History of the Arbutus Area


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Arbutus Area and Nearby Communities


The name  came from the abundance of trailing Arbutus flowers that once covered the area. Seven small villages played a part in the history of the Arbutus area. According to Ross Rainey these were Avalon, St. Denis, Relay, Lansdowne, Violetville, Halethorpe and Arbutus. All but Avalon remain active communities today.


A vast iron ore pit and springs of sulfur water gave the main road the name Sulphur Spring Road. Horse carts run by the B&O Railroad were brought in and the changing place for the horses became Relay Station. Another railroad station was added on Sulphur Spring Road and the Sulphur Spring Hotel sprang up. Water from the nearby springs was thought to have great medicinal value. As more and more people traveled on the new railroad, the Viaduct Hotel (pictured) was built in Relay, which became a popular stopover between Baltimore and Ellicott City.


St. Denis was named after Dennis Smith, a colorful character who was a local politician and ran a toll bridge over the Patapsco River. The name Halethorpe was taken from the English words "hale", meaning healthy and "thorpe", a small village. Violetville was another village inspired to name itself after a local wildflower.


Lansdowne was another area rich in iron ore. The many pits left from mining filled with water which formed ponds and streams. The railroad opened Coursey Station and Lansdowne became known as a B&O town. The name Lansdowne came from the British who named it after the Prime Minister William Petty, the Marquis of Lansdowne.


For more details on the history of the Arbutus area, visit the Arbutus Branch.


Lansdowne Area History


In the late 1800's the Whitaker Iron Co. mined for ore in Lansdowne. Abandoned pits from the mining were filled up by underground springs creating small ponds and lakes. Lansdowne was mostly farmland including the Kessler farm, MacLeod farm and Wades farm.


When the railroad came Lansdowne became known as a B&O town. Most people worked for B&O, commuting by train into Baltimore City. The first station was named Coursey Station. The Coursey Station senior housing center takes its name from this.


The two main roads were Hammonds Ferry Road and Hollins Ferry Road, both of which led to the Patapsco River where you could take a ferry across to the other side.


Early churches included the Lutheran Church of Our Savior, St. Clement's Catholic Church, Lansdowne United Methodist Church, Lansdowne Christian Church and the First Baptist Church. The site of the original wooden school house was on the property that is now St. Clement's.


In the area known as Baltimore Highlands is a legendary mansion called English Consul. The land and house were owned by William Dawson, the first English Consul to Maryland. One legend claims that Dawson had a brother who was transported from England to America in disgrace. Each year he was to receive a whip lashing as punishment for the crime he had committed. This took place on the English Consul estate. Another legend has it that the mansion was a stop on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. In 1909 a developer purchased the estate. It was eventually divided into the areas known as Baltimore Highlands, Rosemont, Friendship Gardens and the small section still called English Consul.


In the 1950's housing developments sprang up in the Baltimore Highlands and Riverview areas. Schools were built for these neighborhoods. In Lansdowne the Lansdowne Elementary School, Lansdowne Junior High (middle school) and Lansdowne Senior High were known as the "Golden Education Triangle".


In the early 1960's the B&O closed the railroad crossing and Lansdowne Boulevard was constructed, connecting Lansdowne to Washington Boulevard, bridging over the railroad tracks. A tunnel was also constructed under the tracks for pedestrian crossing. Some old railroad cars were erected as a museum and shopping area alongside Hammonds Ferry Road and the railroad tracks.


In the 1980's Baltimore County Recreation and Parks opened a large parcel of land for public use. Southwest Area Park is located on the Patapsco River just below Baltimore Highlands.


A small library was built by Baltimore County in 1966, on Third Avenue. In 1993 the Lansdowne Library was closed due to budget cutbacks. The building was then used as the Southwest Community Center, serving the area's needs for adult education and other county services.


In 1989 the Lansdowne/Baltimore Highlands Senior Center was built directly behind the library building. After the new Senior Center opened the Baltimore County Police Department operated a PAL (Police Athletic League) Center in the former library. In 2006, the PAL Center moved to a new facility on the grounds of Lansdowne Elementary School and in April of that same year a newly remodeled Lansdowne Library re-opened for the public.


