About Port Deposit, Maryland
Port Deposit is a historic town, extending for approximately one mile along the east bank of the Susquehanna River . Having several names prior to 1813, when the governor gave the town its present name, Port Deposit was not an overnight boomtown, for it served mostly as a collection point for lumber floating down river from Pennsylvania . Fortunately, it was too inconsequential to attract the attention of the invading British in 1813, who bypassed the town in favor of burning a warehouse across the river.
Within the span of a quarter century, however, Port Deposit had risen to importance that rivaled even the county seat. It was the junction point for lumber, grain, coal, whiskey, and tobacco trade, being the furthest point downstream on the Susquehanna River, and the furthest navigable point upstream for ships plying the Chesapeake Bay .
While the lumber floating down river provided the country with building materials, one of Port Deposit’s own industries produced building material of unmatched quality. By the early nineteenth century the granite deposits of the town were, from an engineering standpoint, to have few rivals. It was, however, the tone and texture of the stone that made it a favorite aesthetic choice. The quarries, located north of the town, provided the granite used for many churches, schools, and buildings in Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia . Many of Port Deposit’s buildings are constructed of granite. Nowhere in the county was there a stronger stone masonry building tradition than in this small town along the Susquehanna. With all the work available in the mills, factories, fisheries and lumberyards of Port Deposit the town grew into prominence. On the eve of the Civil War, it was the eighth largest city in all of Maryland . Most Cecil County men who fought in the Civil War joined the Union Army. By the 1850’s a large concentration of free blacks were to be found in Port Deposit, where they numbered over 21 per cent of the population, well in advance of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
An early testament to the commercial success of “Port” was its prominence in the financial community. In 1834 the town had its first bank and for many years was the only place between Wilmington and Baltimore where banking could be conducted.
While progress in commerce and finance grew rapidly the progress in public education was slow. Throughout the early nineteenth century, efforts to establish public-supported education in the county were spotty and disorganized. It was not until 1889 that the first countywide free school system was put into place.
An outspoken critic of the school system was the industrialist, Jacob Tome. He arrived in town in 1833 on a log raft, penniless but ambitious. Tome joined with men of greater capital and entered the lumber business. He was later to become one of the wealthiest men in the country but he never forgot the town of his beginnings. In 1889 he endowed the town with a substantial part of his amassed fortune to establish a separate free school system and five years later the Jacob Tome Institute opened its doors to Port Deposit children. Within four years over 600 area children attended school in the various institute buildings. At Tome’s death in 1898, another sizable amount was bequeathed to the school system and was used to establish a boarding school for boys on the high bluff overlooking the town. It was considered the most beautiful “Prep School” in the United States .
By the end of the nineteenth century, railroads had taken over a large portion of the county’s shipping business, but Port Deposit was to benefit immeasurably by this new convenient source of transportation. The railroad that passed by the quarry connected it with major markets to the north and south,. while the light-draft vessels tied up at the town wharf provided shipments to points as far away as Richmond , often at a fraction of the railroad rates. It wasn’t until 1927 that “Port’s” river connection to the north was brought to a final close with the completion of the Conowingo Dam.