History of the Severn River
The most recent Ice Age reached its maximum about 18,000 years ago, when mile-thick glaciers blanketed the northern part of the continent, extending southward as far as northern Pennsylvania. Because so much of the Earth's water was frozen in glaciers at the time, sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than the present. The Chesapeake region was part of the coastal plain, and as the climate warmed, the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, and James Rivers swelled with water from the melting glaciers. The latter three were tributaries that joined the Susquehanna in the middle of the present Chesapeake before emptying into the Atlantic, some 90 miles east of the present coastline. The Severn was one of many minor tributaries of the Susquehanna, joining it several miles southeast of the present Annapolis. As the glacial ice retreated with continued warming, the flow of these rivers slowed to roughly their present levels, and the region became dominated by swamps and grasslands. Ice age animals such as the mammoth and giant beaver became extinct, but caribou, elk and bison survived in this area. The Chesapeake Bay formed as rising sea levels flooded the river valleys, and by 5000 years ago the Bay had begun to acquire its present shape and estuarine character. By geologic standards, the Chesapeake is very young.
About the time the Bay was forming, the first humans made an appearance in the region. The discovery of a fluted projectile point near the head of the Severn indicates the presence of humans there as early as 10,000 years ago. Those people, probably nomadic and dependent upon nature for their existence, undoubtedly found the river environment favorable, with its abundance of marine life and game animals of that post-ice-age era. Traces found in the Broadneck area dating to the period 7,000 to 5,000 years ago (late Archaic) include grooved axes, spearthrower weights, projectile points and toward the end of the period, shards of steatite (soapstone) vessels. The numerous ridges and terraces overlooking the Severn provided excellent sites for villages and camps. Investigations from 1956-1964 located seventy-two such sites, and six were examined in detail. Studies have divided these sites into various phases. The Accokeek phase of 2,000 years ago was followed by the Selby Bay phase of 1,300 to 1,500 years ago, during which time trade extended from the Rappahannock to Martha's Vineyard. The earlier Indians did not practice horticulture, but subsisted on wild plants, oysters, deer, raccoons, squirrels, box turtles and fish. The growing of corn, squash, beans and tobacco probably began during the Selby Bay phase. During the Sullivan's Cove phase of 1,000 years ago, and the Round Bay phase of 700 years ago, oysters and small game were still an important food source. These early Indians were succeeded by Algonquian tribes from the Eastern Shore, who were in turn displaced by the belligerent Susquehannocks, an Iroquoian tribe from Pennsylvania.
When Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 he did not venture into the Severn, but he indicated that the Susquehannocks claimed the entire upper western shore as their hunting ground. The early European settlers were fortunate to sign a treaty with the Susquehannocks in 1652. The Susquehannocks then moved northward where, in 1661, they began a period of warfare with the Cayugas and Senecas (the Susquehannocks were defeated after smallpox killed over half of their warriors in 1674). After the withdrawal of the Susquehannocks, other Indians-primarily Choptanks, Mattaponys, and Piscataways - frequented the area briefly, but the Severn had become the white man's domain.
The first colonists to live in this area were Puritans from Nansemond, Virginia, on the banks of the James River. Unwilling to submit to Virginia Governor William Berkeley's demands for allegiance to the Church of England, they sought refuge in Maryland. Although Maryland was ruled by the Catholic Lord Baltimore, he had determined to follow a course of religious toleration. Since more rapid settlement of Maryland was desired, Maryland governor Thomas Stone invited the Puritans to settle on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, well north of the essentially Catholic St. Mary's settlement of 1634. In the fall of 1649 a few Puritan families sailed up the Bay to their new home.
The site chosen was a north-shore peninsula at the mouth of the Severn River. The settlers called the area Towne Neck. The ground was level and fertile and the settlers built a fort at the end of the point. This was necessary because the new settlement, called Providence, was within the area then controlled by the warlike Susquehannocks.
The names of the area and the river changed several times over the years, and there were many variations in spelling. Towne Neck was later called Greenberry Neck and is now known as Greenbury Point. The river was first called the Ann Arundell, but it was also called the Severn, after the major river dividing England from Wales. Since spelling was often a matter of personal choice, many variations have been used: Seavorne (1666), Seavorn (1670), Seavern (1689), Sebern (1703), Sivern (1781), Severan (1799), and Severon (1801). Severn, however, was the most common spelling.
