Rediscovering the North Tract,

An Anne Arundel Time Capsule 

Patuxent Research Refuge Historic Project

In addition to the many wildlife research projects conducted at Patuxent, they receive inquiries from time to time about the cultural history of the North Tract. Private citizens have contributed to the knowledge base of our cultural history and their work is presented here for the first time on the Internet.

Once occupied by Indians, then settlers with small farms and mills, the gently rolling countryside was owned by the U.S. Army for almost 75 years until it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. During that time very little development occurred and the roadways remained virtually unchanged since the Civil War era. Small family cemeteries still exist on the property and the foundations of numerous churches, homes and early industrial sites are spread across the North Tract.

The Patuxent Historic Project began in 1991. Volunteer researchers Rick McGill and Brian Alexander have catalogued cemeteries and building sites which are hints of the historic richness of the North Tract. Their work is detailed in the book, Rediscovering the North Tract, An Anne Arundel Time Capsule, available for sale at the National Wildlife Visitor Center and Visitor Contact Station. It is also making its way on-line here thanks to the Yola Web Site service. 

Website copyright 2010 Rick McGill                                                           Contact:   Rick McGill 

 The afternoon sun filters down through the overhanging leaves making patches of gold on the brown earth of the road on a June day as we ride toward Grandfather's house. The country air is filled with sweet smells and aromas of spring and our horse seems to enjoy the sensation as much as we, his nostrils flaring as he tilts his head high to sniff the bits of timothy and alfalfa from some far off field. Father has promised us we can sleep out in the meadow tonight and our bedrolls are bundled tightly in the back of the wagon with our nightshirts and extra clothes. We are too young to know that he has given up a day's wages at the Laurel Mills to ride out and to see Grandfather who is ill. What we do know is summer is upon us and before we begin work ourselves we will have this night and tomorrow to run and jump and swim and be children on Grandfather's farm. Although he doesn't own it, the farm has always been Grandfather's farm to us. Actually it is where he has worked most of his life and though it isn't the busy place it used to be when he was young, it is still a great adventure for my brother and me to visit there.

 The road is long and gently winding and eventually comes to the familiar fork where we turn up into what was once a grand entrance to the plantation house. Father says the family here was named Snowden and used to own all the land from Sandy Spring down to Princess Anne. But where those places might be or how far or near, we haven't a clue. The house is big and square and has little rooms at each end and we love to run and play hide-and-seek in the garden. Father is a practical man and simply calls it the Farm but Grandfather remembers when it was a rich and busy place with fields and tobacco barns and lots of people worked here. He calls it Birmingham.


The preceding paragraphs were fiction but there are times when I wish I could have written them as non-fiction. There is much more to be found in the newly annexed property of the Patuxent Research Refuge than fox, deer, bald eagles and other wildlife. In the hustle and bustle of modern development and industry that is central Maryland there is a pocket of history waiting to be told. It is no secret that the U.S. Army has led a peaceful coexistence with its neighbors for many years and those of us who grew up here don't see why that big complex barely visible from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is referred to as the "Super Secret N.S.A." It has been no secret to us for years and many friends and relatives of friends work there. With the winding down of big defense budgets N.S.A. now seems to be the major reason for Ft. Meade's continued existence. But it was not always like this.

 On a clear day you can still hear the sound of rifle fire from the Ft. Meade ranges still in use by the military and area law enforcement agencies. There was a time when larger guns than these echoed through the surrounding countryside. If the samples of military ordnance being unearthed by the hazardous material contractors currently sweeping the land for unexploded ammunition is any indication, Ft. Meade has seen the equivalent of several little wars. Everything from rifle grenades to antitank mines to artillery rounds as big as 155mm are being cleaned up in the wooded areas slated to become a permanent refuge for Patuxent wildlife.

 Most of us can remember seeing an old building torn down to make way for some new structure and later we go through life telling others what used to be there before they built the mall or the highway or the McDonalds. But there are a few old souls left who can point to what the Patuxent Research Refuge calls the North Tract and say, "That's what was there before." For they are pointing to what is there now: the rolling hills and forests that have seen little change since the Army acquired the property in 1917, and only slightly more change since Indians roamed the woods and banks of the Patuxent River. This was once an area of rich farmland, iron mines, grist and saw mills, large country estates, little schools and country stores, iron smelting furnaces, churches and people. Mostly of people. A people who lived and worked and made their mark in the history of Anne Arundel County, and no matter how small that mark was, it is part of what we are today.

The names mean little to anyone not familiar with the area. A walk through the family cemeteries still maintained in the North Tract will not reveal the lost grave of any national hero or great historic figure. There are no Presidents buried here, nor even any famous generals. What you will find are ordinary people who loved the land, who loved God and each other and who left the token of that love inscribed forever in monuments to their departed loved ones. These are common folk who would likely stop and help if you broke a wagon wheel and who would probably take you in for the night. There are Waters' and Welsh's, Duvall's and Hopkins', Mullikan's and Mariott's. And there are Snowden's. Surely, you thought, there must be one that I recognize. And if you recognize the name Snowden then you are a true Marylander.

