Monday, February 2, 2009

US Army Corps Report of 1882

Yesterday I noted that in the library of the College of Southern Maryland there is a copy of a report from the US Army Corps of Engineers regarding their assessment of Port Tobacco Creek and whether it warranted dredging. Elsie has found a digital copy of the 1895 report as well. Today I provide an excerpt from the earlier of the two and, perhaps, later in in the week I can post some choice bits from the later one. My additions are bracketed. Parenthetical phrases are in the original.

"[F]rom sixty to eighty years ago, according to the information received from gentlemen residing there [in Port Tobacco], the creek extended up to the town and was navigable by vessels drawing six feet of water. (The early history of the place corroborates the statement.) There are evidences that it extended in early times farther inland.

The banks are high and bold along the creek, and the loose soil, since the country has been settled and under cultivation, is carried down by rains into the creek; the feeble action of the tide is insufficient to carry it on to the deep water of the Potomac; hence a steady filling up of the channel is going on. The land has encroached upon the water of the creek about 1,500 feet since 1862, the date of the latest Coast Survey chart of that vicinity."

The second paragraph is entirely consistent with observations that the PTAP team has made in the blog and in our technical reports. The first paragraph is interesting because it is a bit of oral history dating to 1882. We do not know with whom the surveyors spoke and, therefore, we can't assess the validity of what they told the surveyors. Certainly few residents in 1882 would have had personal recollections of Port Tobacco for the 1820s and probably none had first-hand knowledge of the town and the river in 1800.

Precisely what those other "evidences" are and what the author meant by "The early history of the place" remain uncertain. Perhaps this is more oral history, perhaps pilings and other waterfront structures survived in Port Tobacco long after the loss of navigable water.

We are left with some important questions:
  1. Did ocean-going vessels ever reach as high up the creek as Port Tobacco?
  2. If they didn't--if they only made it as far as Warehouse Point--why was Port Tobacco founded where it is today, rather than one mile to the south?
  3. What size craft could make it up to Port Tobacco and when did sedimentation permanently end commercial traffic above Warehouse Point?
  4. Are there wharves, piers, and derelict vessels under the sediments of the creek, particularly in the area we now know as the village of Port Tobacco?
  5. The Corps also noted in 1882 that there was little water at Warehouse Point at low tide. When was that landing no longer viable?
Documents such as this 1882 report are few and provide only scattered glimpses of the changing social and natural environments of the Port Tobacco drainage. Combine findings from those sources with those of archaeology, particularly the recovery of information from tightly dated contexts, and we have the prospect of answering these and other questions more fully than we could with either approach alone. We can then build a reliable, supportable history based on reliable information and not on surmises of what must have happened.


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