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Full text of "The history and construction of the customs house at Chestertown, Maryland / Arnold W. Smoot."

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Thesis prepared 

Arnold W. Smoot 
for initiation into the 
Tau Beta Pi P'raternity. 

January 15, 193S. 



The Customs house at Chestertovm, ..'aryland was Taullt in 
the very early stages of the derelopment of the Maryland C3olony, 
The site of Chestertovm v;as selected because it was earnestly be- 
lieved that this to\ra. would eventually beaome the outstanding city 
in the colony, liovi'ever, the Chester River, which runs through Ches- 
tertovna, proved too shallovf to accomodate the large ocean going 
vessels, and Baltimore, by its superior harbor, gained the proud 
distinction that v;as intended for Chestertovm, 

In constructing the building, the English made it strong 
enough and large enough to take care of the future development 
or the Maryland tra,de. -Then the building was no longer needed as 
8, customs house, it v/as sold into private ovmership. It still 
holds its proud head very high, but It keeps secret the wierd 
happenings which have oceured v/ithln its v/alls. 



Tlie origin of the beautiitil Chester river is found in a 
spring near Smyrna, Uelav^are, From here it slov/ly moves v;estward 
through part of Delaware and across the eastern shore of laaryland 
until it empties its clear waters into the Chesapeake Bay at a 
point almost opposite the port of Baltimore, Al^out twenty miles 
from the month and on the northern bank: oi the river there lies 
the q^uaint old tovm of Chestertown, To-day Chest ertown has a pop- 
ulation of five- thousand and is situated la the midst of some of 
the "best agrieultural lauds of Maryland. The tovm is very proud 
Ox its many old "buildings, some of vrhich date back to pre -Revol- 
utionary days; and of VJashington College, founded in 1782, which 
bears its name by the expressed consent of George Washington. 

The charm of Chestertovm is not in its tree shaded streets 
by V/ashington College, although that gives it the repose and dig- 
nity that is shared by all college tovms. 

It Is not in its houses dating back to the days of Queen 
Anne and the Georges, although these structures give the place an 
old world atmosphere of much beauty, 

Ilor is it in the charm of the q^uiet river down whose 
green banks the cattle go to driiilt, although the river is rife wi- 
th the memories of its ovv'n tea party, when the men of ICent threw 
a whole cargo of tea to the fishes about the time the Annapolis 
and Boston tea parties and for the same grievances against the mo- 
ther country. 

It is in none of these that the main charm of Chester- 
town lies. Instead, there is an old exotic aspect about the place. 


there is an old exotie aspect about the place, asof a time when 
ships with cargoes fTom. the .Spanish Main cleared at the ancient 
■briok customs house dovm "by the river, when cargoes of tropic 
woods and precious metals and treasures of furniture, sandalwood 
boxes and shav;ls and silver v^rere unloaded from the hold of sail- 
ing ships, manned "by sailormen with earrin^vs in their ears. 

The colony of I.Iaryland v;as settled in 1634 hy a small 
group of -English Catholics under the leadership of leonard Calvert, 
As Calvert tolerated all Grlstian sects in his province, Protest- 
ants immigrated from Virginia, JTev/ England, and old England. In 
the year 1649 the Ilaryland assembly made religious toleration a law 
"by passing the famous Act of Toleration, which states that " no 
person in this province professing to "believe in Jesus Christ 
shall he in no ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for his 
or her religion. " This is the first religious toleration act on 
the statute bool-cs of the American colonies, and it shov?s to some ex- 
tent the character of the Maryland settlers during that early per- 

Kent Coiinty dates from 164S and was the first county to be 
set up on the Eastern Shore. Chestertown was made the county seat 
at an early date and it has remained as such ever since. It grev/ 
and prospered and at the time of the Revolution was the most import- 
ant town on the Eastern Shore. 

ChestertoAvm. is the birthplace of Colonel Tench Tilghman, 
who helped make history by his famous ride from Yorktown to ?hila- 


delphia, carrying the nev/s that CornY/allis had been defeated. 

It was in the old Episcopal Church at Chestertown at the 
close of the Revolution, that a oody of Eastern Shore raeraters of 
the church met and to ted to change the name of their organiEatlon 
from that o± the Church of 2-ngland to the Protestant ?'piscopal 
church. Other churches throughout the colonies soon follovTed their 


Early Ilaryland settlers wanted to "build a city that v/ould 
eventually become the seaport of Jls.ryland, They wanted a city that 
v;ould be the port of entry to the colony. In selecting a site for 
such a city they chose the present site of Chestertovm, The early 
Maryland settlers vmre so serious in Miilding this city at the sel- 
ected site that they constructed an immense customs house which 
still stands. 

