Living In A Piece Of History

MARYLAND LIFE

July 17, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Shallow in the summer heat, the Gunpowder River meanders its boulder-strewn course between tree-heavy banks. Sun rays twinkle off the ripples like diamonds.

On the heavily-wooded bank above, the moss-covered ruins of 3-foot-thick stone walls squat beside a tributary stream, barely visible beneath the tangle of vines and ground cover.

Once, the walls were part of a mill that was a cradle of the country's infant copper industry. They housed the machinery that supplied the sheeting for repairs to the U.S. Capitol dome in 1815 after it was burned by the British during the invasion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, the mill remains living history for one man -- the only current resident of one of the original buildings.

Dr. Les Bradley, a professor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, lives in what was once a worker dormitory and stable for the copper works. His house was built of fieldstone and granite about 1803 when the grist mill that later became the copper works was operating. Today it is one of the four buildings surviving from the mill complex.

The other remaining buildings are the 1818 tilt hammer house, later a residence, and now owned by the state as part of Gunpowder Falls State Park; the springhouse and bridge, restored privately in 1973; and the foreman's house, built about 1815 on the hillside above Harford Road and currently for sale.

When the copper works was built in 1811, the scene on this narrow, winding section of Harford Road in Glen Arm wasvery different from today.

Laden with pigs of Welsh copper for the busy Gunpowder copper works to roll and shape into nails, bolts and bottom sheathing for ships of the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812 and for the famous Baltimore clippers, ox-carts traveled from the Baltimore docks.

Now, Dr. Bradley said he frequently finds chunks of glass-like, blue-streaked copper slag among the ruins and he uses two of the old millstones as porch steps.

Built in 1811 by Levi Hollingsworth, a Cecil County merchant, shipbuilder and later State senator, the plant made Maryland the nation's second copper-milling center, after Paul Revere's 1801 mill in Canton, Mass.

The plant took to the national stage in 1815 when it made the sheeting for the Capitol dome. That dome remained until the 1860s, when the House and Senate wings were added and the Capitol was renovated, according to Baltimore County historian John W. McGrain in his history of early county industry, "From Pig Iron to Cotton Duck."

The Gunpowder plant closed for good in 1883. It lives on mostly in the memory of people like Dr. Bradley, who moved into his house nine years ago.

"I remember the first night I slept in this house," he recalled. "I had the most solid feeling, that nothing could move me, a rock-solid home. And I still feel that way."

The interior was first renovated about a century ago, he said, and has been changed periodically since thenso there is little remaining to show how it was set up originally.

Seven years ago, Dr. Bradley added a wing to one side of the house as a library and office. He covered the exterior of the addition with stone from a contemporary shed razed on an adjacent property.

"I hauled the stones down here on a wheelbarrow and hand truck myself, and put them up," he recounted. It was back-breaking work, but the result was a near-perfect blend of old and new, he said.

"I appreciate the workmanship that went into this house in the first place. And I wanted to match that quality," he added, describing the finely matched stonework and the heavy, hand-hewn beams joined by wooden pegs. "I have a philosophy of recycling and preserving."

When Maurice and Jane Brown moved into their new home on the hill above Harford Road in 1971, the roadside springhouse was in near-ruin, Mrs. Brown said.

Already familiar with historical research from tracing her husband's family in Cecil County, Mrs. Brown said moving into an historic area gave them new impetus.

They undertook restoration of the springhouse and the stone bridge over the tributary stream in 1973. They did most of the work themselves, aided by a local stonemason, she said.

During the work, Mrs. Brown said they uncovered old pipes that once carried water across the bridge from the springhouse to Mr. Bradley'shouse, the former workmen's dormitory.

Earl Copenhaver, whose headquarters as manager of the state park are within sight of the old buildings, said the tilt-hammer house -- where the copper was beaten into sheets -- became a residence in the 1920s but has not been lived in since the 1970s.

"The only thing original is the stone walls," Mr. Copenhaver said. The gabled roof and clapboard on the second story were part of an early 20th century restoration. The building is rented for storage, and the state has no plans to restore it, he said.

According to an article in the Jeffersonian in 1934, the Gunpowder Mill itself was small: one story, 50 by 60 feet, powered by water.

It employed 18 or 20 men, and output grew steadily, from 10 tons a month at the outset to eventually more than double that.

"The mill ruins are very mysterious," Mr. McGrain said, "It would be challenging to see how it was set up. They are a ready-made archaeology project if the state would allow it. I would love to find some early data about it."

Gunpowder apparently was the third copper mill in the emerging United States.

The first was established in 1801 by Paul Revere, the Boston silversmith who rode into history warning that "the British are coming."

In 1803, his copper sheathed the bottom of the USF Constitution, "Old Ironsides," among other famous American fighting vessels, as well as the Massachusetts State House in Boston and New York City Hall.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.