By Amanda Calcado
Sprinting up the decaying steps and laughing, I landed on the top step and felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. An eerie chill crept through my bones, and and I felt like something was watching, warning me to turn back around.
I was a senior in high school at the time. My friend and I decided to sneak out of school early and go explore an abandoned Naval academy not too far away, since it was Halloween and we were feeling rebellious. She boasted of having gone before, so she knew where to go and that it really was not haunted, just creepy.
But we never made it inside, or passed the Jacob Tome Steps. We both felt uneasy and saw off to the right an older woman watching us through the window of her tattered white house. We chickened out and ran back down the steps to the main road. From that moment on, I stored Port Deposit in my mind as a small, creepy town.
* * *
Port Deposit is in fact, a small town. With just over 700 people living in an area that covers about three square miles, the town is almost unheard of to anyone outside of the Cecil County or the northern Harford County area. Originally founded in 1608 by Captain John Smith, Port Deposit was once called Creswell’s Ferry and Smith Falls, and sat right on the banks of the Susquehanna River. The town became a trading hub for goods coming and going from the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia, received a new name, “port of deposit,” and eventually changed its name to Port Deposit in 1812.
On my way into Port Deposit, I stopped at the Conowingo Hydro Plant and Dam, which connects Harford County to Cecil County, and where the creepiness began.
The massive dam towered 94 feet above the reservoir and appeared out of place in the otherwise natural, serene environment. The dam has 53 floodgates, stationed towards the right side of the structure and the east shore bed, close to Port. The floodgates are shaped as arches that give way to its 1920s architecture.
To the left of the structure are elongated windows, stretching towards the top of the dam, falling only feet below the bridge. They are fogged and dingy, as though they have not been replaced since the structure was first built. The arched window tops are opened and facing outwards, looking like they belong in an ancient hospital, and like they would leave whoever is behind them trapped there. Above the windows are small, embossed arches. The ornate details were common of the era that it was built, but now, worn and dirty, just make the structure appear eerie.
Surrounding the dam is Fisherman’s Park, which boomed with families and outdoor advocates. A nearby plaque boasted facts about the Susquehanna River shoreline stating, “Over 170 species of birds, plants, and aquatic creatures,” but I hadn’t seen much of any yet. This particular area is known for bald eagles, and many people were surrounded with binoculars and cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird.
Uninterested in seeing birds, I pulled away from the crowds, towards the unoccupied trailhead of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail. I followed the trail, which hugs the west bank of the Susquehanna River, and ventured deeper into the wooded bank, feeling more and more uneasy. The noise from the crowd disappeared, and all I could hear was the water crash into the rocky banks below.
I followed the abandoned railroad tracks along the path; they were dangerously close to the edge, where the shore drops off steeply. The tracks continued ahead, but I did not go any further. The trail was too quiet, and I wanted to get closer to the water, which I noted would be possible closer to the park, since I saw a small staircase leading downward on my way in.
The staircase was close enough to the trailhead that I could faintly hear the noise of the crowd. I decided that was safe enough, and started down the small, concrete steps towards the bank. The steps went about five feet down, on a 90 degree incline. They ended abruptly at the rocky shore; I stepped onto the shore and felt strange again. The noise from the crowd faded and was replaced with water lapping against the jagged rocks. I stood there for a few minutes, straining to see Port Deposit across the river. From there, I couldn’t see any roadways or cars, just the shoreline and an outline of a stone building. It felt like I had stepped back in time. I snapped out of my daze when a particularly rough current crashed against the rock and misted me with cold water. Nervously, I jogged up the steps and quickly made my way back to the trailhead.
It wasn’t until I reached the crowd that I began to feel safe again. However, I knew the feeling would lift soon. I climbed into my car and looked up towards the dam, where I would be crossing in a few minutes. The ominous electric structures that tower over the dam’s bridge jeered back at me, like it knew I was afraid of what it was about to connect me to.
* * *
The main strip of town was quiet, but the most active part of the town. I started on the north side of Main Street, which housed a post office, the Water Witch Fire Company, two churches, three restaurants, a shut down coffee shop, two closed museums, an unmaintained playground, a small library, and two historic houses. The buildings were all made of the same grey granite, each building had unique character; uneven granite blocks, thick and stained caulking, peeling away from age. All of Port Deposit looked asleep; old cars were parked haphazardly along the street in front of homes, porches were abandoned, and “For Sale” signs littered almost every yard. Since no one was around, I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to conquer my fear of the steps. I continued down the cobble stone sidewalk to the more abandoned area of town, where I knew the steps were waiting.
The Tome Steps are built into the hillside of Port Deposit, and at one point connected the Tome School for Boys to Main Street. Now, the steps lead upward towards the abandoned academy, and it is trespassing to go past the steps. I began my journey upward reluctantly, feeling so uncomfortable that I only made it to the first landing before retiring the idea for another visit. The presence I felt chilled me from the inside out, and I just was ready to retreat back to the lively part of Main Street.
* * *
“This building was built in 1818,” Patty, the young blonde bartender answered, as I sipped my surprisingly inexpensive craft beer.
Patty is the bartender at Joe’s Grog House, the only bar on Main Street that looked opened. After another failed attempt at the Tome Steps, I entered the dark and dingy bar to grab a drink and observe the crowd. Where I was sitting, off on the far corner of the tall bar, I could see all six customers. The low barstools and high countertop hit right near my collarbone, and made Patty look over at me suspiciously. She approached me and asked for my ID, and let out a sigh of relief to see that I was of age.
“You’re just so tiny, you look like you’re thirteen,” she starts, “but what can I get for you?”
“I get that a lot actually,” I laughed along. “I’ll try the Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager please.”