To the early colonists the forested lands along the river were a wilderness where deer, black bear, and mountain lion might be encountered. It appears that these woodlands were not an impenetrable thicket, but quite open and dominated by large, well-spaced trees. The shrub layer was likely low, partly as a result of burning by the Indians. Although a horse and wagon might be driven through such a woodland, and Indian trails existed, most travel was by water. This was not only easier, but safer.
After a treaty was reached with the Susquehannocks in 1652, the Severn area and the upper Chesapeake were opened to hunting, fishing, trading and further settlement. The treaty called for peace between Indians and colonists, and required that "upon any occasion of business with the English the Indians shall come by water and not by land."
The Puritans were peaceful, but militantly independent. They refused Governor Stone's demand to join a foray against the Nanticoke Indians on the Eastern Shore. This, and other differences led to an armed engagement with Stone's forces on March 24, 1655. Popularly referred to as the Battle of the Severn, the Puritans won handily at a site still undetermined but possibly near Horn Point.
Agriculture and the Development of a Seaport
By 1660 Providence had grown considerably. Agriculture had been expanded onto the broad plains of the Broadneck Peninsula. Tobacco, a traditional Indian crop, was improved by strains brought from the West Indies. The fertile Collington soils along the Severn were ideal for its growth and tobacco culture soon dominated the local economy. This required that more land be surveyed, granted, and cleared. The timber was usually burned, only the steepest slopes, unsuitable for cultivation, being spared. The tobacco was packed in hogsheads; large barrels which could hold about 500 pounds of the leaf. These were rolled to the river's edge and transported to sailing vessels bound for Europe.
Increasing trade promoted the development of a seaport. The best site was determined to be across the Severn and slightly upriver from Providence. The broad, rolling peninsula first surveyed by Thomas Todd in 1651 soon became a busy town. It was called Severn, Proctor's Landing, Townland at Proctor's, Anne Arundel Town, Arundelton, Port of Annapolis, and finally Annapolis. The town was nearly surrounded by water, and a wall was constructed from Acton's Cove on Spa Creek to Crocus Creek, which was a cove of College Creek. The Annapolis port was well situated; it had a deep harbor and was sheltered by Greenbury Point and Horn Point, both much longer than today.
Sir Francis Nicholson, the third Royal Governor, recognized the advantages of the town's location. In 1694 he moved the seat of Maryland colonial government to Annapolis from St. Mary's. Nicholson zoned the town into sections according to different types of commercial and residential use. He also created a noteworthy street design. Two circles form the hubs of the system and are symbolic; one for the seat of government and one for the Anglican Church. Several streets converged on the center of commerce, the waterfront. A ferry was established to cross the river, and shipyards and a customs house were soon built at the waterfront.
The growing wealth of merchants and planters combined with the influence of politicians to turn Annapolis into an elegant colonial city, with more cultural, political, and intellectual vitality than its size might otherwise have warranted. As the years passed, wealthier citizens built impressive homes and utilized the talents of the best local craftsmen of the colonial period, including William Buckland, architect; John Shaw, cabinetmaker; and William Faris, silversmith.
These great houses had extensive grounds, with gardens, yards, coach houses, stables, and handsome plantings, often extending to the water. Perhaps the finest examples were Carrollton (1735), the Governor's House (1753), the Paca House (1763), Strawberry Hill (1766), the Brice House (1767), the Chase-Lloyd house (1769), and the Hammond-Harwood house (1774).
While Annapolis became a center of wealth and culture, plantations and small farms appeared in the outlying forests along the Severn. The houses generally were less ostentatious than those in Annapolis. Some, like Belvoir, built of native stone in 1690, were sturdy and are still standing. Most, however, were frame structures and do not remain. Exceptions include the Linsted House (1780) located on the north shore overlooking the river, "Severnside", and enlargement of Jacob Winchester's House (ca. 1849). Many fine structures were built along the General's Highway, including the Rising Sun Inn (1753), Brooksby's Point, Inglehart (1811) and Bunker Hill (1820).
In the early years the colony was not self-sufficient, probably by design. Tobacco, pig iron, and other raw materials were shipped from Annapolis in return for manufactured goods from England. An over dependence on the tobacco crop was felt as early as 1702 when war in Europe interrupted world markets, causing tobacco prices to drop.
