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Port fire the latest in a long series of insults [Editorial]

Jacob Tome was a key figure in northern Maryland and south central Pennsylvania a century ago, but what has become of his legacy in Cecil County is a real shame.

A fire last month that gutted what had once been the stately Memorial Hall of the Tome School for Boys was but the latest insult to an important part of the heritage of western Cecil County.

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As Donna Tapley, head of the Bainbridge Development Corporation's board, put it: "This is a detrimental loss to all of us, especially the Town of Port Deposit, Cecil County, BDC and the redevelopment efforts... Memorial Hall is the central focus of the Tome Campus and holds a significant place in national, architectural and educational history."

Originally from Hanover, Pa., Jacob Tome ascended from modest beginnings to earn a fortune in the burgeoning railroad industry. Born in 1810, by 1833 he had established his home in Port Deposit and is regarded as being Cecil County's first millionaire, according to a short biographical sketch put together by Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Dickinson College was one of many organizations to benefit from Tome's philanthropy. A college trustee, Tome gave $25,000 in 1883 toward the construction of a science building (still in use) at Dickinson and the following year he announced plans to establish The Jacob Tome Institute in Port Deposit and, eventually, would bequeath $3 million to the school he founded.

Memorial Hall, made of granite quarried in Port Deposit, was built shortly after the turn of the century, a few years after Tome's death in 1898. It was one of many grand buildings associated with the Tome Institute (later known as the Tome School for Boys). While the Tome School remains a vibrant institution more than a century after its founding, it has long since moved to a newer, more modern campus in North East, where a key building bears more than a passing resemblance to Memorial Hall.

As for the old school properties in and around Port Deposit, they have been divided among many owners. On Main Street in Port Deposit, one has served for years as Town Hall. Another, a few blocks to the north, has been converted into apartments.

Yet another, across the street from Town Hall, was torn down years ago to make way for a gravel parking lot in the days when the Wiley's Ship Manufacturing operation was a major employer.

Just to the east of downtown Port Deposit, and up the cliff that helps define the town, is where Memorial Hall was constructed, and it was part of a campus as fine as any in the Ivy League. In 1942, the property in that vicinity was taken over by the U.S. Navy, and the campus became part of the much larger Bainbridge Naval Training Center, a function for which the buildings were well-suited.

Unfortunately, after the Naval Training Center ceased operation in the 1970s, the Tome school campus – along with the balance of the 1,200-acre property – became underutilized. Some of the Tome buildings, as well as some Navy era military construction structures, were taken over for use by Chesapeake Job Corps, a federal program to provide job training to disadvantaged young people. During the Job Corps era, deliberate fires in any number of the vacant buildings of former Navy site became all too commonplace. Some were in nondescript military structures; others destroyed or damaged meticulously designed and constructed Tome buildings.

For at least a decade, the Bainbridge Development Corp. has seemed on the verge of being able to turn the former Navy property into a mixed residential and business planned community, with revitalized Tome Institute buildings serving as an anchor. Relatively little has materialized, least of all any preservation of the old Tome Institute.

It would be nice if the recent fire that gutted Memorial Hall would inspire a renewed effort at revitalizing the remaining structures, and maybe even jump-start the larger, but stalled, Bainbridge project. Given what's happened over the years, however, there's just as much of a chance that there will be a lot of talk, and the ravages of time will continue to wear away at Jacob Tome's legacy.

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