For more information about Lansdowne, please contact the Arbutus Branch.


Photo of B & O railroad cars.

B&O cars-Hammonds Ferry Rd




Photo of Coursey Station Senior Housing.
Coursey Station Senior Housing





Photo of English Consul house today.

English Consul House Today



Relay Area History


In 1830 the first railroad track had its debut from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills which ran 13 miles. The first trains were horse-drawn wagons that ran on rails made of wood. Since the distance between the two towns was considered too long for one team of horses, a new team, known as a relay was secured at the halfway point of the trip. The town of Relay was given its name at the spot where the first team of horses were exchanged.


Even though Peter Cooper lost the race with the Tom Thumb he started the era of the Iron Horse on August 28, 1830 in Relay.


Benjamin Latrobe designed the Thomas Viaduct and John McCartney, an engineer from Ohio built the bridge. Construction of the "bridge that couldn't be built" took three years. The bridge was named the Thomas Viaduct in honor of Phillip Thomas who was the first president of the B&O Railroad. The bridge stretches 612 feet from Baltimore County to Howard County and is still in use today. A monument stands today, designating government and railroad officials connected to the project.


Samuel Morse's workshop for the telegraph was located at 5128 South Rolling Road. The first commercial telegraph service opened May 24, 1844. The telegraph pole was invented at this time because the stone base of the land was too difficult to dig the normal trench for placement of the telegraph wire.


The Eighth New York and Sixth Massachusetts regiments and Cook's Boston Battery occupied Relay during the Civil War on May 5, 1861. A Civil War fort was located on the property of Margaret Bennett, where her current home is still standing after being constructed in 1800 on Gundry's Lane. In August of 1862 the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteers came to Relay. Their commander was Colonel Sumwalt. The regiment had a total of 36 officers and 820 enlisted men. They made their headquarters at the Relay House and had come to the area to protect the railroad.


Photo of the Thomas Viaduct.

Thomas Viaduct



Photo of the Viaduct Hotel.

The Viaduct Hotel


Photo of the entrance to the Relay Town Hall.

The Relay Town Hall



Photo of the Relay Town Hall.

The Relay Town Hall

The Arbutus Oak


A little known piece of living history exists in Arbutus. The Arbutus Oak is a large white oak tree that is approximately 289 years old. Many Indian artifacts have been found around the tree. The gravestone of Emmanuel Wade has been placed under the tree, a reminder of the Wade family farm that was divided by the building of the highway. But the tree leads a lonely life.


Some years ago it was cut off from the community by the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 95. It sits on a grassy knoll between the outer loop of I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) and the exit ramp for northbound I-95. Because it is so hard to reach, many people do not even know it is there. In 1972 the local Lions Club took on the task of maintaining the tree and erected a plaque to mark it. (The original plaque disappeared. A second plaque now hangs on the wall in the Arbutus library.) Today the Maryland State Department of Natural Resources is responsible for the tree, one of several hundred in Maryland that are more than 200 years old. So the next time you are traveling south from Baltimore on I-95, take a look at the Arbutus Oak, quickly, before you pass it by!


Photo of oak tree

Tom Day Boulevard


Tom Day Boulevard is a one block street that runs between Oregon Avenue and Southwestern Avenue in Halethorpe. The boulevard was named for Tom Day who is remembered as living one street over from the present Tom Day Boulevard. Of the soldiers from Halethorpe Tom Day was one of the first, and possibly the very first, to be killed during WWII. He served in the army and was killed on Leyte in the Philippines, where he is buried. Tom Day's name is included on a plaque, in the Church of the Ascension, of those in the area killed during WWII.


A. Anderson, 9/94 rev. 9/15

Sources: American Legion Dewey Loman Post 109; Robert Rogers Trescott; also interview with former residents of Halethorpe.




Revised: September 1, 2015