Charlestown Makes Historical Records Available on Internet

charlestown minutes

Public records are important for genealogical and local history research.

Governmental records at the state, county, and city level are important resources for studying the past and the documents are usually available in a state or local archives.  But when local bodies digitize public historical resources it makes the job of the researcher so much easier, increases efficiencies for agency staff, and reduces custodial and preservation problems as paper ages and becomes fragile.

Recently I needed to do some work with the public records in Charlestown, MD. and I discovered that the town has done a fine job of making its paper records available electronically on the web.  Beginning in 1755, the commissioner’s minutes are online and although there are missing years the documents continue to the present day.  In addition, there is a great array of historic Charlestown Maps available, beginning with a rendering from 1742.

One thing that is particularly helpful is that Google searches and indexes the documents.

Thank you Town of Charleston for making public records available in such an efficient and helpful way.  Anyone studying the past in Cecil County’s oldest town, which was incorporated in 1742, will find this to be a helpful resource.

Charlestown Map 1742

Town of Charlestown, 1742. Source: Town of Charlestown Website

Temperance Cursaders Gave Fountain to Salem City

Two years ago, I spent a fine summer day in South Jersey, becoming familiar with Salem City while contemplating research strategies for investigating the community’s recent past.  My interest focused on seeking out narratives associated with transformations of this City in the post-World War II decades so I concentrated on identifying archived materials and interview sources.

It was the first time I had walked the streets of this intriguing place and it was a productive, enjoyable day.   I talked to helpful officials, paged through aging newspapers, and dug into old bound volumes of public records while visiting the Register of Wills, Clerk of the Court, Sheriff, District Attorney, and Historical Society.

These are all methods I have honed over decades of rummaging around small towns, seeking to understand the distinctive sense of place that gives a community its rich, deep, and varied heritage.  However, history isn’t confined to the archives so part of my orientation involved strolling around the old Quaker community, visually sorting out the landscape of the past.

While exploring the remarkable built and natural environment, the close-at-hand markers of yesteryear intrigued me.  Broad streets lined with historic homes, which the WPA Writers Guide remarked “would stir the envy in a Williamsburg reconstruction,” and so much more caught my attention in a community that was brimming with history.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union Fountain in Salem City.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union Fountain in Salem City.

Then I made a discovery, a water fountain across from the old courthouse in Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park.  Chiseled into the uniquely designed stone were the words, “Let him that is thirsty come. W.C.T.U. 1901.”  Probably hundreds of strollers pass this relic off Market Street every day, paying scant attention to it.  Perhaps one or two pause to contemplate the unique artifact, a survivor of the passage of generations, and its inscription.

But I wondered about the 115-year-old-monument in the center of the bustling courthouse town and what it symbolized.  Who put it there, what was its story, and what did its sponsors want us to remember?

To delve into those questions, I returned to the Historical Society in a few weeks for a second visit as I was becoming Salem County curious.  There I discovered a wonderfully resourced organization, staffed by helpful professionals and dedicated volunteers.  This amazing team promptly oriented me to a strong group of resources for my little investigation so I was off digging for evidentiary traces of the past.

Here is how my little inquiry unfolded.  The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union urged its network of local unions to erect drinking fountains in 1874 so “men could get a drink of water without entering saloons and staying for stronger drinks (WCTU website).  Designed to do more than quench thirst, it was hoped they would serve as a substitute for the temptation to visit dark saloons or seek out stronger drink.

Around this time in Salem County the sentiment against the liquor trade was growing as people worked to close saloons.  A chapter was organized in the county seat in February 1884, when “a little band” of twenty-four ladies met at the Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church (WCTU history).

A Victorian-era trade card for beer. source: Boston Public Library Online Digital Collection

A Victorian-era trade card for beer.
source: Boston Public Library Online Digital Collection

The municipality had a number of barrooms and saloons, at this time.  In 1886, for example, the City granted licenses, under protest, to J. G. Garwood, C. C. Ford of the Nelson House and Schaefer’s Hotel, which was later known as Johnson’s Hotel.  Licenses to sell liquor by the quart were granted to Reeves Stretch, Peter Prendergast, and Daniel Brown.  Also in 1886, license to sell malt liquor were granted to J. P. Robinson, the Kirkwood House., and Thomas A. Newkirk.