According to the present owner of the building, the cus- 
toms house was constucted In 1683, At that time all ships entering 
Maryland must clear at the customs house at Chestertoiim, That Is 
they must pay the oustoms on the imported cargoes before they could 
be landed, 

For approximately seventy years Chestertovm enjoyed the 
proud distinction of being the port of entry of ::aryland. Baltimore 
v;as founded in the year 1730, but it was not until 1752, v/hen it 
had a population of three -hundred, that a customs house was biult 


there, JJecause of the much superior hartjor in Baltiiaore, the ships 
no longer cleared, from the customs house at Chestertovm but vjent to 
Baltimore to pay their import duties. This change of trade made the 
cn.stoas house at Chestertovm much to large for the needs, and it 
was soon sold into private ovmership. 

There is a very old "building near the customs house Icnov/n 
as the Catlin Itansion, The "builder of this house is not definitely 
Icnown "but it v^ras constructed not later than 1735, t'-orae say that it 
v/as constructed by the English crovm for the offices of the Customs 
house . 

It is on record that the brigantine G-eddes arrived in 
Chestertown in 1774 with a small lot of dutiable tea for some of 
the neighboring counties. The aen of ICent assemhled !!ay 13, 1774 
and threxv the tea over'board the same day as that of the Boston Tea 
Party, At this time, hov/ever, the customs offices were not in the 
original customs house there. The offices v/ere proha't^ly in some 
smaller building that has since been torn dovm. 

Since about 1753 the cu.storas house was used as a dvfelling 
house, although it was very large for such a purpose. The interior 
of the huilding was changed considerably for the transformation. 
Year after year the old structure served as a home for some family. 
The ownership of the building passed from one person to another, 
each year deteriorating and declining in value. This continued for 
forty-eight years until 1901 when the huilding was bought "by "Jilbur 
Y/, Hubbard, -vlr, Hubbard took a great deal of interest in the customs 
house, and he "bought the building in order to ; re serve it for its 
historical value. The "biiilding was in such a dila-nidated condition 


there. BecatLse of the much superior harlDor in Baltimore, the ships 
no longer cleared from the customs house at Ghestertovm but v^ent to 
Baltimore to pay their import duties. This change of trade made the 
customs house at Chestertovm much to large for the needs, and it 
was soon sold into private ovmership. 

There is a very old building near the customs house Iznovrn 
as the Catlln ]Iansion. The huilder of this house is not definitely 
Jcnown "but it was constructed not later than 1735* uome say that it 
was constructed hy the English croi'm for the offices of the Customs 
house . 

It is on record that the "brigantine G-eddes arrived in 
Ghestertovm in 1774 v;ith a small lot of dutiable tea for some of 
the neighboring counties. The uen of ICent assembled May 13, 1774 
and threv/ the tea overboard the same day as that of the Boston Tea 
Party, At this time, hox'.'ever, the customs offices v/ere not in the 
original customs house there. The offices v;ere probably in some 
smaller building that has since been torn down. 

Since about 1753 the customs house v/as used as a dwelling 
house, although it was very large for such a. purpose. Tne interior 
of the building was changed considerably for the transformation. 
Year after year the old structure served as a home for some family. 
The ovmership of the building passed from one person to another, 
each year deteriorating and dec]. ining in value. This continued for 
forty-eight years until 1901 when the building was bought by "'ilbur 
V/. Hubbard, 1.±t, Flubbard tooJc a great deal of interest in the customs 
house, and he bought the building in order to ^re serve it for its 
historical value. The building was in such a dilanidated condition 


that th.e entire interior was rebuilt and a new roof v/as constructed. 
The "buildings v;as made into an apartiaent house and .;r. HuDbard rent- 
ed the apartments in order to get a source of rerenue for his 
work on the building. To-day the customs house is still used as an 
apartment house and it is still ovmed by ".'ilbur V/. Hubbard. Kt, 
Hubbard has Icept the building in anexcellant state of repair. 

This is all of the actual history of the building that 
I could obtain. There are many tales about the old structure that 
tell of unusual occurences, and explain many peculiar mythological 
properties of it. These tales, however, could not be proved to Ve 
true, and oonseguently were not included in this thesis. 

The greater portion of the history of the customs house 
was given to me by Wilbur V/. Kubbard, the present owner of the 


The customs house was built in 1683 by the ' ritish 
government. The briciis used in its construction v;ere probably im- 
ported from England, because the colonies had not been developed 
to any great extent at this time. The sise oT the brieves in the 
building is ?S-"x 4^" x 8^", This is larger than the present Amer- 
ican brick, and it is another reason to suppose that the bricks 
v/ere imported from '■ngland, as the .imerican brick is 3;' "x 3.}"x 8". 


