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Central Maryland

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The region defined here as central Maryland offers a study in geographic contrasts, from the rocky hills along the Susquehanna, Patapsco, and Patuxent rivers to rolling Piedmont farmland to the flat coastal plain of the western shore of the Upper Chesapeake. It includes the counties that ring the city of Baltimore: Howard, Baltimore, Carroll, and Harford. Thus, the development of this region shares many early historic influences with its urban core. European settlers attempted to extend the enslaved-labor-dependent tobacco-growing economy of the Tidewater region, with mixed success. River ports such as Elkridge Landing, created by the Maryland Assembly in 1733, later experienced the limitations of transport in shallow waters, particularly in competition with the deep-water ports of Baltimore or Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna. Waterways such as the Patapsco and Jones Falls turned out to be more suited to early efforts in grain milling as well as iron and textile production at sites such as Elkridge Furnace, and the textile mills of Oella and Savage.

Numerous merchant mills were established in this region to take advantage of flour export trade through the port of Baltimore, including survivors such as Jerusalem Mill, Rockland Mill, McKinstry’s Mill, and Union Mill. The pioneers were the Ellicott brothers, who established Ellicott’s Mills in 1772 just as the state was beginning to introduce crop diversification, turning from tobacco to grain production. As the state’s earliest and most prosperous mill town, Ellicott’s Mills—renamed Ellicott City in 1867—provided the model for best practices that was later utilized to create a significant milling industry in Baltimore.

Limited river navigation also inspired important early transportation initiatives in building turnpikes, canals such as the Susquehanna and Tidewater that connected the port at Havre de Grace with agricultural markets in central Pennsylvania, and of course, railroads. In the turn-of-the-twentieth-century heyday of rail transport, central Maryland was crisscrossed by numerous freight and passenger lines traveling to additional markets for farm produce and manufactured goods. The early innovations of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad linked the growing towns of the Patapsco River valley such as Ellicott City and Sykesville with Baltimore, and eventually points west, as well as offering the first railroad service south to Washington. The Western Maryland Railway traversed the northern part of central Maryland, connecting Owings Mills and Baltimore with Westminster and Union Bridge; this portion was completed by 1862, and the link to Hagerstown was finished ten years later. By the 1880s the Maryland and Pennsylvania (Ma&Pa) created an important north-south route that connected Baltimore with York, Pennsylvania, through the Baltimore County seat of Towson and the Harford County seat of Bel Air. In addition to freight transport, the growth of railroads shaped residential development for both year-round and summer houses in communities surrounding Baltimore such as Catonsville, Lawyers Hill, Ellicott City, and Sykesville. The picturesque landscapes of Harford and northern Baltimore counties were particularly attractive as retreats for wealthy citizens from Baltimore and Philadelphia, with estates designed by architects from those same cities.

Central Maryland also contained thriving stone quarries, which provided building materials sought after throughout the region and beyond. Local stone both characterized vernacular building traditions, particularly those of the German, Welsh, and Quaker communities sharing a cultural hearth with Pennsylvania to the north, and enriched the work of area architects on major private and public structures. Varieties of granite gneiss found in Sykesville, Ellicott City, around the town of Granite, or just across the Susquehanna River in Port Deposit offered durable and handsome building materials. Peach Bottom slate quarried by Welsh immigrant miners in Whiteford-Cardiff in upper Harford County and across the border in Pennsylvania was prized for its strength and fade-resistance. Cockeysville marble, also known as Beaver Dam marble, from Baltimore County adorns the Washington Monument and the front stoop of row houses throughout Baltimore.

The twentieth century in central Maryland has been characterized by industrial and suburban development along what is now the I-95 corridor and east to the Chesapeake. Much of the industrial development has been driven by the growth of the so-called military-industrial complex during both world wars. The massive Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal were founded in 1917 for development and testing of ordnance and chemical weapons, respectively. The combined facilities now occupy the majority of Harford County’s Chesapeake coastline. The town of Dundalk was a planned community built during World War I by the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation to support the massive Bethlehem Steel production facilities at Sparrows Point. During World War II, Middle River became a defense boom town in Baltimore County thanks to the rapid growth of the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company.

Residential development accompanied these industrial expansions and, more significantly, accommodated the flight of white residents out of Baltimore City into the surrounding counties. James Rouse’s celebrated Columbia New Town (CM12) sought to avoid the social and cultural negatives of unplanned suburban sprawl. While a major accomplishment, Columbia remained an exception to residential and commercial development in central Maryland.

Writing Credits

Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Catherine C. Lavoie

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