The Union annually “agitated” against new and old licenses and they regularly canvased for voters and women opposed to the liquor business.  This vigorous crusading finally caused the City Council to exercise the power of its corporate charter in 1887, which provided complete local control over the retail liquor business.  Promptly at noon on the 25th of March, hotels and saloons in municipality closed their bars and stopped selling intoxicating beverages, the Salem Sunbeam observed.

Salem City Tavern Licenses from March 25, 1896. Signed by Jonathan W. Acton

Salem City Tavern Licenses from March 25, 1896. Signed by Jonathan W. Acton From the collection of the Salem County Historical Society

New jug taverns or quart places located conveniently near the city line bustled with trade, during this brief dry spell.  Some of the popular watering places included the “Whistlin’ Buoy,” just across from the Penn’s Neck Bridge, Reeves Stretch’s place on the Hancock’s Bridge road, Oakwood Beach, Sam McLoughlin’s and Wilks Willet’s place in Claysville (Salem Sunbeam, April 12, 1933).  And there were rumors about floating barrooms.

When a new Common Council organized following the election of 1888, the officials ended the drought (Sunbeam).  But the strong group of united women continued the crusade against the evils of drink.  By 1894, the chapter discussed the need for a public pump near Market Street to provide drinking water.   The members met with Mayor Acton, hoping the City would allow the Union to at least attach a cup and chain to a public pump.

As time passed, the Union became more interested in a dedicated fountain, and a committee of Mary J. Pancoast, Mary E. Lawrence, Letitia Fogg and President Sarah J. Wagg were directed to provide stewardship on this important matter.  The Salem Sunbeam observed that the temperance group seemed to be applying the practical illustration of “I was thirsty and ye gave me drink.”

A WCTU Fountain for the City

The time had arrived for the city to have a convenient refreshment for thirsty individuals, a published history noted (First Quarter Century of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Salem, New Jersey, 1909).   It was supposed that many would like to share in the expense to “smarten up this city and take pride in doing here what other citizens had accomplished in adjacent town, the history noted.  However, this met with only “slender results” so the WCTU developed a new money-making approach, rummage sales.  The first one was held on April 24, 1901 and there was a hunt for rummage in general and gifts of merchants and families added fresh stock to the ongoing event.

As cash came in, the ladies examined models and perfected plans for the erection of the town’s “own source of public drinking water.”  Anne W. Maylin reminded the eager ladies that one was also needed for horses, the Sunbeam reported.  The decision was made in favor of a stone fountain and the offer of the Foster Bros. was accepted.  It included everything except the plumbing for $135, less a $3 gift of the marble firm for the inscription.

The stone column was put in place in front of the Surrogate’s Office on September 9, 1901.  A triple platted silver cup and strong unbreakable chain was added as the gift of Thomas Hilliard Sr.  “The cup was handsomely inscribed “W.C.T.U.”   But it was stolen inside of nine months for which “theft a liberal dose of Jersey Justice was hinted as applicable.”

In October 1901, the Union appeared at a council meeting to officially present “to the city the beautiful drinking foundation now in placement on the pavement in front of the county building.” Mayor Gwynne accepted the gift, “saying that the city would prize it not merely for its intrinsic worth and it utility for the beautiful spirt, which promoted it.  He had no doubt that for “many years thirsty wayfarers would bless the members of the WCTU for their thoughtfulness.  The city accepted it gratefully and would guard it carefully, not the least of their duty, and they would plenty of water and good water,” the Sunbeam reported on October 4, 1901

As the nation edged slowly toward totally outlawing alcohol, the local WCTU had made its mark (a cup of free cold water at all hours) with a permanent monument as the ladies continued to wage war on spirits.  This fountain helped conquer thirst, perhaps competing with the saloons. Sometime not too long before December 21, 1978, It was moved “to Salem’s new little park on Market Street,” the Sunbeam reported.

A Symbol of the Temperance Movement in Salem City

Thus my little mystery, a venture into yesteryear, was solved.  It wasn’t just any water fountain.  It was one of thousands erected across the nation by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as the group that got prohibition passed sought to encourage people to drink water instead of alcohol.  Salem had an active union.

But now I was hooked, Salem County curious, if you will.  During my brief visits I had become intrigued with the multifaceted history that was all around me in the county, as well as how the past and present intersected.  There were surviving traces of earlier times wherever I turned — grand cemeteries, public spaces, old houses and buildings, churches, and monuments — and these survivors of the passage of centuries all stimulated my inquisitiveness.