The "building stand on tlie south-west oorner of the inter- 
section of Pront Street and High Street facing north. It is 47 ' 
wide at the front, li'his width extends iDaclc ^5'. Then the building 
drops in from the v;est side until there is a width of only '^3^. 
tKIs \'7idth extends baok 51' more, making a total length of the 
■building of 76', 'Vhen looiized u.on from aboYe, the building loo.cs 
like a huge "I" . 

The building is three and one -half stories high, and at 
present is painted ye .How in color. 7he south east oomier is nov/ 
covered with a heavy growth of ivy. 

On the west side of the house, the entire brlcl^ wall is 
made up of courses of headers. The south walJ Is made up of brieves 
that have five or six courses of stretchers to one course of head- 
ers, The east wall and north wall have their brides laid in courses 
of alternate stretchers and heexlers. This shoves that there had been 
no consistent system of briclclaying adherred to during the con- 
s tine t ion. The builders aust have made a very good construction 
^ob, however, because at present the original v;alls shov; no sign 
of any tendency to cnuable or deteriorate. There are but very few 
crac/rs in the v.'all and the bond betv;een the briclcs Is in excellent 

The bond is approximately ^" thiclc. This is the usual 
thlcjcness of bond used in briclc-laying circles to-day. The bond is 
a mortar eoraposed of lime and sa,nd, 

The whole Interior has been rebuilt and made into raaxiy 
rather sriall rooms for apartments. Therefore, a description of the 


interior of "bhe customs house v.'ould ha,Ye no value from the histor- 
ical or Gonstruotlon point of Tiev/, 

There v/ere originally three undergrotLnd vaults on the 
north side of the building. Their enteraiices v/ere on the north e:.d 
of the first floor. Tv;o of the vaults have f 11.1 ed hut one is in 
practically the same condition as v;hen it was "built. There is a 
narrovf passageway which leads down steps to the vault, which is 
al)out five feet belovr the surface of the ground. The size of the 
vault is a"bout eight feet "by eight feet. The walls are painted with 
white-wash, but the dungeon is so darJc that the v/alls cannot ";)e 
seen xmless some artificial light is present , The floor and y/alis 
are perpetually damp v;-ith a cold moisture. Some say that the vaults 
were used for the storing of JTegro slaves, for storing v/ines and 
liguors , and for the safe keeping of gold. The one vault that is 
open is not used for anj'-thing now. It is preserved merely for its 
historical value. 

There was an underground tunnel that ran from the customs 
house to the Catlin Mansion nearby. Some say that the Catlin House 
was built as an office building for the customs house. This tunnel 
was probably used as a means of communication between the tv;o build- 
ings, should they be attao^ced by a hostile tribe of Indians. This 
tunnel is now filled in. 

The southmost room on the first floor has been set aside 
by ilr, Hubbard for the storing and displaying of his private coll- 
ection of antiques. In the south wall of this room there is still 


pre served an old fixe-place that was constructed v;lth the "build- 
ing. This fire-place is six feet high, five feet wide anc" three 
feet deep. There are tv;o large pot hoolcs in the fire-place, one 
on each side. One pftenJ supports a large pot, while the other 
supports a "broad frying pan. 

From the outside, the building is practically the same 
as it originally was, except that vfooden porches have been built 
on the south and east sides of the building. The roof, whicli is 
made of wood has been replaced and dorner v/indows have been add- 


V/hen I first saw the proud looking old customs house, 
I thought surely that there were many records of the history of 
tae building, ''.'hen I learned that it had been constr-'.cted. as soon \^^^ 
as 16S3, I felt sure that almost any old citizen of Chestertown 
v^ould ]cnow many interesting tales that related to the history of 
the structure. However, I found that I was mistaken in this idea, 
I found that there v;ere ver'j few people v^ho knew even the first 
thing about its history. The owner was the only one who could even 
give me a skeleton outline of the buildings past and present. 
ITowhere could I find an^j" written records of the history of the 


strueture, All that is Icnovm a^bout the early life of t-ie customs 
house seems to have lie en handed dovm from person to person "by 
v^ord of raouth. 

This is such a fine old "building that I "believe that it 
should "be preserved for its historical value. It is a good ex- 
ample of the thoroughness of the engineering and worlcraanship of 
"buildintj in the early days of our great country. 



An American Jlistorir 'bj David S, I.Iuzzey, PIi, D, 
The Baltimore Sun for January S3, 19S7, Magazine Section 
I v;ish to state that most of the information in this 
thesis was obtained from 'TillDur V/, HuT^lDard ^ v/ho gave me this in- 
formation in an interview with him. 



The Custom House viewed from the south east. 

A view of the Customs House 
looking from tlie Y;harf . 


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