The Snowden family, a name synonymous with the growth of Laurel and surrounding area, came here in 1686 when King Charles II granted a tract of 1,976 acres, known as Robin Hood's Forest to Richard Snowden, who built Birmingham Manor in 1690. The Snowden holdings eventually covered more than 16,000 acres but Birmingham was the seat of the Snowden family and was a thriving plantation near the Patuxent River as it winds through the Refuge property. The home site was partially obliterated in 1953 by excavation for the northbound lanes of the Baltimore Washington Parkway across from Suburban Airport near Laurel but rubble from the house or outbuildings and two wells are still present in the vicinity of the Snowden Cemetery, all in the North Tract. As an example of the size of the estate, at one time Mr. Snowden had twenty-four tobacco barns all in a row. Unlike the farms of today where the outbuildings are arranged behind or beside the farmhouse, in those days outbuildings were arranged in front of the main house presumably so the master could survey his holdings as he rested on the porch with a cool drink at the end of the day.

The first iron works in Maryland was organized by Richard Snowden Jr. on September 29, 1736 on the Patuxent River near what is now Brock Bridge Road. This was the Patuxent Iron Works Company. Some stone foundations can still be found east of Brock Bridge Road but these are probably from a later grist and saw mill which operated on the site. Richard Jr. died in 1763 and Richard Sr. then divided the iron works between three sons, John, Thomas and Samuel Snowden. Richard Sr. was also called the "Iron Master" for his iron mines and forges were a going concern in the area for quite some time.

Another furnace and forge, the Snowden Iron Works, was operated on the Little Patuxent River near the Old Forge Bridge and was eventually sold by Thomas, Richard and Edward Snowden to Evan T. Ellicott and Company who built another furnace, a puddling furnace and roughing mills at the site. The footings of the original Old Forge Bridge can be found just west, or upstream, of the current wood and iron bridge near Tipton Airport on the Little Patuxent River. In fact, the Patuxent River, an Indian name which means "running over loose stones", was known locally as Snowden's River because the family owned so much land on either side.

There was a Snowden home called Sunny Side which appears in the map book of Anne Arundel County compiled in 1878 by G.M. Hopkins. It is noted as being the residence of William Snowden, and lies in the area which has recently been converted to wetlands in what was the Walter Reed Medical Center Farm. A well and what may have been part of the house foundation are still present on an elevation among a stand of large trees.

One of the most striking points of interest in the North Tract is the fact that if you compare the modern map of Ft. Meade, which is as accurate as modern technology allows, to old maps such as the Martenet's 1861 or Hopkins' 1878 maps it is readily apparent that the Army has maintained the original roads in nearly the same position, thus providing us with reasonably accurate landmarks from which to locate home sites from the past. On the same map as Sunny Side and in larger letters which may indicate a more prominent home are "Stephen M. Naylor" and "Sunset Hill", just south of Thomas Branch and east of the Patuxent River and just across the river from the Central Tract of the Refuge itself.

There are many notable sites on the property other than the old family cemeteries. Ellicott's Chapel near Tipton Airfield, old school houses, black smith shops, and grist and saw mills along the river all lie undisturbed waiting to be found (by qualified researchers, which I make no claim to be.) Here I make one caveat: this article is by no means an invitation to souvenir hunters. The North Tract still contains ordnance, has active firing ranges, and has restricted public access due to research and wildlife management activities. Please leave ordnance to the experts and archaeology to the archeologists as we have done. It is illegal to dig, use a metal detector, or remove any historic artifacts from this property. Among the sites is Griffith's Mill, once known as Duvall's Upper Mill, which lies just inside the fence surrounding the original Central Tract near Duvall's Bridge. The mill and the home site situated nearby is one area we have inspected only briefly but there are several mills outside the property; Anderson's, Mulliken's, White's, another Duvall mill and others, which I mention only to illustrate the teeming industry of the area.

The Patuxent Historic Project has been working since 1991 to uncover the rich history of the North Tract. We have only begun to contact descendants of the past residents of the North Tract and so far each has provided fascinating information. We have learned there are several unmarked cemeteries on the property and have discovered the foundations of one old schoolhouse and three residences other than the Snowden homes. The first phase of our study has been the location, photographing, plotting and cataloging of the marked cemeteries. Phase Two will include the location, plotting and photographing of the foundations of old home sites, unmarked cemeteries and other structures. It is slow work and we sincerely appreciate and invite the help of former residents and relatives who can show us these places and tell us about life in the forks of the Patuxent.

The historic richness of the North Tract lies not in one structure or famous name. Rather, it is the entire area which serves as a time capsule. In quiet groves these departed have slept, some for centuries, and the marks they made on the land have grown faint. Through wars and peace, depression and plenty, under summer sun and countless winter snows, their houses, farms and fields lay still. You will find a door hinge, a plow share, a nail, and the time of it will call to mind images of the past, of honest hard work, simple pleasures and a wish. The wish that, looking across the meadows and lanes of the North Tract, you could click your heels three times and go back in time to meet these good people. People I have visited so often that I now count them among my friends. The buildings are long gone, removed by the Army long ago, but the remains of foundations and the everyday litter of country life spanning three centuries can reveal countless examples of local history.

Visit the cemeteries of the North Tract:

Look at the Snowden Time Line


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