Along the way, I had learned where to turn for the best help for unlocking the secrets of time.  The Salem County Historical Society has an enormous treasure trove of photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, books, and ephemera.  This vibrant organization was doing a wonderful job of fulfilling its mission, serving as the heritage keepers in the South Jersey county while helpfully sharing the area’s stories with inquisitive types.  It is the place to learn more about the past, the culture, and the people.

So if you are Salem County curious – for whatever reason your interest is sparked — be sure to visit the Society.  There a group of helpful volunteers will help you mine a comprehensive collection of sources for nuggets of information as you piece together your puzzle.  Since that time two years ago, I have been back many times working on my broader investigation, but now that I am curious all sorts of things are constantly distracting me.

Republished with permission from the Quarterly Newsletter of the Salem County Historical Society. Summer 2016




History of the Sassafras River: A Community Discussion, Nov. 3

georgetown-206aThe Sassafras River Association invites you to participate in a program that examines the history of the scenic tributary that rises in the marshy areas along the Delaware line and flows some 20 miles to the Chesapeake Bay.  Historian Mike Dixon will share narratives from the colonial era to the 20th century, while facilitating a dialogue with area residents for an engaging community conversation.

The Sassafras watershed’s past is captivating and encompasses the sweep of time.  This expansive narrative begins with Native-Americans and the arrival of Europeans who established fine plantations on its shores, many of which still overlook the rich fields being farmed today as part of Kent and Cecil Counties’ thriving, and important, agricultural economy. The tranquility of the river was interrupted during the War of 1812, British guns firing, but Kitty Knight stood her ground.  The colonial era port of entry grew, becoming important stops for vessels hauling freight and transporting travelers in the 19th century.  In time, sprawling summer resorts brought visitors by steamboat and later by automobile, and in the 20th century the Adams Floating Theatre arrived, bringing lively plays to Fredericktown and Georgetown.  Of course, the days of the steamboat gave way to the 20th century and the automobile age, which brought new dynamics that shaped the region. We will explore these accounts and more.

This type of colloquy creates greater understanding of our ties to the land and water and each other as we consider the intersection of the past with the present and the future, with stakeholders contributing accounts that have been handed down over the generations in families and communities.

It is sure to be an informative session, as participants will be encouraged to recount first and second hand stories about the river and the historical experience in the watershed that serves as the boundary between Kent and Cecil counties, providing unique personal and local context. There are stories you will want to hear as Dixon shares accounts from the European era to modern times, while moderating an evening of shared conversation. Of course, you don’t have to have a story to share.  You may simply want to listen to some of the lesser-known stories and traditions in the watershed.

The Sassafras River Association is an on-going community effort to protect and restore water quality in the river’s tidal basin and tributaries. This event is a celebration of the people who live, work, and play in the watershed, and a chance to deepen our sense of community and learn from each other as we strive to make our lives more compatible with nature’s design yet remain economically viable.

Dixon, a historian, specializes in community studies and social history.  He teaches as an adjunct professor of history at a number of area universities and colleges and has appeared on the Today Show, Maryland Public Television and TV news programs as well as in National Geographic, Southern Living, and Chesapeake Life. His published works have appeared in Chesapeake Life, Delmarva Quarterly, Maryland Life, and a number of other magazines, newspapers, and historical society journals.


History of the Sassafras will be held at The Granary Restaurant starting at 7 pm. Coffee and dessert will be available. Free and open to the public, the event is a fundraiser for the Sassafras River Association and donations are kindly suggested at the door or online at

For guests who would like to dine beforehand, The Granary has generously offered to donate 20% of dinner sales – a coupon is required and reservations are strongly suggested. Contact the Sassafras River Association for GIVE 20 coupons at 410-275-1400 or

The Granary Restaurant is located at 100 George Street, Georgetown, MD, along the beautiful Sassafras River.

Nov. 3, 2016, 7 p.m.

The Granary Restaurant


A New Lecture: Life in the Past Lane: Country Roads

Life in the Past Lane:  Country Roads is the title of a new program I do for the Delaware Humanities Forum.

