|Havre de Grace, "harbor of mercy", a named suggested by Lafayette in 1792, is located on the southern bank of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the largest river that nobody knows. Except for those that live near its banks, this river seldom is mentioned among the pantheon of great rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado, Columbia, Rio Grande, Ohio or even the Hudson. But it drains half of the states of New York and Pennsylvania and delivers 50% of the fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay, the third largest estuary in the world. It is the sixteenth largest river by volume in the United States. For thousands of years it delivered its huge load of sediments to a large open bay now known as the Susquehanna Flats. This shallow broad area was filled with aquatic grasses providing an expansive nursery for fish. Millions of American Shad migrated up the Susquehanna each spring.
Construction of many dams along the river have modified the ecology of this once vital ecosystem. Although the terrific floods are mostly controlled now, and the towns of Perryville and Havre de Grace see much less flood damage, the great shad migrations have been decimated. Attempts to restore the great fish migration have been ineffectual. The industry that helped decimate the fish population has long disappeared.
The location of the Susquehanna River, reaching back up into the fertile valleys of Pennsylvania and New York, has attracted commercial interests since John Smith sailed up as far as the falls, looking for the fabled Northwest passage to the riches of the Orient. Those same falls frustrated early colonial settlers as they attempted to get goods up into the farmlands of the Susquehanna river drainage. To by pass these falls, a canal was dug along the banks of the Susquehanna. Run for some 45 years the canal was never profitable and was frequently damaged by floods. The canal ended at Havre de Grace where canal barges were unloaded and goods were transferred to sailing ships for other ports. The canal succumbed to the more efficient railroad line that was built along the northern bank of the Susquehanna, a line that is still in use today.
Havre de Grace was also an important location for road travel. Here the road to Philadelphia and New York ran across the Susquehanna, bringing travelers from Richmond, Annapolis and the newly constructed capital in Washington. With the coming of the railroad, Baltimore became the countries most rapidly growing city. By the 1870s Baltimore was the third largest city in the United States. More and more traffic moved along the coast by coach after the completion of the colonial road. MD route 7 still follows the old colonial road. Although most of the present day traffic moves along newer roads, first MD Route 40, and later Interstate 95, they all cross the river at Havre de Grace as does the east coast rail line of Amtrak.
In the spring of 1813, Havre de Grace was attacked by portions of the British Fleet blockading the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812. The brief skirmish and ransacking of the town by far superior British troops inflamed the passions of Marylanders and helped spur the passionate defense and eventual defeat of British Troops in the Battle of Baltimore in the following year.
Each year the City of Havre de Grace holds a re-enactment of the events of early May 1813 at the Susquehanna Lockhouse Museum. The museum is open Thursday - Monday, 1-5 PM year round. Here on the banks of the Susquehanna, within site of the three bridges carrying road and rail traffic and along side of one of the locks for the barge canal, a colonial encampment springs up each May. Dressed in recreated garb of the colonial period, the weekend celebration tells the story of the attack on Havre de Grace and the role of several local inhabitants, prominently one John O'Neill, my great-great-great grandfather.
Several different types of troops are represented. Citizen militia in their simple green tunics, Continental army soldiers in their blue wool coats, brass buttons, cocked hats and white vest, and Royal marines in bright red wool garments stroll about the grounds. They spend the weekend in the authentic canvas tents sleeping of straw and cooking over wood fires in cast iron pots.
The food they eat during the encampment is prepared in traditional ways and consists of simple farm meals - ham, beans, cheese and home baked bread. They sit or stand and eat out of wooden bowls. The food looked really good - a tempting meal for today. The surgeon's instruments were not something one would want to experience however. Knives, saws and drills for taping the skull was testament to the poor state of medical treatment that the soldiers of the day received.
At around noon the re-enactors stage a little show. A park ranger from Fort McHenry National park narrates while another ranger puts the men representing various military regiments through drill paces. The ranger explains the nature and purpose of the various pieces of apparel and equipment carried by the each of the men. Some carry muskets and some have rifles. There is also an artillery division. They have a six pound canon which they pull out, load, aim and fire out over the river.
The 1812 Re-enactment is set for the same weekend as the Havre de Grace Decoy Festival. Located on the southern end of town, the decoy museum has displays of many of the working decoys created in the first half of the 19 th century when duck hunting was both a serious commercial enterprise as well as a common hobby. Since the early days when carvings were done for the very utilitarian use of the simple decoys, the trade has become an art with extremely detailed and accurate carvings of all types of water fowl. During the first weekend in May, the history of Havre de Grace decoy carving is on display at the museum and two high schools.
The rangers also brought a replica of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry, the 36 by 42 foot flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, representing the fifteen states that were part of the union in 1814. Later as more states joined the union more stars were added to represent each state, but the number of stripes reverted back to 13, the number of original colonies. The crowd helped unfurl the large replica flag as the ranger related the story of the defense of Fort McHenry in the Battle of Fort McHenry at Baltimore.