

The house was ideally positioned. On its property also ran a stretch of the Susquehanna Canal, which was dug in the 1780s to circumvent a dangerous stretch of the river (named Smith's Falls, in honor of Capt. John Smith, who was stranded there).

Today, all that is left of the canal are silted-in beds at the entrance to the property.

In 1983, the Doolings opened the restaurant in the house, specializing in local fare of the Colonial period and offering fresh seasonal dishes, such as rabbit and crabs.

The wait staff dressed in Colonial-era garb, which Dooling sewed, based on research conducted on the family's many trips to Williamsburg, Va.

Diners ate off pewter plates on heavy cherry tables made by the Doolings from a single log cut from a felled tree.

Today, the menu has changed slightly and the restaurant has a different chef, but the costumes, the ambience - and much of the wait staff - remain the same.

The Union Hotel is popular for private parties and special occasions and regularly draws local families who take their children to experience a slice of Maryland's history.

Pat and Andy Eiler of Joppa have dined at the Union Hotel several times over the years, returning because, Pat says, they "enjoy things from the past."

"We love the irregular floors that caused us to have to put something under the legs of our table. ... And I like to sit and think of the people who walked those floors and climbed the steps so many years ago. It is such a unique place to spend some time," Pat says.

Dooling agrees. She is still active in the restaurant, overseeing the operation, ordering the food, and stepping in to help wherever and whenever needed.

Her son Allen and his wife, Kim, also are involved in running the restaurant.

For its owner, the establishment is clearly much more than a business: It is passion.

"It's my life," Dooling says with pride. "I like living out in the country, and I enjoy living in an old log house. It has so much character."

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