With the arrival of modern, high speed highways, many of Delaware’s scenic routes and the small hamlets and villages clustered around those old corridors are overlooked.  This program explores the character, ambiance and history of some of these lesser-traveled roads.  These historic roadways are so much more than just a line on the map so come along for an enjoyable trip as we hear intriguing stories about waterfront towns, agricultural communities, and country hamlets and villages, where discovery awaits you.

A new program from the Delaware Humanities Forum, Life In the Past Lane:  Country Roads

A new program from the Delaware Humanities Forum, Life In the Past Lane: Country Roads

A New Lecture: From Here to There: Crossing the Delaware in the Age of Ferries & Bridges

Crossing the Delaware in the age of ferries and bridges is the title of a new program I do for the Delaware Humanities Forum.

In early times, the crossing of the First State’s waterways, particularly the mighty Delaware River, presented a challenge. Getting from here to there was often dependent upon river conditions, and the pre-bridge solution was the ferry. This program looks at the story of getting from here to there, with a particular emphasis on the Delaware River. Once the Delaware Memorial Bridge opened in 1951, ferries were put out of business.

The program is available for the classroom or a public lecture.

A new program available from the Delaware Humanities Forum, From Here to There:  Crossing the Delaware in the age of Ferries and Bridges.

A new program available from the Delaware Humanities Forum, From Here to There: Crossing the Delaware in the age of Ferries and Bridges.

Delaware Research Alert — Wilmington’s Morning News and Evening Journal Available Online

Online full-text searchable newspapers from earlier times are quickly becoming the norm for researchers. Institutions such as the Library of Congress, Google, local heritage organizations, and commercial database providers are all rushing to unlock the past, making our work of digging into family or local history much more efficient. And each month brings exciting news about the release of another batch of digitized resources on the Net. Some are free, while others require a paid subscription.
Late this afternoon, I received an email from John Medkeff, Jr., the author of Brewing in Delaware, with some exciting news about Delaware titles. Long historical runs of the Morning News and Evening Journal are now available on The Evening Journal spans a period ranging from 1888 to 1932, while the Morning News starts in 1800 and continue until 1965 (there are breaks). In addition, more recent runs of the News Journal are also available, from this subscription company.
This is a major step forward as it helps open up access to Delaware stories as we are able to dig a lot deeper now. The material was accessible, but it required a trip to a major library to use the microfilm or access bound copies and searches took a long time.
Here’s the link to the Wilmington newspapers.
Thanks John for this tip.

Disasters Are Part of a Community’s History and Should be Remembered


The FB Memorial Page for the PSA Fligh5 182 which went down in San Diego, Friday, September 25, 1978.

A story about the passage of 37 years since a sudden, life-shattering tragedy hit San Diego came up in my Delmarva Newsfeed yesterday.

On Friday, September 25, 1978, a beautiful, sunny southern California Day, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) Fight 182 was on final descent into the airport when it collided with a Cessna.   Thirteen seconds later the Boeing 727 smashed into the ground.

In those unimaginable few seconds 144 people perished in the widely observed incident on that morning at the end of the workweek.  So many lives (family members, the community, and the first responders) were shattered at that moment.

moving FB memorial page and an article from the aviation news site, NYCAviation reminded me of a similar experience, we had in Cecil County with the “flight 214 Remembrance Program.”  On December 8, 2013, family members. the community, and first responders paused to mark the passage of 50 years since the Pan American World Airways crashed at the edge of Elkton.

The purpose of our program was to honor the memory of those who died when the big plane exploded in-flight and went down in the cornfield.  It also honored the emergency personnel answering the alarm as periodic flashes of lighting illuminated a scene that would live with those firefighters and police officers throughout their lives.  That day in 2013 marked the passage of a half-century and we invited those affected to come together to honor the memory of those who perished and a generation of  emergency personnel who answered the call.

The experiences of the two communities, Elkton and San Diego, were similar in that unimaginable disasters struck, altering the lives of so many people.  For the Elkton community, no one living here would forget the sudden explosion in the sky on a stormy Sunday night in Cecil County, as a thunderstorm swept through the area.  For the firefighters and police officers, It was something they, too, would never forget as they desperately searched for survivors in the cornfield.  One firefighter from the North East Volunteer Fire company, Steward W. Godwin, fell in the line of duty as he combed the debris field.  He was an ambulance attendant and while working the disaster suddenly collapsed and died.

