Route 222 is a time machine. When heading into Port Deposit, clocks seem to rewind themselves. The town is of another era, a granite era, and stone surrounds you in all the structures. But perhaps, this is what one can expect of an entire town placed on the National Historic Register. An era, etched permanently in stone.
A Real Cliffhanger: The Vertical Charm of Port Deposit
As travelers rush north on the John F. Kennedy Highway toward Philadelphia, the boring routine of the car-packed Cecil County interstate is quickly broken when you gently descend toward the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge. All of a sudden, there emerges a majestic view of the glimmering Susquehanna River and its eastern shore, steep cliffs rising 200 feet, a beautiful mansion atop the hill, and a river town. More than a few drivers, their attention having been grabbed by this refreshing view, venture off the highway and travel north on Route 222 to take a longer look at this unique locality.
In a few minutes, as you move down a steep hill past the old Bainbridge Naval Training Center, the beautiful river unfolds ahead. Just before the edge of the waterway, the road turns sharply northward, and you are suddenly immersed in history as the river flanks you on one side while granite cliffs hug the other view, leaving space along the shore for little more than a mile-long Main Street. You have arrived in Port Deposit (pop. 700), an entire town that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In some ways, this place at the foot of those tall cliffs seems to exist in a time warp, but there’s a pulse of life and activity as a new generation of residents and visitors discovers this community, which now builds on its history, heritage, and geographic footprint.
The natural environment caused it to grow from a sleepy ferry landing into a thriving lumber and shipping town. Navigation above this spot was perilous, but when the mighty flows of waters began with melting snow and spring rains in New York and Pennsylvania, risk-taking rivermen on arks and rafts piloted lumber down the treacherous waterway to Port Deposit. This enormous economic opportunity provided a unique commercial life for a large part of the 19th century as transported goods were warehoused here while waiting to be sold to city markets. Once orders were received, lumber was loaded aboard vessels that sailed the Chesapeake.
Granite quarries, another important source of development, opened in Port Deposit in the early 1800s and survived well into the 20th century. This “everlasting granite” was used extensively as a building stone, and the railroad that passed nearby connected it with city markets.
As business thrived, capitalism boomed, and fortunes were made, the town, containing only a few narrow streets, many granite buildings, and a fine sense of history, was carved from this rugged valley. With the town prospering, a rich architectural style dating back to the early 1800s developed, and today, the historic district is occupied by a range of styles.
The Maryland Business Directory of 1882 called Port Deposit a “bustling, thriving, quaint town compressed by the Susquehanna against the rockbound cliffs, which rise almost perpendicularly to the height of one and two hundred feet. There is room for only two streets along the face of the river, and most of the houses on the eastern side of Main Street jut against these cliffs. Some have terraces rising from the rear yards, far up the cliffs.”
Once 20th-century dates started showing on calendars, the golden era of the railroad was declining and automobiles were rumbling through the narrow streets built to accommodate horses and buggies. The primary reason for the town’s wealth had passed in this new century, as a “port of deposit” was no longer needed on the Susquehanna and technology changed how goods and people moved. Through much of the 20th century, the town’s prosperity continued waning as other events took place, such as the closure of the Bainbridge Naval Training Center in the 1970s.
Couple that waning prosperity with the community’s unique geographic footprint, and you have the reason it now hums with a new type of vigor in the 21st century. The town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and took actions to protect its historic resources; today, many of the homes have been preserved as new owners and businesspeople discover opportunities.
The beautiful granite homes, cozy houses, and charming commercial structures from centuries ago lining the town’s main road provide a rare glimpse at the architecture of another era. The traveler with a little extra time should make a side trip to the historic town of Port Deposit to stroll through the old river town crammed with marvelous 19th-century architectural jewels.