White Marsh is not just the mall, residents say BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL TOWN

February 10, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau

To most people, White Marsh means the vast shopping mall off Interstate 95 or the 11,000-acre designated growth area between the Beltway and the Gunpowder River and Belair Road and Pulaski Highway. But to Jane Gambrill Bickel and her neighbors, the real White Marsh -- Old White Marsh -- is their tiny community, centered on the red-brick post office located in Mrs. Bickel's front yard on Ebenezer Road.

Old White Marsh residents acknowledge the inexorable advance of urbanization and they struggle to retain the way of life they cherish.

On a recent morning walk to the tree line across her field, Mrs. Bickel heard jet engines howling as planes flew overhead and traffic buzzing like angry hornets along I-95, U.S. 40 and Philadelphia Road.

"But I heard no birds," lamented Mrs. Bickel, 67, the community historian. "I remember when there were hummingbirds in the trees behind the house and sparrows in the maples, which are no longer there, [and] eels and mullet in Honeygo Run."

Mrs. Bickel grew up on one side of Ebenezer Road, where her family ran the general store. She has lived across the street in an old farmhouse since her marriage in 1950.

"Within the past 10 years my neighbor had to replace all his old trees -- they were only about 60 years old -- and now my large trees are going. The sun goes down and darkness never falls -- the lights go on all around. Traffic sounds continue through the night," she said.

"White Marsh was a nice country town," recalled Helen Mainster, 82, who has lived in the community 68 years. "Everyone knew everyone else. You could walk safely on all these roads. Ebenezer Road was a small country road."

A few of the big old houses remain as a reminder of how White Marsh looked early in the century when it was a booming village serving both the railroad and the surrounding farms. But most are gone, along with the tomato cannery, two sawmills, blacksmith shop, saloons and many of the other businesses that made up the small rural community.

Gambrill's Store, a general and hardware store operated by Mrs. Bickel's family, was the community center. The savings and loan and various lodges met there and it was also the post office for a time. The store burned down years ago but the old warehouse survives, converted to a delicatessen.

White Marsh, the name for a large area of land grants, appeared first in a 1714 land survey, county historian John W. McGrain said. In 1753, it was perpetuated when the Nottingham Company established the White Marsh Furnace. Ships sailed up the Bird River to load the furnace's pig iron for England.

The iron industry required forest cultivation to feed the furnaces and fields to feed the workers. But once the industry vanished, White Marsh became agricultural, farmed by German immigrants, with some sand and gravel mining, until suburban development from Baltimore began after World War II.

The old Post Road to Philadelphia -- now Red Lion Road -- ran through White Marsh. The Red Lion Inn, commemorated by a marker, was a popular stopping place, and during the Revolution, the French army under Comte de Rochambeau camped at White Marsh.

For more than a century, however, residents have lived with something of an identity problem because what they call Old White Marsh is also known as Cowenton.

The B&O Railroad planned the hamlet in the 1880s when it named its station for John K. Cowen, a company president. But the Post Office had another Cowenton in Maryland and chose the older name, White Marsh, which remains.

In her history, she wrote that a B&O station agent once remarked: "The population of Cowenton is one, myself; the remainder of the people live in White Marsh."

The railroad opened a new world for the area, she said. As many as 23 trains a day passed through, providing easy travel to Baltimore for a day's shopping or entertainment, or even Wilmington or Philadelphia.

Although Cowenton Station has disappeared and only a few freights rumble through, the name remains: Cowenton United Methodist Church, attended by most of the older residents; Cowenton Volunteer Fire Company; Cowenton Federal Savings and Loan Association, established in 1888 and one of the oldest continuous business.

So far, the mall, which opened in 1983, and the designated growth area have affected Old White Marsh only indirectly, mainly by increased traffic, residents said. But once metropolitan sewerage is installed, major changes will follow.

Terry Niefeld, 43, president of the Cowenton Federal Savings and Loan Association, said, "This area hasn't really changed since it was passed over for sewerage. Thirty years ago I could have seen the same thing out the window. The true White Marsh hasn't changed much."

William Foley, 71, who has lived in the area since 1939 and runs a family antiques business in a big 1890s house beside the railroad tracks, agreed. "White Marsh Mall is a shopping center and that's good, but White Marsh is right where I'm sitting," he said.

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