Anyone who thinks urban decline is a new phenonmon need look no further than a Washington Post story chronicling the demise of Port Tobacco, Maryland. The town has 18 residents, but it was Charles County’s largest town for 200 years until the turn of the 20th century.
The land around Port Tobacco, which in its heyday had 80 buildings, three hotels and two newspapers, has produced signers of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Confederate sympathizers in town were said to have turned down large sums of money as they kept the whereabouts of John Wilkes Booth secret. The furnishings of Dorothy Barbour’s Colonial living room — and even its floorboards — were once put on display in a Chicago museum.
Fire struck the fatal blow. In 1892, the courthouse was burned, but not before town documents had been stacked on the lawn. Suspicion flew to neighbors in La Plata, who had been angling for more power since they acquired a railroad. If it was arson, it was not prosecuted, and in “the half century that followed,” wrote James Barbour in a booklet of town history, “the historic village became a ghost town which almost completely buried its past.”