HAVRE DE GRACE — Before it was a capital city contender, Havre de Grace was called Harmer’s Town. But when a visiting Marquis de Lafayette mentioned that the town reminded him of a charming French seaport called Le Havre-de-Grace, residents honored the Revolutionary War hero by incorporating under that name in 1785. (No need to channel your high school French when in town. Locals pronounce it HAV-er-dee-grace.)
While the quiet charm Lafayette admired is still on display, Havre de Grace also feels very much like the busy crossroads that garnered the Founding Fathers’ attention. During my visit on a hot day in May, cars poured down Market Street, many with kayaks and stand-up paddleboards strapped to their roofs. Pleasure boats roared by on the wide Susquehanna River, which hugs the east side of town as it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Trains rumbled over bridges. Joggers pushed strollers along the waterfront promenade, and weekend revelers spilled from seafood shacks and antique shops onto crowded sidewalks.
While there are many modes to see the sights, Havre de Grace is a pedestrian’s paradise. To get from one end of town to the other only requires a trek of about 1.5 miles, a pleasant walk punctuated by museums, murals and gorgeous vistas. To make it simple, the city has continued to improve its self-guided walking tour along the Lafayette Trail, which meanders past just about every attraction Havre de Grace has to offer. Visitors who would like a narrated experience can download the DISTRX app and learn about each of the 57 stops along the route.
One of those stops — and a good place to begin digging into the area’s history — is the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum and Environmental Center. Among the museum’s permanent exhibits, The John Smith Trail and the Susquehannocks is particularly enlightening for visitors curious to know what the Upper Bay and Lower Susquehanna looked like before European settlement.
The Susquehannock were a confederation of Iroquoian-speaking tribes that occupied scattered villages of longhouses on the banks of the Susquehanna River, from New York to Maryland. Historians estimate that during the 1500s, they numbered between 5,000 and 7,000. Even after Europeans arrived, the Susquehannock were able to maintain their influence in the area, becoming the only Native group to develop trade relationships with all four colonial settlements — English, Dutch, French and Swedish.
In 1608, English explorer John Smith traveled north from the Virginia colony of Jamestown and met with Susquehannock chiefs during one of his famous expeditions on the Bay. From the shore of Havre de Grace, visitors can still see the site of this meeting: Garrett Island, a 198-acre, 100-foot-high land mass rising from the Susquehanna’s dark green water.
Two hundred years later, a journey north was the difference between liberty and bondage for many people fleeing slavery through the network of routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Last year, the Maritime Museum opened its newest exhibit, Other Voices of Freedom, to “reveal the importance of waterways and their relationship to the quest for freedom,” according to a pamphlet I picked up at the museum’s ticket counter.
An intriguing combination of art and ethnography, the exhibit features evocative wire-mesh sculptures by African American author and artist Anyta Thomas, as well as compelling first-hand accounts of escape, including that of Fredrick Douglass. When describing his ferry crossing of the Susquehanna at Havre de Grace, Douglass compared his pounding heart to that of a “fox or deer, with hungry hounds on his trail.” Other panels illuminate the import of local waterways, where those on their way to freedom crouched in rowboats or hid inside crates aboard barges.
During the same time, Havre de Grace became an important stop on a different kind of thoroughfare. In 1840, the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal opened to boat traffic, facilitating the shipment of coal from the central portions of Pennsylvania to population centers like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Visitors can learn more about the 45-mile canal and the impact it had on Havre de Grace at the impressively maintained Lockhouse Museum.
This spare, red brick house provided a living space to the lock tender as well as an office for the toll collector. When I visited, a docent named Tom explained that during the canal’s busiest years, Havre de Grace became a “truck stop on water,” where men from boats either caught up on sleep at local inns or cavorted in taverns and casinos. The museum features compelling exhibits and artifacts, including a to-scale model of the canal lock (water and all) and canal scrip, money that could be used on the journey. Outside, visitors can peer down into the preserved canal and take in an unbeatable view of the half-mile-wide mouth of the river as it meets the Bay. The area, known as the Susquehanna Flats, boasts some of the richest, most diverse underwater vegetation in the entire Bay system.
This unique habitat made Havre de Grace a prime base for those chasing wild game and fish. During the last century, the bounty made the city a major player in the seafood industry as well as a premiere destination for anglers and waterfowl hunters.
At the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, exhibits and relics galore tell the story of one of the nation’s most singular hunting traditions: waterfowl decoys. Inside the still, reverent air of the museum, I could almost feel the concentration it takes to carve and paint the incredibly lifelike wooden birds, some so detailed they look like taxidermy.
Museum board member Jim Carroll, who gave me a tour of the space, calls decoy making “a uniquely American, pure artform.” Indeed, many decoys on display were never meant for water-based chicanery, created instead to adorn mantels and bookshelves; visitors would be forgiven for mistaking the Decoy Museum for an art gallery. The museum also depicts the environmental movement of recent decades, which responded to the alarming decline of waterfowl, and the increasing tension between those who make their living on the water and those who seek to protect it.
In between these many attractions, I wandered through the grounds of the Concord Point Lighthouse — Maryland’s second oldest — and the city’s new living shoreline project, a three-acre, formerly industrial lot that has been restored with native plants and a natural stormwater filtration system.
There, I marveled at the water’s latest gift to Havre de Grace — the flocks of boaters, sunbathers and seafood enthusiasts who spend their weekend in a place where tourism revenue brings in $1 million a day.
The city may have missed its chance to become the nation’s capital, but in doing so Havre de Grace got the chance to become something even better — itself.
Ashley Stimpson is a freelance writer based in Maryland. This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.