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'Pass-Through' Town Doesn't Pass Up History

HAVRE DE GRACE, MD -- Nobody in this town expected President-elect Obama's whistle-stop train tour to pause here today -- the slowdown was set for Edgewood, 16 miles west along the honky-tonk ribbon of U.S. Route 40 -- and it didn't.

The train moved through town around 2:45 p.m. on Saturday. It was in some ways a non-event. But many here refused to pass on their part in history nonetheless. By 1 p.m., the parking lot beside the towns' activities center was filling up with cars loaded with people waiting to see the train.

Jim Balk, 65, a retired high school teacher from Marple, Pa., and Shakuwra Randolph, 21, a Lincoln University student from Chester, Pa., drove together. "This is just one ... giant step toward a country of equal opportunity," Balk said. "One less barrier has been removed."

Along the railroad fence people began to gather with blankets, children, and flags.
The day grew colder as clouds moved in.

"I'm so very proud of [Obama]," said Tonia Blackwood, 42, "but I'm also proud of the country. He's an example of how far we've come as a country."

By 11 a.m., a small group of residents had already gathered behind the Havre de Grace Activities Center to hang banners and flags by the train tracks out back.

Helen Cayer, 74, had just taped an American flag to the goal post of the practice football field next door, when the police came and made her take it down: The field is roped off as possible emergency staging area.

Cayer and her comrades were undaunted. They hung balloons and a large Obama banner from a chain link fence outside the cordon. The wind bobbed the balloons as it whipped across the football field and the frozen ponds surrounding it.

"It's emotional just to think about the significance of it," said Charlie Vasilakis, 66, a retired Defense Department worker. "Here I am. Most of my life I behind me, yet I'm as excited for the future like I was 16 years old. I haven't felt like this since 1960."

The town’s rail station has been gone for decades, chopped down to the track bed, and trains haven’t stopped there in years. Indeed, only the old timers even recall there being a station there.

But Havre de Grace, the colonial-era settlement named by The Marquis de Lafayette and spread on the west bank of the Susquehanna River where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, still had a part to play today.

Residents knew the Obama train would clatter from Perryville on the far shore, over the long, rusty swing bridge that spans the partly frozen river, where the seagulls flock and the tow boats push the gravel barges from the quarry upstream.

They knew the train would roll past city hall, the police department, and the Havre de Grace High School football stadium, "Home of the Warriors," toward the practice field, with its bright yellow goalposts on the west side of town.

And they knew the hamlet that was founded in 1782, burned by the British in 1813, and served as a last stop for escaped slaves on the underground railroad, could not be missed from the windows of the passing train.

So Cayer brought out the big cloth American flag that was used at her brother’s funeral at Arlington Cemetery 11 years ago and hung it from the porch of the clock store downtown, where you could see it from across the river in Perryville.

"I’m sure he’d be very proud to have that flying," she said.

Other residents got flags or had signs made up. Harford County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who lives just outside town, ordered a 10-foot sign that read "Change Has Come to Havre de Grace...Welcome President Elect Obama."

All knew that they were a small town part way between the big towns of Baltimore and Wilmington, where the hoopla was. But on this frigid winter Saturday, it didn’t seem to matter.

"I think it’s another piece of history for all of us," Cayer said. "And we’re alive. We’re here, to participate. I think (Obama’s) creating something, trust, in people that we’re all safe in this country."

(This post has been updated.)

-- Michael Ruane

By Washington Post Editors  |  January 17, 2009; 3:45 PM ET  | Category:  Transportation
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