Throughout the colonies in the 1700's increasing tension with Britain led to violence. Just as Boston Harbor had its tea party, in 1774, the Peggy Stewart, a brig loaded with tea, was burned in Annapolis harbor. When the war started it was necessary to provide defenses for the Annapolis port, since it was strategically important. Rough forts and gun emplacements were built overlooking the harbor at Greenberry Point, Beaman's Hill, and Windmill Point. The port remained active throughout this period even though the British harassed shipping and attempted a blockade.
In September, 1780, 3,000 French troops under Rochambeau encamped near Belvoir (then Scott's Plantation) and reached Annapolis on the 18th. They encamped along College Creek near St. John's College, leaving some of their number buried near Powder House Hill before departing for Yorktown on five frigates and nine transports.
Although commerce had shifted to Baltimore, Annapolis persisted as a center of culture and politics. After the Revolutionary War the State House was briefly the capitol of the new nation and here Washington resigned his commission.
In 1808 renewed tension with Britain led to the building of forts to protect American ports. One of these was Fort Severn. It was built on a ten-acre site at Windmill Point and was more substantial than the earlier Revolutionary-era forts. It had a circular brick rampart and a ten-gun battery."18 Fort Madison, slightly larger, was built across the river at the same time. In all, at least seven sites on the Severn have been fortified, including "The Point" near the City Dock, Greenberry Point, Old Fort Horn, Old Fort Bieman, and Fort Nonsense. Fortunately, in the War of 1812, as in the Revolution, the British did not attack Annapolis.
In 1845 the Army transferred Fort Severn to the Navy for use as a training school for officers and once again large sailing vessels appeared in the broad harbor. In November, 1852 Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan sailed directly from the Severn. Another important feature of those days was the lighthouse on Greenberry Point. It stood from approximately 1846-1878, judging from maps of that era. However, the site was claimed by rapid erosion (since 1849 Greenberry Point has been reduced approximately 500 feet).
During the Civil War, Annapolis became an essential port for the movement of troops and supplies bound for Washington, and there were many war-related changes. Federal troops occupied the area throughout the War because the local population was sympathetic to the South. One Federal unit, the New York Volunteers, manned a lockout post on Mount Misery at Round Bay. In order to provide better protection to the port, the Army again took over Fort Severn. The Naval Academy, which had operated under that name since 1850, was moved to Newport, Rhode Island. The Annapolis and Elkridge Railroad tracks were extended down College Avenue to the water to make shipments more efficient.
In October, 1861 a large naval expedition left the Severn to capture Port Royal, South Carolina. Shortly thereafter a military hospital was set up and wounded and repatriated soldiers began to arrive. A processing center was located on College Creek at St. Johns College. Paroled soldiers then were taken by train to Camp Richmond in the Saltworks Creek watershed or to Camp Parole just beyond. A Federal cemetery was laid out at the upper end of College Creek.
Land transportation. Although the Bay and its tributaries made water access easy, they were an obstacle to the development of land transportation due to the need for bridges and ferries. Because it was off the main overland route from Philadelphia to Washington, Annapolis became somewhat isolated and no longer in the mainstream of commerce after the Revolution. Attempts were made to provide better access to the surrounding area, but some of these were not successful. The Annapolis and Elkridge Railroad provided a spur off the main Pennsylvania Railroad from Odenton to Annapolis. Completed in 1840, it ran along the present General's Highway on the South shore of the Severn. It never reached Elkridge nor was it extended to the waterfront in Annapolis until the Civil War. While the railroad provided some help to local commerce, the link to the nation's capital was to prove more important, as it was a factor in the establishment of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
The late 1800's saw other developments in transportation patterns along the river. The Severn Ferry, operating between Ferry Point and the foot of Maryland Avenue, was relocated to the foot of College Avenue about 1865 to make room for the expansion of the Naval Academy. By 1877 the ferry moved to Wagner Street, and to a similar site termed "Severn Street" by 1878. Another river crossing, by a small ferry at Whitney's Landing on the upper Severn, continued to operate until about 1930. The Drum Point Railroad, an ambitious plan to cross Severn Run at Dicus Mill via Jabez Branch, was under construction in 1887, but never completed.
Bridge building in the area included an 1868 bridge over College Creek and one over Spa Creek in 1870. The Spa Creek bridge was replaced in 1907. In 1886, the long awaited Severn River road bridge was built on the site of the present Rte 2 bridge. All of these were made of timber and have since been replaced with masonry bridges in slightly different positions. Including railroad bridges, at least eighteen have been constructed over the Severn and its creeks.
