Harold W. Hurst - September 2009
The Hub of the Eastern Shore:
Easton in Former Times
Harold W. Hurst
Located in the geographic center of Maryland’s eastern counties and easily accessible by water from Baltimore and Annapolis, Easton was once the commercial and trading focal point of the Shore region. Moreover, it was surrounded by rich agricultural lands owned by a wealthy planter elite who lent a unique prestige to the place. The town was also the county seat of Talbot as well as the site of the regional Federal court, and it had the only bank in Maryland’s peninsular counties. Despite its small size (pop. 1850: 1,143) Easton was an important town throughout the nineteenth century. It was, indeed, the hub of the Eastern Shore.
Many of Maryland’s prominent and powerful families possessed estates located within a few miles of Easton. Wye House, the ancestral home of the Lloyd family, was owned by Edward Lloyd, VII (1825-1907) in 1860. This magnificent estate consisted of several thousand acres worked by 346 slaves.
The Tilghmans were another gentry family with a commanding influence on the economic, political and social life of Talbot County and the Eastern Shore. General Tench Tilghman’s estate, Plimhimmon, located in Oxford, near Easton, became a model farm for such agricultural experiments as the first-time use of the reaping machine and the use of Peruvian guano (bird droppings) in the culture of wheat.
Other great landholding families living near Easton included the Goldsborough, Hammond and Hollyday clans. These wealthy gentlemen were among the founders and supporters of the Agricultural Society of the Eastern Shore, started in 1818. This organization encouraged farmers to switch from tobacco culture to the growing of wheat and corn and the raising of livestock.
These agricultural developments buttressed a growing economy that supported a lucrative trade with Wilmington, Philadelphia and other northern markets. Before the Civil War, Easton was the chief beneficiary of these agricultural and commercial activities.
Big landholders were also the chief founders of the Farmers Bank of Easton, opened in 1805. The Board of Directors consisted of men from the Goldsborough, Hambleton, Hammond, Harrison, Martin and Tilghman families, most of whom owned large tracts of land within a few miles of Easton. This bank prospered and survived the Great panic of 1837. A supporter and funder of agricultural, commercial and transportation enterprises, it was a mainstay of the Eastern Shore economy at least until 1856 when a second bank appeared in Easton.
Easton, the economic nerve center of the Eastern Shore became an early focal point of Chesapeake Bay steamboat traffic. The Maryland, built by the Maryland Steamboat Company and owned by the Easton Farmers Bank, began plying the Chesapeake Bay in 1819. It provided service between Baltimore, Annapolis and Easton.
During the late antebellum era the Hugh Jenkins afforded connections between Baltimore, Annapolis, West River, Cambridge, Oxford and Easton. The round trip fare between Baltimore and Easton was $1 in the 1850s.
It is not surprising that Easton was the site of the leading hotel on the Eastern Shore. Businessmen, commercial travelers, farmers and slave traders all put up at the hotel – sometimes known as the Brick Hotel. Occupying a large rambling two-story structure (a third story was added later) on Washington Street, it remained the chief hostelry in the town between its establishment in 1815 and the latter years of the 19th century.
During the 1850s the hotel advertised “choice liquors from the Philadelphia market” and dinners at 37½ cents. Easton hotels in the 19th century, as elsewhere in the United States, were often social centers where politicians, lodge members and militia companies wined and dined on holidays and other occasions.
Some Easton hotels were centers of the infamous slave trade. Hall’s Hotel was a slave auction center where bondsmen from Talbot County and adjacent districts were bought and sold. An Easton newspaper in 1853 advertised that a certain slave trader was in the market “for purchasing Negroes for the Southern market.”
Although there was no higher educational institution like Washington college in Chestertown, Easton boasted of a first-rate boys academy. The Easton Academy was incorporated in 1799. Located on Hanson Street, the Academy was a two-story brick building which remained a community landmark for many decades.
The school’s demanding curriculum embraced English, Latin, Greek, mathematics and numerous “miscellaneous studies.” Like the Easton Bank and the Agricultural Society, it was funded and supported by the leading gentry families of the Eastern Shore. The Academy was merged with the public high school in 1866.
The religious composition of nineteenth century Easton resembled that of other areas on the Delmarva Peninsula. The Anglican Church – later the Episcopal Church – predominated in Colonial times, although there was a sprinkling of Quakers and Presbyterians. But beginning in the 1780s and 1790s the Methodist awakening took the region by storm. By 1800, Talbot County was a stronghold of Methodism.
Five churches and a Friends (Quaker) meetinghouse were located in the town during the 1850s. The two white Methodist congregations boasted a large following. Christ Episcopal Church made a comeback after a lull during the post-Revolutionary era.
This wealthy congregation employed a noted architect, William Stickland, to design a church in the 1840s described as “the jewel in the crown of the Church in the eastern counties.” In 1867 Easton became diocesan seat of the Eastern Shore. Trinity Cathedral was erected to serve the bishop’s congregation.
Easton was a stronghold of journalism during most of the nineteenth century. The Maryland and Eastern Shore Intelligencer was established as early as the 1790s. By the 1820s the town had three newspapers, each of which represented different political functions.
During the late antebellum era two rival newspapers strove for the support of Talbot County and the Eastern Shore. The Star, a Democratic Party publication, supported states’ rights and slavery. Its subscribers were largely pro-Southern planters and their allies. The Gazette, on the other hand, was the voice of moderation and tended to back the Union cause in 1860. Its political views reflected those of many workers, small farmers and merchants with commercial connections with the North.
This information correctly suggests that Easton, like much of the Eastern Shore, was bitterly divided during the Civil War. Many wealthy planters in the region were sympathetic to the Southern cause, although most were not outright secessionists.
On the opposite side were those who backed the Union cause. This group included local merchants and the directors of the Easton Farmers Bank. Most, however, were conservative unionists, opposed to the abolition of slavery and the coercive policies of Federal troops that occupied the region. Some families, like the prestigious Goldsboroughs, were split in their loyalties.
For several decades following the Civil War, Easton continued to enjoy a modest prosperity. The railroad arrived in 1869, furthering commercial access to other parts of the Peninsula. Steamboat service on the Chesapeake Bay increased, reaching a peak in the 1890s and early 1900s. One of the most impressive steamboats to ply the waters between Baltimore and Easton was the Tred Avon, built in 1884 by the W. E. Woodland Company in Baltimore. A new market house was erected while the old Talbot County courthouse was remodeled along Victorian lines in 1879. The hotel industry continued to flourish as it serviced the merchants and shippers involved in the lively Chesapeake Bay commerce.
Meanwhile, New York and Philadelphia millionaires bought up many of the town’s lovely mansions. These rich newcomers paid high taxes, adding to the local revenue as well as lending a certain cosmopolitan sophistication to the area. Easton’s suave ambiance stood in sharp contrast to the provincialism that prevailed in most of the rest of the Eastern Shore.
Easton, however, did not share in the industrial progress that spread to some other parts of the Peninsula. Salisbury became a lumber processing and woodworking town while Cambridge and Crisfield thrived as centers for the canning and packaging of seafood. These places surpassed Easton in population and importance. By 1900 the town on the Tred Avon River was only the fourth largest in the region. Easton, in brief, was no longer the hub of the Eastern Shore.