Once, before the herring nearly vanished and the shad became virtually extinct, the water provided a livelihood. Now in all of this compact town of 10,000, only one man -- Steven Lay, 28, who gave up the funeral business for a dying vocation -- fishes full-time.

Once, the wealthy from New York and Philadelphia would come by train for duck hunting and the race track. Now the trains keep going, the Army owns John Pierpont Morgan's hunting lodge. The track is long gone, and even most of the ducks stopped coming after Tropical Storm Agnes swept away the celery grass in Susquehanna Flats.

It seems an unlikely setting for what is, in a sense, the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay -- perhaps the most storied and historic collection of wildlife, water, land and people in the nation.

Here, at the head of the bay, the Susquehanna River ends its long journey from New York State and empties its fresh water into an estuary that stretches for 190 miles and covers an area of more than 2,200 square miles.

Exploring it for the first time in 1608, Capt. John Smith described the Chesapeake as "a very goodly Bay . . . full of safe harbours for ships of warre or merchandize, for boats of all sorts, for transportation or fishing." To say that the bay has changed since those days would be an understatement of painful inadequacy.

For centuries, the Chesapeake has had a special place in American history and literature. Writers and poets as different as John Barth and James Michener have sought to recapture a history that has included pirate ships and Virginia colonists, British invaders and Civil War ironclads and generations of Americans who carved out a regional culture as distinctive in its own way as the frontier West, the plantation South or the urban North.

That Chesapeake is lost now. The change has been dramatic in some places and glacial in others, but inexorably it has come.

Today, The Post begins a series of reports on what the Chesapeake has become and what is left of what it once was. The vantage point, like that of Capt. Smith, is from the water.In a chartered boat, a Post reporter and photographer, together with a licensed skipper, will spend the coming weeks exploring the bay.

From the upper bay, an area that looks more to Pennsylvania and Delaware than Maryland, the boat will travel southward toward the Atlantic, exploring the bay's 4,600-mile tidal shoreline and the lives of those along it. e

For most boaters, there is little reason to go to Harve de Grace, since it's well away from the mainstream of Chesapeake traffic.

To get there from Whitehall Creek near Annapolis, where the boat was docked, took a little over a day, with a stop in a Kent County cove known as Still Pond.

North of the Bay Bridge there are few pleasure boats, and the looming smokestracks of the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point near Baltimore are a reminder of more serious endeavors. So too, farther north, are the red-striped sentry boats stationed to keep pleasure craft away from the guns of Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the sprawling Army reservation that has kept more than 30 miles of bay shoreline virtually undeveloped.

Before World War i brought military and civilian jobs to Aberdeen, the race track (which closed in 1950) and the ducks brought the rich and the powerful to Harve de Grace and Joseph E. Dye and his son, Joseph W. Dye, used to work the water.

"There wasn't anything else in Harve de Grace to do," said the son, now 83. "It was hard living but a good living."

DuPonts and Wanamakers and other millionairs from New York and Philadelphia hired local gunning guides. John Pierpont Morgan had a private lodge on Spesutie Island, now owned by the military. The passenger trains stopped then, and the old Bayou Hotel, later occupied by nuns and now vacant and vandalized, did a booming business.

Ducking dropped sharply, Joseph Dye said, when coffin-like "sink" boxes -- hiding places for hunters -- were outlawed during the 1930s. Joe Dye's father retired then with a $50 monthly pension from a woodsaw baron he had taken ducking. Years before the younger Dye had gone to work for the government.

The ducks themselves left in large numbers after successive storms -- especially Agnes in 1972 -- swept away the vital celery grass, the food that had attracted them year after year to the Susquehanna Flats.

Overfishing is often blamed for the dramatic decline of herring, once a major industry in the upper Bay. As many as 30 men would work the large floats on the flats, seining in the catch in March and April. Harve de Grace women worked to clean and salt the fish, which were then loaded onto schooners for shipment south. The heyday of the herring ended around 1920.

The shad decline has been more gradual. Although a 1947 Harve de Grace history predicted "there is no likelihood that the succulent shad . . . will disappear entirely from the waters of the Susquehanna," mysteriously they have done virtually that. The last year of relative abundance was 1972, and this year Maryland banned shad fishing entirely on the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

Known for its roe, but delicious in its won right, the shad is a primarily an ocean fish that spawns in fresh water. Scientists suggest that chlorine from sewage treatment plants has shrunk the shad run, but around here they know different. As sure us tomorrow, they'll tell you, it's the dam.

