Port Deposit celebrates 200 years of varied history [Editorial]


Situated at a geographic nexus, Port Deposit has seen its fortunes rise and fall and rise again over its 200 years as a town, largely thanks to its location.

Like many river towns along the Susquehanna, it was established to deal with waterborne transit of cargo and hugs a relatively narrow section of riverbank. Unlike other riverway stations, it is the last of the so called ports of deposit along the part of the Susquehanna that has a reliable current.

Geologically, the river from Port Deposit up is shallow, but at Port Deposit and extending down to Perryville, it is deep enough to accommodate even ocean-going vessels. If not for the Chesapeake Bay becoming very shallow at the Susquehanna Flats south of Perryville and Havre de Grace, Port Deposit could have been a significant seaport.

As it was, Port Deposit still could have grown into a larger center of trade if not for the poor colonial era relations between Maryland and Pennsylvania. In her 1995 book "Susquehanna: River of Dreams," Susan Q. Stranahan details how the natural Susquehanna trade that would have brought timber and farm goods to market through Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay was cut off thanks to the poor relations between the two states. At Wrightsville and Columbia, sister river towns on the Susquehanna upriver from the Mason-Dixon Line, most of Pennsylvania's bounty left the river. A good deal of it ended up being transported over land (no small feat in the colonial era) for shipment to overseas ports through Philadelphia.

It would come to pass that Port Deposit would become a small, but vibrant, shipping center in its own right during the 1900s with the opening of the Wiley's Manufacturing facility. Thanks to Port Deposit being along a major rail line, it had access to raw materials; thanks to the river and a dredged shipping channel through the Susquehanna Flats, it had access to the sea.

With the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. Navy came calling and established a recruit training center in 1942 on the grounds of Jacob Tome School and named it after War of 1812 Naval hero Commodore William Bainbridge. Water access was through Marina Park at the south end of town, while the training grounds were up the hill on the campus of the old school. Though 25,000 recruits were trained at Bainbridge during the war years, the base's fortunes ebbed and flowed during the next three decades, until all that was left was a bunch of crumbling buildings, overgrown vegetation and hazardous waste sites, not to mention dozens of redevelopment schemes, none which has ever come to fruition.

Port Deposit's glory days as a manufacturing site were also relatively short-lived, drawing to close after the construction of steel tubes for the Ft. McHenry tunnels were completed in the mid-1980s.

These days, Port Deposit's amenities as a port are in line with the needs of recreational boaters than commercial enterprises, and the town has seen something of a resurgence based on its location's attractiveness to people drawn to the water for leisure activities.

For a variety of reasons, Port Deposit in its bicentennial year may not be much bigger than it was when it started, but it seems to have taken root on the banks of the Susquehanna firmly enough that it will be around, in some form, for the foreseeable future.

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