On the western shore of the South River, across from the peninsula that is
home to Annapolis, there stands an elegant Georgian mansion called the
William Brown House. Several miles by land from the Maryland capital, the
imposing structure looks out of place amid the suburban ranch and
contemporary homes that hug the shoreline.
I first spotted the regal home while tooling along the South River toward
the Chesapeake Bay. My fellow sailors and I speculated the mansion - with
its dramatic river view - was once the home of a wealthy Maryland tobacco
farmer or perhaps a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence. Such
a home, we figured, should have belonged to someone of some standing or
But the home belonged to neither plantation owner nor statesman. It
belonged to an ambitious carpenter and ferry operator, William Brown, and is
the only surviving structure from a once-prosperous colonial seaport, London
Town. I learned this and much more about colonial Maryland during a recent
trip to London Town, a developing historic site that includes archaeological
ruins, a small visitor's center, a woodlands garden and, of course, the
Except for several men laboring to fill holes with rocks and dirt - the
foundations of an earth-fast home being reconstructed - the 23-acre site was
deserted on the late summer afternoon I visited. Gregory A. Stiverson,
executive director of Historic London Town and Gardens, agreed to show me
the Brown home and the grounds.
"When you think of ghost towns, you think of the Old West. You
don't think of colonial towns in Maryland," Stiverson said, as we walked
along a dirt path to the mansion and a ravine, thick with overgrown brush.
Even calling London Town a ghost town is a stretch. There is no town.
The seaport's once thriving main street, Scott Street, is a gulch. Suburban
homes hug the ghost town's southern edge, hiding any clue that about 50
homes and businesses once crowded the busy thoroughfare leading to the South
"Scott Street was the I-95 of the Colonial period. You could catch the
river ferry to Annapolis or go anywhere north or south. London Town was a
bustling commercial center. It was small from our perspective but it was
large in its day," Stiverson said.
Established in 1683 as one of Maryland's official points of entry, London
Town flourished in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, buoyed by its
proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, three and one-half miles away. Ships
arrived with goods from Europe and the Caribbean and departed with the
tobacco crop. A host of businesses - everything from rope makers and
shipbuilders - sprang up to support the industry.
London Town's fortunes began to turn about the time Brown began building his
In the mid-1700s, the Maryland legislature designated 80 ports as official
tobacco inspection sites; London Town was not one of them. Then came the
Revolution. During the eight long years of war with England, trade waned and
the town's residents moved away. The earth-fast homes literally crumbled to
the ground and rotted away.
"Ninety-five percent of Colonial Marylanders lived in these earth-fast
buildings," Stiverson said, noting the reconstruction of such a home at
London Town is the first one of its kind to be built in the area since
before the Civil War.
And then there's Brown's home. It's not hard to imagine Brown's neighbors
scratching their heads in disbelief as he set about building his two-story
brick mansion amid their simple wood structures. He had grand intentions:
16-inch thick walls, elevated rooms in the four corners, and rare brickwork.
The home was constructed of header-bond brick, an expensive brick bonding
technique in which the short end of the brick is exposed.
Brown lost his home 20 years later in bankruptcy. The mansion eventually
became Anne Arundel County's almshouse, its home for the poor, until 1965.
The house has since been restored to its 1760s state and guided tours offer
visitors a glimpse of life in London Town and Colonial Maryland. The home's
role as an almshouse will be explored as the historic site continues to
develop exhibits and programs.
To support himself, Brown used part of his home for business, and one of the
main rooms has been refurbished as a working tavern with mismatched chairs
Women travelers relaxed in a separate, more refined room with tea service.
Two other rooms were designated for traveling families and another for ship captains, who spent the winter months conducting business and taking orders for shipments.
"None of the original furnishing survive," Stiverson told me.
Throngs of school children pass through London Town every year. The home's
main floor may appear staid and museum-like, but the basement is anything
but. Seated in a chair near the brick hearth is a wax replica of Edward
Marriott, an indentured servant who worked in Brown's carpenter shop. His
likeness has been replicated, thanks to a description provided in a runaway
ad published in a local newspaper. Whatever happened to Edward Marriott is
"When you ask kids, they always know two things about Australia - marsupials
and convicts," Stiverson said. "Before the Revolution, a lot of convicts
were sent to the Colonies. Lots of convicts came to Maryland -- convicts as
young as 9. That always gets their attention. Kids really get that."
Besides teaching about white servitude, children learn about ropes, dried
tobacco, 18th-century lighting, herbs and spices, quill pen writing, seaport
and sailor's life and they are free to touch anything in the brick basement.
"If they break something, we tell them that' show artifacts come about. It's
hands-on here," he said.
Visitors familiar with Williamsburg and Annapolis's historic district might
find the offerings slight at London Town, but like St. Mary's City in Southern
Maryland, London Town is a work in progress and one day will be more than a thin shadow of its past. Plans call for the reconstruction of several buildings
and homes, continued archaeological research, and by next spring, work on a
new visitor's center will begun.
"Unlike a lot of places, we have a mix of things to offer," Stiverson
explained. "Some people come here for horticulture, to enjoy the plants.
Some work on the archaeological sites. Some volunteer. Some come for the
museum. And some come just to sit on a bench and look at the water."
By Greg Tasker Maryland.com