"Ever since that dam went in, they slid off," said Curtis Poist, a retired carpenter who helped build the Conowingo Dam over the Susquehanna 50 years ago and now regularly regrets its presence five miles upriver from his home in Port Deposit.

"When things are good, it's not ususally our fault," sighed Ron Harper, a spokesman for Philadelphia Electric, which owns the dam and both sides of the river for several miles in each direction. "When things are bad, we usually cause it."

A decade-long study of the shad has entailed "trapping, lifting, counting and busing them upstream," Harper noted, to little avail. The utility has pledged $5 million for a fish ladder to help the spawning fish upriver but only if the federal powers mandate such a step. So far, they have not.

Without the shad, a few fishermen have ventured as far as the dam to catch small rockfish. In years past, state regulations forbade keeping any big rockfish to protect spawning. Those restrictions have been eased -- but there aren't many more big ones to keep.

"Back in the '50s, the biggest trouble was the rockfish were too big to keep legally," said Ray Spangler, 79, who operates Rock Run landing a small boat dock just north of Port Deposit. "We don't have that problem anymore."

The people still come from Pennsylvania and Delaware, however, to anchor their sailboats on the Susquehanna and other upper bay tributaries of the Chesapeake.

Thus, while Harve de Grace's downtown district -- essentially one business street -- continues to stagnate, the town's waterfront has experienced a gradual revival. As part of the modest renaissance, a few marine moguls have arisen. They are men like Arvid M. Scherpf.

"We're trying to maintain our image of being down home, not flashy, as you see it," said Scherpf, who moved here from Pennsylvania.

But at 44, Scherpf, tall, tanned, sporting a bushy blond moustache, has become a Chesapeake conglomerate. "On a handshake more than 11 years ago," his brochure says, Scherpf agreed to buy the Havre de Grace Marina, which has since "evolved into one of the truly complete organizations within our industry."

The marina now sells as well as harbors sailboats, and includes a yacht club, a nautical boutique and a marine supply store in a converted ice house which is also his home. There is also a Tampa Bay, Fla., facility "to keep summer in your winter as well as ours" and an Annapolis yacht brokerage office.

Annapolis, however, this is not, despite the elaborate dreams some local people have of waterfront condominiums and "redevelopment."

"Someone once said," recalled Peter Jay, copublisher of the Havre de Grace Record, "that the official Havre de Grace sound is air going out of the balloon."

Still, there is a sense of possibility -- a sense that seems absent two highway bridges, two train trestles and one gravel pit up the Susquehanna in Port Deposit.

Cynics call it "Port Decrepit," the farthest navigable point on the river.

To get there from Havre de Grace takes some planning, because one of the railroad bridges is too low for the masts of larger boats and you have to arrange 24 hours ahead of time for the drawbridge to be lifted.

In a sense, it is the farthest outpost of the Chesapeake but over the years the town's relationship with the water -- and nature -- has been mixed.

In the days before the Conowingo Dam, ice floes gorged Port Deposit's one narrow street abutting a sheer granite cliff. And for as long as anyone can remember, the river has ravished the town with floodwaters -- but never completely wiped it out.

"The river can't wash Port Deposit away; it's got too much granite in it," said Carol Hopkins, who father once owned the quarry that, like much of the town has closed down.

Resisting all manner of economic and natural disasters, the granite sidewalks and homes with granite porch pillars remain. The arrival of Agnes and the departure of the Binbridge Naval Training Center in the early 1970s cost the town money and people. Compared to 900 residents in recent years, there are now only 600 and many vacant storefronts and for sale signs on the mile-long Main Street.

Port Deposit began in 1729, as a ferry crossing and, for lack of a better idea, received its present name in 1812. History records that Lafayette, who is said to have named Havre de Grace, stopped but did not tarry here. A canal completed along the Susquehannah brought boom times to the river and a measure of prosperity to the town. In 1880, there were 1,950 people, three time the present number.

The one bright spot on the town's horizon blots out its low-lying view of the river. Wiley's shipyard, whose work force has dwindled from 400 to 250 in the last four years, has just won a $140 million contract to build the Interstate-95 tunnel under Baltimore harbor. Wiley's employment roles will nearly double during the three-year job, officials say.

Wiley expects few Port residents to qualify for the jobs, but the imminent influx of new workers has given the townfolk something to be excited about.

It is the river and the bay, Wiley brochures say, that make it possible for the company "to bid economically on major fabrication jobs destined for delivery to more than half of the United States." Much of it moves by barge, southward through the bay or east and north through the Chesapeake Delaware Canal.

The shad may be gone and, except for Steven Lay of Havre de Grace, the full-time commercial fisherman, too. But, still, for some, the water provides.