Avalon village swept away by 1868 flood, but tiny, close-knit community endures


August 20, 1991|By Robert Erlandson | Robert Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

In Celtic legend, Avalon was the mystical isle of the dead where King Arthur and other heroes were taken after death.

In southwestern Baltimore County, Avalon died more than a century ago as a busy industrial village, swept away in the great flood of 1868. But it remains as a tiny, close-knit residential community beside the Patapsco River.

From new houses to two of the original stone mill buildings, the 32 homes of Avalon are strung out along the main drag, two-lane Gun Road, which winds beneath shady arbors formed by big old oak trees from Rolling Road to the valley floor.

For Bill Hedeman, 70, life in Avalon has always been an adventure.

He was only about 7 when he was probably the Baltimore & Ohio railroad's youngest regular commuter and learned to drink coffee from a rusty tin can in a hobo jungle.

Every morning he rode the train (free because the conductor was a family friend), then walked a few blocks to school in Relay.

"I used to walk home along the railroad tracks, then cut into the woods," the retired Bendix Corporation executive recalled. "There was a little trickle of a stream in there and always some hobos."

"Those were Depression days and they always asked me if I had food. They were always hungry. I don't know where they got the coffee, but they always had that," he said.

Mr. Hedeman says that Avalon was "very rural" in his youth, and Gun Road was paved with crushed oyster shells. Many families kept sheep and cows among their livestock "so there were plenty of chores; I got very strong hands from milking those cows," he said.

There were compensations, too, ice-skating in the winter on "the Reservoir," the former mill pond finally destroyed by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and fishing in the summer along the river.

Elvan "Evvie" Clayton, 89, the oldest Gun Road resident, built many of the houses along the road. "But when I was a child it was all wilderness, very primitive. There were only three families here when we came," he said.

As a child, Mr. Clayton said, he walked three or four miles daily to and from a two-room school. "There were no school buses then. I walked when the snow was over my knees," he said. Two teachers came from Baltimore every day to instruct the eight grades. Mr. Clayton said his father came from Tennessee as an engineer at the waterworks. "The works purified the water and then the big pumps rammed it up the hill to supply Catonsville."

Local lore is that Gun Road -- earlier called Avalon Forge Road -- was the route of the French Army that reinforced Yorktown and that Washington cached weapons here for troops heading from Philadelphia to Elkridge Landing, then a busy port town, for transport to the Virginia campaign.

County historian John W. McGrain said industry thrived in the area starting in 1761 with Caleb Dorsey's iron forge, which later supplied bayonets and other forged items during the Revolution. In 1775, a mill was established to produce iron for making nails, a new product for Maryland.

The name Avalon appeared for the first time in the 1820s. The Ellicott family bought Dorsey's Forge in 1815 and incorporated the Avalon Company in 1823. It became a major producer of sheet iron, boiler plate, brads and nails.

The nail works burned down in 1845. A new plant was built by 1850 but four years later it was replaced by a larger,steam-powered works that produced as many as 40,000 kegs of nails a year.

On July 24, 1868, Avalon was swept into history as a manufactory when a great flood devastated the area, destroying several mills along the Patapsco's banks including those at Avalon, which closed permanently.

In 1910, a private water and power company bought the site to supply the southwestern county, including Catonsville. The city took it in 1922 but within four years the plant was obsolete and the property became part of Patapsco State Park in the 1930s.

Hurricane Agnes' blast down the Patapsco River Valley in 1972 was the final blow. Bulldozers swept away what was left; only two of the old houses survive.

One is "Baltimore City House," so called because the waterworks manager lived there when the city owned the property, said Park Ranger Gary Haslam, who lived in it for 11 years.

Mr. Haslam, now assistant manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park, said the house, now converted to offices, dates from the late 18th century and was a comfortable dwelling despite its low ceilings and narrow spiral stairs.

Miriam Bruns has lived since 1940 in the other surviving house, a sturdy 3 1/2 -story stone structure built probably by the Ellicotts between 1815 and 1822. Legends about the house abound, she said, including that it was a hide-out for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

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.