Patty returned quickly with my cool, amber drink, which I chose for its fitting name. I began to eavesdrop on two older men sitting across from me, choking back shots. They were discussing how Joe’s is the only place left in town, and what a shame that was. When Patty returned with my check, she curiously asked why I’m taking notes, I explain and ask her about the building. After responding, she sent over John, another employee who knows much more about the building than any website.
“Originally built as a farmer’s hotel in 1818 by Cornelius Smith,” John started, “it passed through a few owners in the 19th century, became a hardware store in the 1950s, we took over in 2006 and renovated, and opened it as the Grog House in 2009.”
We continued to make small talk, and I asked him if he thought Joe’s was haunted. Unsurprisingly, he answered yes, and told me an investigation was going to happen there soon. I finished my beer, thanked him, and on my way out added Joe’s to my list of haunted buildings in Port Deposit.
* * *
Port Deposit sits back in the granite rock bluffs above the banks of the Susquehanna River. Granite was a big part of the town’s history; in 1829, the north side of town was sectioned off to quarry granite. But granite quarrying in Port Deposit started even earlier than that, around the time of the Revolutionary War. The granite from Port Deposit was used not only to build nearly every structure in town, but was also transported along the east coast for many other buildings. Granite from this area was used to build the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Fort McHenry, the U.S. Treasury Building, and countless bridges and tunnels. While the history of granite quarrying in Port Deposit is interesting, it is not the part of history that leaves you feeling uneasy. Port Deposit’s granite industry is just a sideshow to the real fascinating history of the small town.
* * *
Dawn Cannon and Chrissy Bauer, the founder and co-founder of the Port Deposit Paranormal Society, know the interesting history of Port Deposit’s rich past. From slave slaughtering to Native American massacring, they enlightened me about what was happening in Port Deposit many years ago, and how its past still haunts the area.
“With a lot of tragedy comes paranormal phenomena,” Dawn explained to me over the phone, after I asked her why Port Deposit has such a creepy ambiance.
“So,” I began reluctantly, “Port Deposit is definitely haunted? What is your overall personal experience with paranormal activity here?”
“A lot,” she began nonchalantly. “Port Deposit is absolutely haunted. We’ve had experiences here in our own home, (off of Bainbridge Rd, near the abandoned academy) no one has ever died in this house, but there is still activity. Footsteps, laughing, lights going on and off, and what sounds like a child saying ‘mama.’ We thought it might have been an electrical problem, but it wasn’t. We haven’t done a formal investigation though, we want to do one of Bainbridge, but it would be trespassing. The dam sources energy, which draws even more paranormal activity to this area,” she finished.
Her explanations confirmed that my feelings of unease were not just all in my head. Fascinated, I continued to drill her with questions about folklore, ghost stories, and why exactly the land is haunted.
“It’s a different type of haunting,” Dawn said. “Tons of Native Americans were forced out of this area that belonged to them. Many were massacred along the banks of the Susquehanna River. We believe it’s a curse; something that encompasses the whole area and that hasn’t been lifted yet,” she stops momentarily. “We don’t think it will lift any time soon. There’s just too much history.”
* * *
For my next attempt at the steps, I dragged Jake, my boyfriend, with me. We chose a drizzly, weekday afternoon to conquer them. Jake parked in the lot on the north end of Main Street, where there were more people walking about than I had ever seen before, and we walked to the south end, where the steps were. Jake was getting a kick out of my nervousness, and taunting me along the way. When we made it to the bottom of the steps, he fearlessly started trucking upward. I grabbed his hand and reluctantly followed behind him, checking often to make sure no one could see us. We climbed upwards, past the end of the steps, and started to make our way through the two yards on either side of the steps. It was further than I ever got during my other experiences, and I was ready for it to end.
Suddenly, a woman’s raspy voice startled us, “Turn back! I’ll call poh-lice thas’ trespassin!” she was standing in the doorway of the tattered white house to the right.
I immediately turned back and started running down the hill, down the steps, to the safety of Main Street below. My heart was racing, and I was relieved to be caught; I didn’t want to go to Bainbridge. Jake slowly made his way down; annoyed when he reached the bottom, he was positive she wouldn’t have called. I didn’t care. I was ready to get away from the steps.
* * *
When it got dark enough, Jake moved the car to the parking lot on the south end of Main Street, across from the Tome Steps, right near the Tome Archway and riverside. Dawn told me a ghost story about this particular area; I wanted to test its validity. He cut the engine and we made our way to the riverbank, where I dramatically recalled the legend for him:
“During the time of the Underground Railroad, escaped slaves would travel from the South up the Susquehanna, looking for retreat along the way. Port was a stop, and the slaves knew that if the red light was flashing on shore, it was safe to come up. But, the white men found out, and decided to intervene. They flashed the red light, and slaves came ashore. They were slaughtered and thrown into the river. Legend says that at night you can see the red light and bodies floating in the water.”
“Creeeeeepy,” Jake responded sarcastically. We stood very still and quietly observed the dark river ahead of us. There was no sign of floating bodies or a flashing light, but the river was very calm, like it was crowded with bodies. The usually rough river barely moved, and for the first time, I wasn’t afraid, but empathetic.
Standing on the banks, what Dawn told me makes sense. “There doesn’t necessarily need to be deaths for an area to be haunted. History and tragedy haunts land no matter what.” There is a lot of history here, a lot of pain, and a lot of tragedy. Many people, like me, are oblivious to why Port is haunted. We write it off as creepy, somewhere that only “crazies” live. But it isn’t; Port has more history than imaginable, with most of it ending in tragedy. And while the pain of the tragedy fades, the people are forgotten, the stories elaborated, the town still holds the pain. Its chill of the past will never completely go away, but rather stay encompassed as the haunted town that seems to be stuck in time.