Road marks change of years and landscape


August 09, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The married couple and the widowed cousins live on the same street -- 30 miles and several worlds apart -- and they wouldn't trade places for anything.

Yet they are connected by Falls Road, the oldest and one of the most historic roads leading out of Baltimore. Once an Indian trail along the Jones Falls, the road offers picturesque views of rolling countryside and glimpses of the industrial past.

Crossroads named Clipper Mill, Benson Mill, Resh Mill and Gorsuch Mill recall the mills that operated along the Jones Falls ,, and other nearby streams. A favorite with long-distance bicyclists, Falls Road is among the Baltimore area's most scenic routes.

The first house on Falls Road belongs to Charles and Marcia Wiles. From the porch of their two-story, white-shingled home, 17 steep stone steps above the sidewalks of Hampden, they look down on a busy Falls Road, a ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway and the trees screening the shelter run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Other homes once stood nearer the road's beginning but were torn down in the late 1950s to make way for the highway's construction, said Mrs. Wiles, 75. Despite the changes, she said she and her 76-year-old husband are happy where they are.

"We have driven out to the end of Falls Road, just to see where it went," said Mrs. Wiles. "I like our end better. It's more convenient to the city."

Thirty miles north, however, Polly and Emma Yelton find all the conveniences they need in the small towns near Schalk Road No. 1, the Carroll County end of Falls Road. The Yeltons -- widowed cousins who married brothers -- look from their century-old farmhouses and see, framed by thick tree lines, rolling hills covered in a checkerboard pattern of green and tan fields of corn and grain.

"I don't want any part of the city. I've lived all my life on farms," declared Polly Yelton, 78, who said nearby Manchester and Hampstead offer everything she needs to get by.

Two hundred years ago, when Falls Road became a major link to northwest Baltimore County and southern Pennsylvania, farms, small towns and woods were all that lined the 40-foot right of way established along the length of the Jones Falls Valley.

In 1805, the Falls Road Turnpike Co. was chartered to meet Baltimore's growth and the demands for better transportation. The first tollgate stood near North Avenue; the northernmost tollgate was near Old Court Road. Gradually, the turnpike deteriorated. Repairs, particularly after flood damage, were frequently delayed. Travelers often refused to pay tolls. In 1885, the city took over the lower section of Falls Road. By 1905 the entire road was government-owned.

Today, Falls Road begins at the 1700 block of Maryland Ave., above the network of railroad tracks leading into Penn Station. It follows Jones Falls through a once heavily industrialized area, where the Mount Vernon Mills, the Ma & Pa Railroad freight building and the Streetcar Museum are reminders of a bygone era. Then it rises near the Wiles' house and becomes the main street of Hampden, where scores of small businesses and neatly kept rowhouses line the street.

"Hampden is a very friendly place; everybody knows everybody else," said John Andreadakis, owner of the 90-year-old Hampden Pharmacy. "It's still a blue-collar area, lots of city employees, carpenters, brick layers, electricians, people like that."

Many of the people in this most urbanized section of Falls Road are descendants of mill workers who came from Virginia and West Virginia.

Two miles north of Hampden, at the eastern end of the Kelly Avenue Bridge, stands a cluster of old buildings. Jeffrey Goldman, 41, calls this small commercial community the "gateway to Mount Washington and Pikesville."

"This is the heart of old Mount Washington," said Mr. Goldman, whose Mount Washington Bike Shop has been a bicyclists' Mecca for at least 25 years.

Continuing north, Falls Road passes through Mount Washington and over the new Falls Road Bridge at Lake Avenue. At this corner sits Lacey's Produce, an old country store that recalls a once-thriving crossroads community. The building began as a store but was converted to a house.

"We just reversed the process and brought it back," said Lacey Benton, 36. "We're a specialty shop; we've built our own niche, which sets us apart from roadside stands and grocery stores."

Across the new Falls Road Bridge, past the entrance to Robert E. Lee Park and Lake Roland, is Bare Hills, a once-prosperous chrome and copper-mining area and home of one of Maryland's oldest black communities.

Above Bare Hills are some of Falls Road's best-known landmarks: the Cloisters, a Tudor-style mansion that is now a children's museum; the Valley Inn, built about 1832 on land leased from Charles Carroll of Carrollton; and, at Old Court Road, the Rockland Grist Mill. Some of the mill's restored stone buildings date from 1813.

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