The search for history is a search for meaning of the present. It exists in all of us to some extent, even if it’s only the memory of what used to stand on the corner where a fast food restaurant or gas station is now. When the Patuxent Research Refuge Historic Project began, it was little more than curiosity over an article that appeared in the Laurel Leader newspaper regarding the location of a 17th century plantation on the outskirts of Laurel. Mr. Morris Warren, then owner of Snow Hill Manor, had written the paper asking for help in identifying the lost site of Birmingham Manor, the original Snowden family seat in Anne Arundel County. There were few clues to its position, but to an amateur historian it was a tantalizing mystery literally in my own neighborhood. I grew up in Laurel and was familiar with Montpelier and the local history, and had even briefly explored the back roads of Fort Meade’s training areas in what was to become the North Tract of Patuxent Research Refuge.

In 1990 I contacted Brian Alexander, a good friend and fellow history enthusiast who also happened to own a Jeep which I thought would be useful when we hit the trails in search of the answer to Mr. Warren’s mystery. Our explorations along the Patuxent River that summer turned up a fascinating collection of abandoned ruins in just the right combination of locations that led us to conclude that we had indeed found the ruins of the lost estate. This physical evidence mixed with some research in libraries and the Maryland State Archives effectively resolved the mystery of the mislaid plantation. Unfortunately, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway cuts right through the site and the notion that modern development could obscure such a locally important piece of history, even though it had occurred forty years earlier, was alarming to both of us. During our search we found other bits of history along the Patuxent and felt the urge to share them with the public and to find someone, some entity, agency or organization who could help protect it. But who?

In 1991 the Federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure Act transferred 8,100  acres of Fort George G. Meade to the management of the Patuxent Research Refuge. During the resultant development of what became known as the North Tract I learned about Patuxent’s Public Use programs and approached Refuge staff with a proposal to research the history of their newly acquired land and share that knowledge with the Refuge. There had already been inquiries from the public about the history of the North Tract, and together we realized that many people were interested in its human, as well as its wildlife history. Patuxent Research Refuge was the perfect entity to protect this valuable historic resource.

Because the Patuxent staff were still learning about their new land, they were understandably guarded about allowing just anyone to traipse around in the woods. Visitors were advised what they were allowed and not allowed to do on the property because at that time there were still ongoing munitions removal operations being conducted on the land. The US Army had used it for various types of training for over 75 years. Not only was souvenir-hunting by the public discouraged, it was illegal and very dangerous. Brian and I were issued Special Use Permits and given specific instructions on permissible activities for the project. In addition, given the amount of unexploded ordnance in the area, close coordination was needed to keep us out of danger.

But the risk of being blown up notwithstanding, the Patuxent Refuge Historic Project was a most rewarding experience. In 1992 we completed Phase I of the project and produced a special slide presentation for the public at the North Tract Visitor Contact Station. The following summer we conducted a van tour of the more prominent cemeteries and home sites on the North Tract. Both public events were quite well received and well attended. In the years afterward we documented over thirty-five historic sites -- most are still unidentified. I know we’ve barely scratched the surface of what historic treasures still lay in those fields and forests, and I’ve always hoped the task of further exploration and discovery would be taken over and continued by professionals. Patuxent Research Refuge’s mission of wildlife conservation blends perfectly with historic preservation, since both leave minimal impact on the land. Historian Stephen Ambrose once wrote that contributing to the world’s knowledge was a high calling. I have always hoped that the work Brian and I did, the miles we walked in sweltering Maryland summers, the methodical observation and recording of that little slice of our own back yard, made some contribution to the world’s knowledge.


Rick McGill
October, 2004



This free website was made using Yola.

No HTML skills required. Build your website in minutes.

Go to and sign up today!

Make a free website with Yola