In San Diego, the PSA Flight 182 Memorial Committee is working to have a maker placed at the crash site.  As the group noted, “PSA 182 is a major part of San Diego’s History.  The memory of that day is still vivid in the minds of many San Diegans and continued to affect them as well as many of the first responders who were on duty  . . .  Our hope is to create a memorial that will honor the victims, their families, the neighborhood, and the law enforcement and emergency workers that still live with the memories of what they saw that day.  The memorial will be a place of peace and reflection that can be visited . . . .:

Late last night I looked  over the committee’s FB page as they get ready to gather on the 37th anniversary of the incident, this Friday, September 25 at 9:02 a.m. in San Diego.  For those in Elkton who answered the call and for the family members on the Maryland crash, this is something we relate to as you read the posts remarks and comments.  It was a moving experience reading the page and I hope to read soon that they have the support of the City and are able to place a memorial on the crash site.

In Elkton, Mayor Joe Fisonia, a number of years before he was elected to public office, had a memorial placed on the site here.  AT the time he was the president of the homeowners association in the area and he is also a first responder with the Singerly Fire Company.

A sudden, horrible tragedy of this scope is part of a community’s history as the San Diego committee noted.  It is a part of Elkton’s history too.

On Labor Day: Remembering Those Who Died While Building the Conowingo Dam

Workers at the Conowingo Dam in the late 1920s. source: Conowingo Visitor's Center

Workers at the Conowingo Dam in the late 1920s.
source: Conowingo Visitor’s Center

On this Labor Day, a holiday that honors American Workers and remembers the struggle to acquire better employment conditions, it’s a good time to share some research I have been doing on men who paid a high price erecting the Conowingo Dam.  An untold number were killed, injured or disabled while toiling away at the dangerous construction job in the late 1920s.

Some 5,000 people flocked to the rural area, seeking to earn a living wage as the construction got underway.  About 3,500 personnel erected the hydroelectric plant for Stone & Webster and the Arundel Corporation, and the project generated associated employment opportunities.  There were laborers relocating tracks and building new stations for the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, contractors paving new highways, and crews erecting 1,000 steel towers to stretch mighty transmission lines toward Philadelphia for Day & Zimmerman.

It was nearly fifty years before, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guaranteed the right to a safe job.   Regulations adopted in the early 1970s, made safety practices, such as fall protection, machine guarding, and personal protective equipment a standard part of the job.  But this engineering feat took place long before there was much concern for occupational safety.

While these men struggled to earn a living wage to support the family, many of them suffered disabling injuries handing high voltage electric lines, falling from high elevations, managing explosives, and much more.  A number died while performing their duties.  Construction work is dangerous business today, but in that era workplace safety wasn’t a high priority and broken bones, fractured skulls, amputations and other types of trauma were common.

While people often talk about worker fatalities at the Dam, a census or registry has never been compiled to give us some idea of the magnitude of the risk and to remember those who fell on the job.  So we have been doing some data-mining and made an initial survey to identify those who lost their lives at Conowingo.

It was a dangerous work, and newspaper accounts of men in the hard-driving industry suffering serious occupational mishaps are common.  Sometimes a man unsecured by a safety harness or net fell a distance or it was an automobile accident.  For example, thirty workmen suffered trauma when a bus operated by the United Railroads between Baltimore and Conowingo skidded on an icy hill at the Dam and was upset.  The injured were rushed to the company hospital.

Other accounts involved single casualties.  Irvin McDowell was confined to his home near Calvert in serious condition, the results of running a nail in his foot, the Baltimore Sun reported March 25, 1927.  Alvan Prather, 25, of Inwood WV. was crushed while firing the engine drawing cars on the Stone & Webster Company’s railroad, running from Havre de Grace to Shure’s Landing.   In critical condition, he was rushed to the company hospital where physicians determined he had a double fracture of the left leg.  The right one was smashed so it was amputated, the Havre de Grace Republican wrote on October 15, 1927

For this article, we focused on identifying occupational fatalites.  Here is the registry as it stands on Labor Day, 2015.  We will add names to it as others are identified.


March 20, 1926  — Alphonso Fortier, 21, Philadelphia; killed at Port Deposit three-hours after accepting employment with contractor building the hydroelectric plant;  helping to unload a derrick and other machinery from freight car; a heavy piece struck him, causing an internal hemorrhage from which he died an hour later.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, March 21, 1926.

