We were all pleased and privileged to have President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore visit the Bay in April, and use the Chesapeake as a visual backdrop for their addresses on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. Much attention was given by them and others to the cooperative efforts to restore the Bay and to the successes we have shared to date. It was an incredibly heady atmosphere for everyone there from the Bay community, as the events of the day unfolded on the waterfront of Havre de Grace. The enthusiasm of the students, the volunteers and the citizens of the area was contagious.
In the days leading up to the event, the question asked over and over was, "Why Havre de Grace? How did the White House settle upon this small town up at the north end of the Bay as the place for the president to make a major speech" The answer was easy, because Havre de Grace had been planning a full schedule of Earth Day events for months; and the town has a beautiful new waterfront promenade overlooking the Bay right where the Susquehanna flows into it.
The harder question to answer was What kind of a place is Havre de Grace?" It seems as though everyone has passed by it a thousand times - "it’s that exit off I-95 between Wilmington and Baltimore with the really weird French name that nobody knows how to pronounce for sure" Unlike St. Michael’s or Reedville or Cape Charles or Solomons, few think of Havre de Grace as a destination. At least thet’s been so until recently, as the town has begun to take on the aura of an emergent Annapolis.
I’ve long thought the region that Havre de Grace is part of - northeast Harford and southwest Cecil counties - is one of the most overlooked parts of the Bay, so it’s nice to see some attention going that way. It’s a place of towns - Havre de Grace itself, Perryville, Port Deposit, Aberdeen, Charlestown, Northeast and others. It’s a place where the Bay ends and the rivers begin, especially the granddaddy of all the Bay’S rivers, the Susquehanna.
It’s also a place with a lot of recorded history, starting with Captain John Smith, who sought the Northwest Passage here until encountering the Susquehanna Flats. Later there were fisheries and canneries and ice shipping - one report from the early 19th century tells of a four-day effort just to pull in one haul of a massive shad seine filled with millions of fish. At about the same time, these towns became bystanders in the battle between the economic forces of Baltimore and Philadelphia over who would receive and market the agriculture and manufactures of the Susquehanna Basin. Ultimately, the wild and untamable rocks and currents of the Susquehanna proved their unwillingness to make it a river of commerce, and the goods moved east over roads and railroads to Philadelphia, bypassing the towns of the Lower Susquehanna.
But just as the river determined the outcome of that battle, it contributed to another flow of commerce. Nowhere else on the East Coast (that I’m aware of) does the fall line come so close to tidal waters. Thus the few miles where the river drops from the Conowingo Dam to where it enters the Bay has had to serve as the conduit for all the major transportation routes from north to south. That concentration, along with the grand scale of the river and its bluffs, has caused the construction of an impressive set of railroad and highway bridges, both providing and contributing to what has been described as a "world class scene."
There is something else special about that scene. Imagine yourself as a present day traveler coming south by road or rail from New England. Along about New Haven, you enter an unrelieved corridor of developed land, passing through city after city for hundreds of miles of New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Delaware.
And where do you break out of this unrelenting crush of mankind? It happens in Havre de Grace or thereabouts, where the farms and forests and rivers and towns begin again. For the first time in hours, it is the landscape not the land use that impresses itself on the traveler. There is a sense that nature lives, that land and water and man’s use of them can be beautiful together. And there is that grand crossing of the Susquehanna, from bluff to bluff, with the Chesapeake Bay in the distance.
This is the legacy of Havre de Grace and its sister towns and villages - and it is a legacy worth protecting. The region is trying to do just that as it decides how it wants to grow and change. And grow and change it will, sitting where it does less than an hour from Philadelphia and on the river and the Bay. The challenge to the citizens of this two-county area is how to assure economic development while preserving the special character of its landscape - to garner prosperity without turning into an extension of what lies to the north. After all, for thousands of travelers every day, Havre de Grace is truly the "first window on the Bay."