Exploring the Great Outdoors in Baltimore County
With school back in session and the occasional yellow leaf now appearing on the sidewalk, it looks like summer 2017 is slowly sliding into the seasonal history books. Luckily, there is still time to head out into the balmy county weather and go hunting for ghosts of summers long gone. Since its settlement in the mid-17th century, Baltimore County has woven a rich historical tapestry, much of which is preserved in the parks, trails and historical sites that dot much of Baltimore’s rolling countryside. Sliding into a good pair of hiking boots and hitting the open trail can not only take you through the picturesque reserves of the county but also through its lively, engaging past.
One of the best ways to gather a cursory glance of the county’s history is the historical whistle stop tour that is the Torrey C. Brown Trail, a crushed stone pebble track that runs for about 20 miles from Cockeysville to New Freedom, Pennsylvania, just over the Mason-Dixon Line. Part of the larger NCR Trail, the Torrey C. Brown traces its preservational present to an industrial past when it was cleared for a railroad line by the Northern Central Railroad Company in 1832. While the line was used to haul freight and passengers between Baltimore and the towns of southern Pennsylvania, it lent a hand in more than one historical event, carrying President Abraham Lincoln on his way to give the Gettysburg Address and playing witness to Confederate cavalry raids during the Civil War.
The NCR line stayed in service for 140 years, only falling out of service following the devastation of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Today, the tracks have made way for a smooth gravel path that plays host to an eclectic group of outdoor enthusiasts including hikers, runners, bikers and horseback riders. Trailgoers will inevitably stumble upon the old whistle posts and mileage markers that once guided engineers through the Baltimore countryside. And, if the ambitious hiker goes just far enough, they will find the beautifully restored 1898 Monkton Station which now serves as a museum, gift shop and ranger station.
Of course, it’s just as easy to jump off the trail as it weaves through Gunpowder State Park to check out several remnants of the past that are tucked away in the park’s forests and riverbeds. Gunpowder Park is one of the state’s largest nature reserves and is home to several historical sites. One of the largest and most striking is the small village of Jerusalem Mill, a colonial mill town whose old stone buildings are now part of a living history museum that explores what life in northern Maryland was like during the first century and a half of the American Republic. On the weekends, Jerusalem Mill regularly features blacksmith demos and tours of the Miller’s House where firearms were manufactured.
The village’s current incarnation as a living history museum can trace its roots to 1985 when concerned Baltimore and Harford County residents formed an association to save the endangered mill buildings from decay and destruction. The organization raised enough funds to launch significant preservation efforts that resulted in the creation of one of the oldest preserved mill sites in Maryland. Though it sits just across the county line in Harford County, it reflects a way of life that was once ubiquitous throughout the Baltimore countryside and continues to be celebrated today.
If you don’t feel like jumping the county line, there are plenty of chances to engage with wildlife and traces of the past just outside the beltway. A five-minute drive from the Towson circle, the Cromwell Valley Park covers 460 acres of a stream valley reserve that plays host and home to a diverse range of indigenous Maryland wildlife. Originally known as “Lime Kiln Bottom,” the park is home to Minebank Run Stream which served as a freshwater source to indigenous Marylanders for thousands of years. In the 1700s, European colonists settled the area to take advantage of its fertile soil and build mines to extract iron ore. The largest of these mines were located at the starting point of the Minebank Run Stream, hence the stream’s current name.
In the late 1700s, Cromwell Valley became a popular place for the production of agricultural lime, a soil additive made from marble which could be used to restore depleted nutrients to farming soil. Thanks to its proximity to the Cockyeville marble quarries, the valley was soon home to eight large stone lime kilns whose product was used to breathe life back into Baltimore’s soil. Today, the remnants of these massive 18th-century stone kilns can still be found embedded in the hillsides of the park, and are well worth the hike to see. The reserve also features four farms, two of which have historic farmhouses. Willow Grove Farm sits atop the park’s easternmost 220 acres and features a 19th-century farmhouse that is now the park’s nature education center. Sherwood Farm sits in the center of the park and has the beautiful Sherwood House as its centerpiece that dates from 1935. Both offer great respites on one’s journey through Cromwell Valley’s picturesque trails and a wide variety of flora and fauna.
While these trails and sites tucked away in the fields and forests of Baltimore County provide a vivid picture of the county’s pastoral origins, traveling downstream to the Chesapeake Bay and North Point State Park shines a light on the county and city’s close relationship with the world’s largest estuary. Just east of Dundalk and Canton, North Point State Park spans nearly 6 miles along the Chesapeake Bay, Back River and Shallow Creek, and features several wetland marshes. While the land buffeting the shore has been continuously farmed for nearly 350 years, the park’s greatest claim to significance comes from the War of 1812. To aid the naval assault of Fort McHenry, the British Army landed 3,700 troops and 1,000 marines on North Point and began to march on Baltimore. This army soon engaged the Maryland militia in what became known as the Battle of North Point and was soundly defeated, saving the city from destruction and British occupation. Since then, the park has been home to various restaurants and amusement parks and was under the ownership of Bethlehem Steel in the middle of the 20th century. Today, it offers the outdoor adventurer both running and biking trails as well as pristine water access to the Chesapeake Bay.
So, whether you dust off your old six-gear mountain bike and follow President Lincoln down the NCR or throw on a bathing suit to fend off the next British invasion, there is a rich, colorful history to engage in these last few weeks of the warm season. Hitting the open trail and making it a part of this summer’s story will not only keep you fit well into the winter months but give you an immersive understanding of Baltimore’s diverse and engaging heritage.