August 8, 1926 — John G. Shelor, 21, Calvert, Cecil County; tractor used in pulling stumps turned over backwards; broken neck at the dam; Remains shipped to Christiansburg, VA for burial.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug. 12, 1926.

August 11, 1926 – George D. Whiteside, 22, pipefitter’s helper; run over by a train at the plant; remains shipped to his home in Champlain, NY.  He was a college student employed at the dam for the summer.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug 12, 1926

August 3, 1926 (date is estimated).  An unidentified African-American laborer was bitten by a copperhead snake while clearing ground for the new dam.  Source:  Cecil Whig, August 7, 1926

December 21, 1926 — William J. Elliott, 46; killed at Conowingo Dam when he fell from a stone conveyor.  Funeral was held at Havre de Grace and services were in charge of Harford Klan.  Source:  Cecil Democrat, December 25, 1926

July 18, 1927 — Stephen Collins, 28, Baltimore; killed instantly when he fell from the crest of the dam to rocks beneath.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, July 18, 1927

July 18, 1927 — O. P. Shelton, 32, Florida; killed instantly when he fell 140-feet from the crest of the dam to rocks below.  Source:  Baltimore Sun:  July 18, 1927

November 14, 1926 — Joseph Damfamete; employed by the Arundel Corporation; died of a fracture skull at Havre de Grace Hospital; struck on head by falling plank.  Source:  Cecil Whig, November 20, 1926

November 21, 1927 — Hunter H. Bettis, 17, son of Lonnie Bettis, Havre de Grace; employed by Stone & Webster; drowned while walking along the edge of coffer dam, carrying a heavy bay of rivets.  He lost his balance and fell into thirty-five feet of water.  Source:  Nov. 26, 1927, Cecil Democrat


This is the census we have developed thus far.  However, Corner William B. Selse of Darlington, commented that more than twenty men had lost their lives on the project, while investigating the death of Hunter H. Bettis.  He added, “the number is low considering the fact that on average of 3,500 employees have been employed there for nearly two years,” he informed the Baltimore Sun.

Curtis S. Poist of Port Deposit once wrote a Baltimore Sun article called “Helping Build Conowingo Dam.”  “There was no way telling how many men were killed on the job,” he wrote.  “Often the word would go around that a man had been killed, but I never saw a fatal accident.”   The workmen spoke so many languages, came from so many parts of the world, nobody knew much about anybody else.  Usually a man was known only by the number on his badge.   So if he fell into an excavation along with several tons of wet concrete who was to miss him let along mourn his passing?”

The registry probably represents a significant undercount as the primary source for this preliminary registry are newspapers.  I’m planning a visit to the Maryland Archives soon for another investigation and will pull death certificates for these men and others I am able to locate.

Still on this Labor Day it is appropriate to remember the fallen workers thus far identified.  I will update this registry as more workers are identified.

Program on Business History Looks to Past to Consider Present and Future

elkton conowingo power co.

Conowingo Power Company linemen sometime in the 1950s. Source: Lewis George

In a lively, interactive program the Cecil County Public Library examines the history of business and economic development in the county.  Historian Mike Dixon leads this discussion, as we look back through the centuries to consider the intersection of the past with the present and the future.

The free program takes place Wednesday, October 21, at 7 p.m. at the central library on Newark Ave., Elkton.

Cecil always occupied the most strategic of locations at the head of the navigable waters of the Chesapeake, midway between the emerging cities of the northeast corridor.  The roads, rivers, and creeks, coupled with productive farmland, created a bustling economy.  Entrepreneurs also harnessed the ample power of rapidly flowing creeks spilling down from the Piedmont to drive water wheels for mills of various types.

As time advanced, the transformative dynamics of the transportation and industrial revolution emerged, as the pre-electrical age’s dependence on waterpower faded.  These sweeping changes, involving the slow transition from an agricultural society to one more oriented toward manufacturing production, came together to give Cecil a surprising number of 19th century manufacturing operations.  The era of mechanization found industrialist capitalizing on Cecil’s resources to establish large paper mills and the county benefited from the significant capital investments.

