Our family arrived in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and from the time we settled into our cozy colonial on Cross Country Boulevard, right down the road from Cross Country Elementary School, I regularly heard snippets of neighborhood lore from the “old timers” – like how there used to be a golf course in the vicinity before the homes were built (causing my boys to go on forays in the backyard for errant golf balls, which they sometimes found!), and how our block was built by a plumbing supply company (explaining the floor-to-ceiling tile work in most of the bathrooms) – not to mention passing comments from people who said they had played in our house when they were children, as friends of a classmate who once lived here.
Well, all that was way back before Google, and I was busy raising a family, and there was no time to delve into the history of my neighborhood and its environs. But now, with the help of the internet, I decided to explore the history of the neighborhood that I have called home for the better part of two decades. And I discovered facts and events that were by turns fascinating, horrifying, and quaint. Let me share some of these with you.
The Birth of Suburbia
Mount Washington, the upscale enclave we traverse to get to Bais Yaakov High School or the Light Rail station or to access the 83 via Falls Road, actually started out as a mill town. In 1810, the Washington Cotton Manufacturing Company chose this site, located on the banks of the Jones Falls, to build its first cotton mill in Maryland. (You can still see evidence of the mill in the gentrified Mt. Washington Mill’s brick and stone buildings right off Falls Road, now tenanted by a range of chic boutiques and stores, including Whole Foods and Starbucks.)
The area around the mill became known as Washingtonville and was populated by mill workers and their families. Until the mid-19th century, city workers tended to live near their workplaces, according to a brief history of the area by Baltimore City’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation (CHAP). They could ill afford either the travel to more outlying, peaceful, neighborhoods or the cost of the housing there. Another factor was the scarcity of well paved “macadam” roadways that would make the journey passable.
As so often happens, an upper-class neighborhood began to develop “across the tracks,” literally, from Washingtonville. (These were the tracks of the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, completed in 1830.) A developer named George Gelbach, seeking to attract the well-heeled, created lots under the name Mount Washington Rural Retreat, issuing a call for suburban living. This was in 1854, pre-dating the Civil War!
From the post-Civil War period until the turn of the century, a few wealthy families owned country villas in the area as a temporary respite from the heat of the summer, but most people could not afford to do so. The development of the suburbs, beginning in 1890, reversed this trend. By the early 1900s, the economically disadvantaged enclave of Washingtonville was dismantled to make room for the JFX, and the area slowly evolved into a full-fledged, year-round suburban community, though there were still some wealthy residents who considered our community as their “summer getaway.”
The most successful suburban development around Baltimore was Roland Park, which began in 1891. Bancroft Park, currently in the heart of Baltimore’s Jewish community, arose soon after, modeling itself on the success of Roland Park. (More about that another time.)
A quaint 1912 essay in the Baltimore Sun describes the evolution of Baltimore suburbia in a charming fashion: “Formerly, a man built in the suburbs a plain country house, with the aid of a country carpenter, a single weather-boarded cottage heated by stoves, lighted by oil and without telephone service or other modern conveniences, with muddy roads and sidewalks. But this is rarely so now.” (Remember, this is from 1912!) It continues, “The development in the last 10 years around Baltimore is miraculous. It must be remembered that this is one of the most compactly built cities in the country, and it took a long time for persons accustomed to living in a block, where there are no side yards, to see the real value of a house with light all around, a lawn in the front and a good-sized garden and poultry yard – only obtainable in the suburbs. But they are fast finding out the advantages of a life more in the open.” The article concludes, “Lot values have increased where many improvements and good roads have been made, but the economical place to buy … is where the section is just beginning to grow, where there is good car service, water, gas, sewerage, and other advantages. The section between Park Heights and Green Spring avenues, with the new cross-country (sic) boulevard [emphasis mine] in the centre (sic), has had a great growth.”
May 1911 saw the development of a new Mount Washington neighborhood called Hill Top Park (in the vicinity of Chilham and Uffington streets), also credited in a Sun announcement to the “new boulevard, which … runs through the entire length of Hill Top Park, thence up the Western Run Valley to Pikesville.” On a side note, this valley is charmingly described as “the beautiful Western Run Valley, watered by the Western Run, one of the most picturesque streams in the vicinity of Baltimore. Like this entire section, it is unsurpassed in natural beauty.” It is hard to imagine that the writer would agree with that assessment were he to see it today.
A Cross Country Controversy
The “boulevard” that was repeatedly being referred to in these early accounts was none other than the one on which my own homely property sits. Construction of Cross Country Boulevard was handled by the firm of P. Flanigan & Sons, and paid for by beer magnate and noted philanthropist Fred Bauernschmidt, who, as the owner of the American Brewing Company, made his vast fortune in the two decades preceding the outlawing of liquor in 1919 (the infamous Prohibition). Construction of the boulevard was completed by late 1912. It extended from Cylburn Station on the Northern Central Railway (a single-track streetcar line) to Park Heights “between Clark’s Lane and Seven-Mile Lane” according to a 1915 Sun report. (It seems the last stretch of the boulevard, which now curves into Fallstaff Avenue had yet to be named at this point.) The boulevard clearly had a significant impact on the growth of the suburban neighborhoods and on the commensurate valuation of the properties through which it ran. But not without controversy!
Since the road was privately owned by Mr. Bauernschmidt, those who lived nearby were only given a right of way. Mr. Bauernschmidt also owned much of the land on either side of the road, and very little of it had been sold up to that time. According to a 1915 Sun account, it was reported that the portions that had been sold “lay across the inside stretch” and “ingress and egress to and from the houses along this part … was by the county highways.”