While these bridges had a localized effect on the horse drawn traffic of the day, it was the construction of the Annapolis and Baltimore Short Line Railroad, down the Severn's north shore and across the timber trestle to Annapolis, that was to change the area forever. Chartered in 1880 and completed in 1887, the first effect was to speed access to other cities and thereby stimulate local industry. But a later effect was more lasting: the railroad transformed the once-secluded banks of the Severn to a series of suburban communities. With the increasing dominance of automobiles, the railroad ceased operations during World War II, and its right of way has now become a popular bike trail.
Boats. From the early colonial days until the 19th Century, sailing craft on the Chesapeake were used to transport people, manufactured goods, farm produce and seafood between waterfront towns like Annapolis and Baltimore. Although sailboat travel offered advantages over animal-drawn transport on unpaved roads, winds on the Bay were not dependable, and this mode of travel was unpredictable. After development of the steam engine in Britain in the 18th Century, steamboats became feasible by the early 19th Century, and these quickly became a major element in the region's transportation, competing successfully for a century with railroads which were developing at the same time.
In 1813, six years after Fulton's success with the steamboat Clermont in New York, the steamboat Chesapeake made an inaugural run from Baltimore to Annapolis to begin the steamboat era on the Chesapeake. After the Chesapeake successfully operated a regular route on the northern Chesapeake for several years, service between Baltimore and Annapolis was initiated in 1817 by a smaller steamboat named Surprise, with a rotary engine. By the 1820s other steamboat lines were established to provide a Bay-wide network with Baltimore as a major hub. Construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal allowed a direct shipping link northward to Philadelphia. Steamboat service from Baltimore to Annapolis was often provided en route to stops in the Choptank or Patuxent, which were day trips out of Baltimore. Some routes included stops in the southern Anne Arundel County farm country areas on the South, Rhode, and West Rivers. These steamboats carried passengers, farm produce, seafood, and general freight, and they often served as excursion boats for Baltimore citizens to get out to the country for picnics.
The arrival of the steamboat mobilized the piers where they stopped into a flurry of activity as they unloaded and then loaded passengers and freight. Steamboat landings formed a nucleus for commercial activity in the vicinity. For passengers, a ride on a steamboat was an adventure, particularly in the early days. In 1824 the Weems Line steamboat Eagle exploded while on a run between Annapolis and Baltimore, killing the Baltimore district attorney who was a passenger, and badly scalding captain George Weems. Bayside resorts such as Bay Ridge near the mouth of the Severn, were served by these steamboats during their heyday. As railroads developed during the 19th Century the steamboats lost some of their business, and the emergence of automobiles and paved roads led to a further decline in the early 20th Century. The steamboat Emma Giles ran a regular route between Baltimore, Annapolis and the Rhode and West Rivers beginning in 1891 until the 1930s depression ended the steamboat era everywhere on the Bay.
While tobacco was the mainstay of early Maryland, other industries also existed along the Severn. These included shipbuilding, brickmaking, logging and milling, mining, fishing, truck farming and canning.
Shipbuilding: As early as 1651 Thomas Todd established a shipyard at "Todd's Harbor," now Annapolis. The Ship Carpenter's Lot, near the City Dock, was the center of local shipbuilding from 1719 through the Revolution. Shipbuilding continued around Annapolis but by 1936 only two yards remained. Today the only boats built in Annapolis are the popular Gemini cruising catamarans, and shipbuilding has largely been supplanted by boat yards, marinas, and brokers specializing in recreational craft.
Brickmaking: In colonial days most of the brick used in this area was made locally, although some arrived as ballast in ships bearing lightweight manufactured goods from England. One brickyard of the mid-1700's was located on the Brice tract on lower Broadneck. The ruins of a kiln remain near Martin's Pond and may be the source of the name "Brickyard Point", a small promontory between Martin's Pond and Luce Creek.
A recent account of the 1774 construction of the wall between the Lloyd and Ogle properties in Annapolis states that it required "94,100 bricks bought of John Hammond, who undoubtedly made them of his good red Anne Arundel clay. They were brought by boat from the Hammond place at the head of the Severn River. The Arundel clay above the head of the river may be well suited for brickmaking, but only at Forked Creek does this formation outcrop on the estuary. The Riverside Brick Company operated here before 1917.