Prestolite in Elkton very early in the 20th century. Source:  Historical Society of Cecil County Online Collection

Prest-O-Lite dissolved acetylene in Elkton very early in the 20th century.
Source: Historical Society of Cecil County Online Collection

In the 20th century, external national and international forces influenced the county’s business climate.  During World War I Cecil experienced its first war boom, with construction starting on a large munitions plant.  That was followed by a boom associated with the Second World War, which saw the creation of the Bainbridge Naval Training Center and munition plants in Elkton.  This industrial complex employed some 12,000 workers in a county with a population of about 27,000 people

There were other types of booms, too. The Elkton marriage mill, right in the middle of the Great Depression, saw marrying parsons doing about 100 weddings a day as cupid created a highly profitable business environment.  Then in the 1920s a large hydroelectric plant forever altered the Susquehanna, as old villages vanished under the water of Conowingo Lake.

Novel political, economic, and social forces affected the county in the second half of the 20th century.  The Interstate Highway, suburbanization, and public policy directives were some of those, and there was always that matter of being in a corridor that was becoming crowded.

These broad business patterns will be discussed in this informative program as Dixon uses the historian’s lens to contemplate how the past, present, and future are connected.

Click here to register for the free program.

Armstrong Stove Works in western Cecil County.

Armstrong Stove Works in western Cecil County.



Young Railroader, Edwin Roach, Killed in Greenwood Explosion

greenwood edwin road 2

Edwin and Martha Roach. source: Jane Roach Butler and Harry Roach, III, family historians

I have been investigating a deadly Delaware tragedy, an explosion that occurred over one hundred years ago in Greenwood. In the midst of a blinding snowstorm two trains collided in the center of the town of 367 people, and one pulling a lethal cargo of dynamite and naphtha exploded.

While opening up the doors to the past, I’ve spent several days in the Sussex County community searching for clues at an array of places. Fieldwork took me to the town hall, public library, cemeteries, the local nursing home, and elsewhere. There has also been manuscript research at the Delaware Public Archives, which was coupled with digital data.

One added perspective to aid in piecing this puzzle together involved finding the tradition-bearers, the community and family members who carry the stories down through time. These priceless links to the past (whether firsthand accounts or family stories), help present events in a different context.

This information arrived via an unexpected email from Jane Roach Butler and Harry Edwin Roach III, family genealogists.  These recorders of family history have been doing their own inquiry, digging up those traces of earlier times. Their extensive work included death certificates, newspapers, probate records, family lore, and other typical sources for genealogy, including personal photos.

The railroad man killed in the accident, Edwin Roach, was their great-grandfather, the son of Daniel & Eliza “Sally” Jones Roach. This was a great personal tragedy “which resounded through the lives of his parents, widow, children and grandchildren. He was a purposeful man of promise, owning various properties in Sussex Co. His death at such a young age would, as it were, dampen the future of his children, forever changing the course of their lives,” Jane wrote earlier this week.

Edwin (1874 – 1903) was born and raised in Georgetown. He resided in Wilmington with his wife Martha “Mattie” Jones Roach (1872 – 1964), and their children at the time of his death. Mattie was not related to either of the two Delaware Jones family lines, as she was born in Ambler, PA. She never remarried and Edwin is buried at Union Cemetery in Georgetown.

Edwin’s name is given as Edward in newspaper accounts and that was picked up by wire services, spreading that information far and wide.  The State of Delaware’s Certificate of Death notes that Edwin Roach, 30 of Wilmington, Delaware, a railroad brakeman, died from an explosion on a train on Dec. 4, 1903. The certificate was issued by Pepper & Mc Glorhean, Undertaker of Georgetown, DE. The headstone at the cemetery marks his death as taking place on the 2nd. “We believe his death was instantaneous and the confusing surrounding the accident may have led to this death certificate error” she observes.

“It would be lovely to set the record straight on his name these so many years later,” Jane concluded. First, thanks Jane and Harry for generously sharing your research, including photos.

Hopefully this blog post helps with that, too.   The Greenwood tragedy clearly illustrates the need for multiple perspectives as newspapers and the death certificate sometimes misstated information.

Delaware Death Register, source:  Delaware Public Archives

Delaware Death Register, source: Delaware Public Archives

Delaware Death Certificate for Edwin Roach.  Source:  Jane Roach Butler and Harry Edwin Roach III

Delaware Death Certificate for Edwin Roach. Source: Jane Roach Butler and Harry Edwin Roach III