Masonville Maryland is a community known only to a few old-timers and local historians. The first inhabitants of this area came from two tribes- Piscataways in the south around Potomac and in Virginia, and the Susquehannocks in the North around Susquehanna and Pennsylvania. The area around Baltimore was a no-mans land. The two tribes fought each other, with the Susquehannocks being more war-like and invading Piscataway territory.
The Piscataway were sent to a reservation and died out as a group by the late 1600’s. The Susquehannocks were defeated in September of 1675 by a force led by Colonel John Washington, grandfather of George Washington. The remaining members of the tribe retreated to Pennsylvania to live with other tribes where they shrank in numbers until the last twenty were massacred in 1763.
Geologically, the area around Masonville contains quartz deposits that were exploited by the Indians for use in arrowheads and other tools. Other Indian village sites discovered along the Patapsco have yielded more artifacts, but the discoveries of large shell piles around Masonville suggest that this region had good fishing.
The Patapsco soon became a highway for goods, with the shallow Chesapeake Bay providing fine sailing for vessels from the coast. Flour mills sprouted up on the Patapsco, creating a commodity which helped drive the growth of Baltimore.
Elkridge was, for a time, larger than Baltimore and predicted that it would become one of the great ports of the new nation. Unfortunately, the industries that had brought prosperity also destroyed it. Deforestation from extensive agriculture and mining created massive erosion problems that clogged the river. Sailing ships coming to pick up the rich products of Maryland would drop their ballast loads of dirt and rocks into the river, further clogging up the works. By the end of the 1700’s, Elkridge’s fate was sealed.
Rise of Baltimore
In the times of the American Revolution, Baltimore took over Fells Point as a deepwater port and began to produce ships for the Continental Navy. Trade helped make Baltimore a bigger port than Annapolis. The Baltimore-Ohio Railroad was founded in 1827. Its goal was to tap the Ohio valley and bring those farm products to market; otherwise New York and other cities would get all of the trade. Baltimore was dependent on the National Road.
In the Civil War, Maryland was a border state. In 1860, the people were very evenly split between those who would keep slavery and destroy the Union, and those that would keep the Union and destroy slavery. Most feared that Maryland would become the battleground for the conflict.
Around this time, the Port of Baltimore was the 6th largest in the world. The only bigger ports on the Eastern coast were New York and Philadelphia. Being close to the water had it’s downside too- in July 24, 1868, rains swelled the Patapsco and caused it to flood out all of the cities and communities along the banks. It was the most destructive flood in Maryland history.
The first 13 miles of commercial railroad were laid near Baltimore. West Point graduates plotted the best course, mostly following the Patapsco. Everything about the railroads was new- how to construct them, the best routes, etc. The width of the track (gauge) was chosen carefully because there was no standard. The constructors of the B&O chose well because the width that they chose became the standard for the United States in 1880 and the track that they laid is still in use today.
In 1904, we experienced the Great Baltimore Fire, which destroyed most of the downtown area. It is the 3rd worst fire in US history, and the excavation of burned timbers at Masonville Cove indicate that rubble from the fire may have been deposited here.
Baltimore was the food canning center of the world and a leader in fertilizer production. The steel industry so large that it created the second largest city in Maryland- Dundalk. Baltimore was the nation’s second largest immigration port, but we were also well known for our shipbuilding. After World War I, State of Maryland paid for major harbor improvements, including additional dredging to accommodate larger ships which created an economic boom. During World War II, Baltimore built 500 ships, amounting to 10 percent of the American fleet.
Founding of Masonville
Masonville is located at the southern-most point of Baltimore. At the end of the 1800’s Masonville was a village with a few homes and several businesses to serve the local community. One of the villagers, Mr. Mason, operated a small bread and cracker making business to serve the local community. By and large Masonville was over-looked in terms of industry, in favor of the neighboring communities of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.
Masonville began to prosper with the coming of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad line coming through Masonville to businesses in Curtis Bay. Rail workers would stop in Masonville for lunch. Businesses catering to these rail workers boomed and the population of Masonville began to expand.
This expansion was limited in scope because Masonville was hemmed in by the water and the railroad, much as it is today.
Everyone expanded because business was booming. The world’s largest coal port terminal was located in Curtis bay. Factories were bustling. The ports of Baltimore were world-renowned. Immigrants coming to America came to work at the port and in the factories, which helped the populations of Masonville and the surrounding neighborhoods expand. They brought their native cultures with them and left strong cultural traditions that can be seen in the area today, such as the Polish Home Hall.
As the economy boomed, land along the railroad became more valuable to industry. As industry expanded, the people living in Masonville began to leave until by the 1950’s, Masonville was an industrial area.
A Turn of Events
During 1940’s the fish wealth of the water vanished in the Patapsco, due to pollution. The Patapsco river was effectively dead in the mid-1960’s, with known issues from open sewers, foam from detergents, and algae blooms from phosphates and fertilizers.
Port facilities began to deteriorate, as there was no central command. In 1956 the Maryland Port Authority was created. However, when the economy contracted, it left behind pollution and empty lots. Highways cut Masonville off from their neighbors. Now, at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, Masonville is best known for having a world-class auto-port for the automotive industry.
New Thinking, New Plans
Although Masonville was deserted as a community, being overlooked by Baltimore and the surrounding communities gave nature a chance to revive. While no longer home to people, Masonville is now home to many species of birds, fish, and native plants. With over-development all along the Atlantic seaboard, there are precious few spots for migrating birds to stop along their migration path. Local environmentalists have been advocating for years to preserve Masonville for its natural beauty and importance in the regional ecosystem.
In 2003, the Baltimore Harbor team proposed a study of the Masonville site for dredged materials. In 2004, there came an opportunity for environmental revitalization when the Army Corp of Engineers and the Maryland Port Administration offered to restore and preserve the natural beauty of Masonville Cove and construct an environmental education center as part of a harbor dredging project. Public hearing on draft an Environmental Impact Statement took place in 2005 and 2006. Details on the Masonville Dredge Material Containment Facility can be found on the Maryland Port Administration’s website, or by attending the Masonville Citizens Advisory Committee, which provides oversight on the project and is open to the public.
Since 2007, restoration of Masonville Cove has been underway, including removing derelict vessels from the water and removing over 14,000 tons of wood and assorted debris. The wood was used as fuel for electricity generation in Pennsylvania and recovered metal debris was recycled. The concrete debris was stockpiled to build artificial reefs to provide a home and shelter for fish, crabs and oyster beds.
Cleanup continues to this day thanks to volunteers. From rural village to industrial boom and bust, Masonville now makes the transition to a responsible mixture of industrial, ecological and community.
- • The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History by Paul J. Travers
- • The Patapsco River Valley by Henry Sharp
- • Some Indian Village Sites of the Lower Patapsco River by Richard Stearns