On track to preserve past

Residents concerned about development move to protect Linthicum historic sites

May 04, 2008|By David Zenlea | David Zenlea,Sun reporter

Time moves at a different pace in Linthicum. A railroad suburb carved out of rolling farmland outside Baltimore a century ago, the leafy community in northern Anne Arundel County has retained an unhurried, small-town feel even as development, highways and a sprawling airport have crowded in on its borders in the decades since.

On April 25, state and local dignitaries assembled at the old Linthicum train station to celebrate the neighborhood's designation as a National Historic Place.

It was first included in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, but community leaders decided to hold off on an official celebration until Linthicum marked its centennial this year.

"The historic district enables us to maintain that cohesive turn-of-the-century character," said Beth Nowell, a member of the community's centennial committee and leader of the effort to have the area put on the national register.

The dedication as a National Historic Place recognizes Linthicum's significance as an example of interurban development around railroads at the turn of the 20th century, she said, and reaffirms its communal identity as it faces new development pressures.

Linthicum has long been tied to mass transportation. The community traces its roots to the introduction in 1908 of electric rail service through the area linking Baltimore and Annapolis. That same year, the Linthicum family developed 445 acres of the land they had owned since the early 19th century, creating the community of Linthicum Heights.

During the First World War, the community drew soldiers stationed nearby at what is now Fort Meade. Camp Meade Road was built linking Linthicum and its rail stop with the Army post.

In 1950, the city of Baltimore bought land adjacent to Linthicum and built Friendship Airport, now BWI Marshall Airport, which continues to serve as a major economic engine for the entire region.

Skip Booth, a lifelong resident and honorary mayor of Linthicum, remembers riding his bike right up to the then-small airport, where he would watch planes take off and buy magazines in the terminal.

"That was where I bought my first Rolling Stone magazine," Booth said.

But the airport's growth, along with that of Baltimore and its surroundings, has generated pressure to convert the small suburb into what Booth and other locals call an "aerotropolis." The Beltway circling Baltimore, built after World War II, also brought heavy traffic to the area.

The extension of light rail service through Linthicum to the airport also has been a mixed blessing, bringing convenience but also crime.

"We are cognizant of the fact that the town [is] now surrounded by the Beltway and the airport and the Baltimore-Washington business corridor," Nowell said.

Nowell began to rally residents to protect their way of life after reading a 1980s newspaper article suggesting Linthicum might become like Crystal City, Va., the steel-and-glass collection of offices and malls that developed near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. She spent much of the next decade leading the effort to have Linthicum designated a historic place, tracing its history and writing a nominating essay.

The community has grown in its 100 years, numbering about 7,500 residents as of the 2000 census. But many in Linthicum say their home has retained its character.

"Well, it's always had a small-town feel," Booth said, adding, "Being nestled between the airport and the Beltway, it serves as a little island of sanity."

Many residents, including Booth and Nowell's husband, Lawrence Nowell, are part of families that have been in Linthicum for generations.

The Linthicums also maintain a community presence.

Verena Linthicum lives a few houses away from the ancestral family property on Turkey Hill, where her son Robert Linthicum lives today.

"There is such a continuity of family, there are many of the children and grandchildren that have come back to raise their own families," she said.

The designation as a National Historic Place may provide some federal protection against development, but residents say the main value is in its reaffirmation of their sense of place.

"It goes to reinforce and amplify the pride that we have in our community," Booth said.

david.zenlea@baltsun.com

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