Nearly a quarter of a century ago, when I arrived on the shores of the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace to take up residence, I cast an imperialistic eye toward a key piece of real estate: the unoccupied territory of roughly 200 acres lodged in the mouth of the Susquehanna River known as Garrett Island.
In those days, the island was largely in private hands, though the State Highway Administration owned at least a right of way for the part where Route 40 crosses the river. Though nominally off limits to the general public, it was then, as it appears to be now, fairly regularly used by pleasure boaters.
In modern times, Garrett Island is a fairly wild place, fully forested, but I've read quiet a bit about the land and it probably isn't, as is sometimes said, just like when Columbus landed. In eras past, it had been largely denuded of trees and used for farming. Also, in the mid to late 1800s and into the 1900s, when refrigeration was a developing technology, Garrett Island was the site of ice block storage buildings, whose foundations remain at the northern end of the island.
Going back to the earliest days of European settlement, it was home to an early trading post, a notion I'd never given much thought to until a few days ago when I made a return trip to the island for the first time in many years, this time with my son, Nick, who wasn't around the last time I was out there.
Though many years had passed since the last time I visited the island, the area on the southwestern side where I've usually made landings in the past was very familiar: a few massive rocks and a gravely beach. The thing I'd never noticed before, though, is what made me think of the old trading post stories. Seemingly built into the soil about 10 feet above what I would consider the usual waterline is an old stone wall, apparently the last remaining side of a four-sided building. There's no particular reason to think the wall is the ancient trading post itself, after all, buildings made from found stone were in use from well before early colonial days and well into the 1800s. Heck, there are plenty of houses still in use whose foundations are made of local stone put together in a way similar to the wall Nick and I saw out on the island.
Whether it was the remains of the trading post, a farm building from a later era or even part of the old ice block business operation, I have no way of knowing, but the thing that's been bouncing around in my mind ever since seeing it is that it appears to have been exposed to the extent it is now by one or more of the major floods that have caused the Susquehanna to swell over the past decade or so.
Considering this, and the old wall's proximity to the shoreline, and the reality that I recall reading a few years back that the island had shrunk from roughly 205 acres to somewhere in the 190-range, there's a chance this wall could end up returning to what it was before some enterprising person stacked the stones one on top of another. Another big flood or three and the wall will end up just another bunch of rocks scattered along the river. Ashes to ashes.
It's hard to say if a site like that is historically significant. I've read about archaeological digs out on the island and the usual way of determining the age of artifacts is out the window because of the islands soil being frequently churned by flooding. Soda bottles have been found alongside arrowheads. Furthermore, the wall, even if it is the remnant of an early colonial trading post, hardly has the historic vitality of the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, or even the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal lockhouse on the Havre de Grace bank of the river. Trading posts of that era were only slightly more elaborate than rustic campsites.
Still, it is a pretty cool artifact to check out if you happen to be out tooling around on the river and have the time for a bit of shoreline searching.
By the way, the island is no longer officially off limits. Thanks to local conservationists, it has been turned over to the federal government and is part of a National Wildlife Refuge. It's hardly a park, though. If you go, don't expect a visitors center or anything approaching a modern convenience. The wall, the old ice house foundations and possibly a few other remnants of eras bygone are the only chunks of buildings on the island these days.