Cemetery rests in shadows of Towson redevelopment project

Tiny gravesite of pioneers won't affect proposal

April 24, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

On the site of a proposed redevelopment project for downtown Towson, a single intact headstone stands above a patch of ankle-high grass and dandelions.

Vines twist over the rusting iron fence that separates a small, 19th-century cemetery from a parking lot and the street. An empty whiskey bottle and discarded wrappers litter the graveyard.

As the plans for developing the land around it generate debate, the burial ground of some of Towson's forebears might appear to be forgotten. But the grave of Catherine Schmuck is, literally, a central feature of the proposed Towson Circle III development.

With laws protecting burial grounds, plans call for the cemetery to stay, even if the project moves forward.

Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina is among the community leaders who say they're glad to see that the graveyard and the development could coexist.

"I think the new project will bring life to the area - well, except for the cemetery," he said.

Said Robert E. Latshaw Jr., president of the Greater Towson Committee: "I think it's kind of cool."

The cemetery would be surrounded by a 56,000-square-foot restaurant-entertainment complex, a 725-space parking garage, a 600-bed student dormitory and 8,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, according to plans that developers Heritage Properties and Cordish Co. have submitted to the county.

The project would be steps away from Towson Circle, also a Heritage-Cordish collaboration, which includes Barnes & Noble, Trader Joe's and Pier 1 Imports.

Some community leaders are lobbying against the proposed development, saying they were not asked for their input and they oppose the idea of housing college students in the heart of the county seat.

They also fear that a tenant such as Dave & Buster's, a chain that serves steaks and other fare with entertainment such as billiards and shuffleboard, will hurt existing businesses.

But other residents say the proposal is a good mix of housing and retail that should spark the local economy.

The history of the cemetery "comes up quite frequently" when development is proposed in the commercial district of Towson, said Darlene Dail, a Timonium woman who traces her lineage to Schmuck.

In the mid-1990s, for example, a proposal to construct a parking garage next to the cemetery prompted an archaeological dig to determine whether there were human remains beyond the graveyard's fence. (Archaeologists did not find any.)

Graveyards can be moved to make way for development. In 1997, the remains of 31 members of the Cockey family - including a Revolutionary War patriot and a founder of Cockeysville - were relocated about a half-mile from their original site on West Padonia Road as part of a project that included a Bob Evans restaurant.

The developers of the proposed Towson Circle III could petition state officials to request that the cemetery on the 4-acre site be moved.

But Robert A. Hoffman, a lawyer representing Heritage and Cordish, said the burial grounds will remain where they are, and will continue to be accessible to the public.

The graveyard - a resting place for the Towsons, Schmucks and Shealeys who pioneered the town - is easy to miss among the high-rise buildings and asphalt parking lots surrounding it at Shealy and Virginia avenues.

"Hardly anyone knows it's there," said Baltimore County historian John McGrain. "It's the only tangible thing we have left of the families other than the name of Towson."

Called the Shealey Cemetery, the grounds may be the burial place for as many as 18 Towson residents, family members have said. The tombstone of Schmuck, a daughter of 18th-century settler Ezekiel Towson, and the stump of another stone marker are visible on the plot.

Though the chiseled inscription on Schmuck's tombstone has faded with time, the years of her birth (1767) and death (1834) are still legible.

Tougher to make out is the epitaph, which according to a previous article includes the words: "I waited for the Lord my God and patiently did bear At length to me He did incline my voice and cry to hear."

The cemetery had once been part of a large parcel known as Molly's Industry, where Mary Ann Shealey operated a general store in 1879 in the angle between York and Dulaney Valley roads, according to a history of the area prepared by McGrain. The second floor of the store served as the armory of the Towson Guards, and the building was later used as a firehouse, McGrain said.

Although spelled slightly differently, nearby Shealy Avenue is widely regarded as being named after the family.

"The little cemetery is the only thing that still stands, other than the street," Dail said. "I'd very much like to see it be taken care of and preserved."

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