The problem was who was going to maintain this road? Clearly, it wouldn’t be the “automobilists,” as they were called, who were only passing through. And Mr. Bauernschmidt, the multi-millionaire owner of the road, did not feel it was his duty to pay for the “costly” upkeep of this four-mile roadway. To deter drivers from using “his” road, it is alleged that not only did he erect barriers at four points on the road – at Park Heights, at Old Pimlico, at Belvedere, and in Mount Washington – he also scattered broken glass (from beer bottles, perhaps?) on the roadway! As we would say, what a chutzpah!
Mr. Bauernschmidt, of course, denied the charge. Nonetheless, as the newspaper noted, the “automobilists … have been considerably wrought up over the refusal of Mr. Bauernschmidt to permit them to [use the roadway and] … are saying all sorts of mean things about him because of this refusal.” (I can’t quite get over the mildness of the language that was in use a mere 100 years ago. Today, no editor of a major newspaper would let those lines stand. And I would not argue that this is a change for the better! But there are other outrages that they did permit, with a seeming callousness, as will be noted below.)
In June 1916, Mr. Bauernschmidt offered Cross Country Boulevard to the Baltimore County Commissioners for $25,000, contending that his roadway had increased the value of the surrounding properties. The commissioners were not quite so eager to use their road appropriations for this purchase, as they were more focused on spending to improve the commercial Reisterstown Road corridor; their contention was that Cross Country Boulevard’s main use was for pleasure drives. Baltimore County left the picture in 1919, when Baltimore City annexed Mount Washington. What became of this controversy is unclear. Mr. Bauernschmidt died in 1933.
Suffice it to say, Cross Country Boulevard today is a busy thoroughfare that is used by “automobilists” of every stripe – carpool drivers, commuters, and city buses – who do not give a second thought to all the intrigue that took place to create this roadway that we all take for granted.
Horror at the Quarry
There was for a time a quarry at the corner of Taney and Cross Country Boulevard that was owned by the McMahon Brothers. And these open pits were apparently not fenced in. Over the years, The Sun reported on a series of mishaps and accidents that took place there, as would be expected of such a worksite. But the scene of one tragedy that unfolded during the early spring of 1929 I found especially troubling.
It seemed that an 8-year-old boy, Stanley Bozman, had gone missing while at play, and it wasn’t until two weeks had passed before an older friend mentioned to his mother that the boy might have fallen into the quarry, which at the time was abandoned and used by the City as a dump site. The search for the child then turned this corner, now home to the Cross Country Elementary School property, into a macabre circus of rubberneckers and thrill seekers.
On March 30, which fell out that year on Shabbos Parah, The Sun described the following scene: “Curious spectators flocked to the scene in hundreds. Most went in automobiles, which were parked on Taney and Cross Country Boulevard for blocks. A steady stream of men, women, and children, taking advantage of a holiday from school, went by streetcar. Many, disappointed at being unable to get through the lines established by the police, left after a short stay.” As if this depiction of brazen merriment couldn’t get any more disturbing, this shocking detail was added: “An ice cream vendor’s truck, supplanting the peanut man who did a thriving business Thursday afternoon and night, was on hand to dispense refreshments.” The coarseness of this scene left me reeling. So much for editorial restraint!
In typical closing-the-barn-door-after-the–horse-has-bolted fashion, Walter Hammond, Engineer of Buildings, issued a somber warning to quarry owners that a 1924 City ordinance that required the fencing in of abandoned quarries would now be strictly enforced, and he added ravines to the list. Sadly, the boy’s body was never found.
Golf Course in Our Backyard
On a lighter note, it turns out that while there was no golf course in my own backyard, there was one very close by, at Park Heights and Strathmore. The Maryland Country Club occupied that location from 1897, when it purchased the site from the Maryland Bicycle Club. When it was unable to satisfy a $57,000 mortgage lien, the Club was put up for sale at a public auction in 1934. Fifteen acres of the property were acquired by Har Sinai Congregation in 1938. (An additional 50-acre tract of unimproved land was bought by the Columbia Construction Company, with frontages spanning Fallstaff and Labyrinth roads and Cross Country Boulevard. The “improvements” on this tract soon became the homes that now dot our neighborhood.)
Har Sinai made a decision to relocate to Owings Mills in 1995, and in 1998, the 6300 Park Heights Avenue property was acquired by Yeshivat Rambam. In 2011, Yeshivat Rambam completed a building swap with Bnos Yisroel, which occupies the historic site to this day.In its heyday, the Maryland Country Club hosted many golf tournaments and exhibitions by prominent professionals. How it came to pass that my boys found golf balls in our backyard is still an unsolved mystery.
Until Next Time…
There are more mysteries to be explored and tales to be told about this place we call our “’hood.” I cannot do it justice in a single article, and I hope to reveal more another time. I did solve the plumbing “mystery,” which led me to a good bit of Baltimore history. I learned how Gist, Pearce, and Wirt Avenues (and others) got their names; discovered the 1699 origins of the name “Pimlico” that is so common in Baltimore; and even found out what the mysterious old shack located on the alley between Bancroft Road and Clark’s Lane was used for, and it’s not what I thought. These and more will have to wait for another article. In the meanwhile, if any “old timers” or their children have old neighborhood stories they can share with me, I can be contacted through the Where What When.