Logging and Sawmilling: Logging was a necessary activity from the earliest days, although most of the original forest was not used productively. Instead, it was burned to make room for tobacco. Because the area lacked adequate water power, timbers were usually squared by broadaxe and then pit-sawed to the desired dimension. At Severn Run in the 1860's and 70's, the water powered mill of Cecil and Pumphrey (later J. Lowman's) and the Dicus mill operated as saw- and gristmills. A stream on the Severn's north shore, above Round Bay, powered C. R. Sevier's sawmill in 1878.
Steam power was a great boost to sawmilling, allowing the sawing of large hardwoods. In 1834, Hughes' Steam Mill and Jones' Steam Mill operated near the City Dock, but whether they were sawmills or gristmills is uncertain. In 1860, Reisinger's Steam Saw operated between Brewer Creek and Clement's Creek, and an old sawmill existed near Three Mill Oak in 1878. By about 1890, Joseph M. Basil advertised his "Steam Saw, Grist and Planing Mill", located near the City Dock. Logging heavy timber from rough terrain with horses and oxen took considerable ingenuity, and only the best material was cut. Some old timber stood until the 1950's, when bulldozers were used. Today the only sawmill remaining along the Severn is at Little Round Bay. This mill now gets a large proportion of its logs from sites being cleared for development.
Mining: Local sandstone was easily available and frequently used in construction in the region. The 1690 portion of Belvoir is built of this material. In Annapolis, colonial builders used some local stone, but in most cases a granitic stone called "Susquohannah stone" was brought from Havre de Grace, where it was convenient to tidewater and could be easily transported. Local quarry sites were located on the Severn's south shore near Indian Landing and across the river at Rock Point.
Sugary white sand suitable for glass making exists along the upper Severn in a rather narrow vein; Hopkins' 1878 map notes glass sand between Plum and Valentine Creeks. In 1885 the Annapolis Glass Works opened on Horn Point Sand was dug from shoreline pits on both sides of the upper Severn and then transported by boat. Intricate tunnels were dug into the banks for these operations, especially in the Arden area. The abandoned tunnels were a local attraction until closed by authorities in the 1930's.
A number of small pit operations existed along the upper river in the early 1900's, including the Brenan Sand Company at Forked Creek and the Liberty Sand and Gravel Company at Stevens Creek. Operations at Forked Creek closed in 1938. By 1976 only one pit was active, and this is now closed.
Fishing: Seafood has always been important for local use but was not an export in colonial days, since the salt obtainable from Britain was considered unsuitable for preparing fish. Oysters and crabs were viewed as inferior fare until after the Civil War, when oystering became an important local industry. Because of improvements in transportation and canning technology, eating oysters became highly popular nationally. In 1878 at least fourteen oyster houses operated in Annapolis, with oyster beds in the Severn contributing to the harvest. The good money that could be made increased harvest pressure and thwarted attempts to regulate oystering. After reaching peak harvests in 1885, Chesapeake oyster production declined to a low in 1904 as beds became severely depleted.
The harvesting of fish, crabs, oysters, and, more recently, soft shell clams still play a minor role in the economy of the greater Annapolis area. Better road access and improvements in canning and refrigeration have greatly extended the markets for this seafood. However, for some years the Severn has been closed to commercial finfishing above Horn and Greenberry Points, although pound nets have been set near Bay Ridge. Oyster bars still exist into Round Bay but are not productive and as described elsewhere have been closed to harvesting. The mooring of a few oyster boats at the City Dock continues to hold the interest of tourists and is one of the last vestiges of the traditional local industries. The nascent Annapolis Maritime Museum in the Eastport section of Annapolis will give visitors a glimpse at the Severn's former seafood industry.
Truck Farming and Canning: From earliest days, the Severn River was a means of moving crops to market. Numerous wharfs and landings existed for this purpose, including Indian Landing at the head of navigation on the south shore, and at various locations along the north shore where no land route to Annapolis was available.
Even after the first bridges and railroad crossings were built, sailing craft and steamboats continued to load produce at these landings. Familiar crops were tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, strawberries, peaches and apples. Canning operations included Charles Tate's tomato cannery, built along the Short Line Railroad at Arnold about 1904, and the George M. Murray Canning House on the upper watershed near Odenton. The truck farming operations required an abundance of hard-to-obtain seasonal labor and went out of business by the 1920's. Today several small "pick-your-own" operations exist.
For a more detailed online account of the landscape history of the Chesapeake watershed, see Bay, Plain and Piedmont.
Adapted from Maryland Scenic Rivers: The Severn with modifications by Pierre Henkart, Severn River Commission.