Category Archives: Maryland

Where History Meets Dinosaurs and Horses

In some of my recent posts, I’ve been touring you around Howard County, Maryland the setting for my mystery novels. In Ice on the Bay, which you’ll get to read at the end of February, some of the action centers on a townhome in the community of North Laurel.

Tucked in the southeast corner of the county, North Laurel is principally a residential community of some 20,000 souls. As you might expect, it lies roughly north of the city of Laurel, Maryland. Laurel, though, lies in Prince George’s County.

Europeans first came to the area in the 1608, when Captain John Smith explored the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The Patuxent River, the boundary between Howard and Prince George’s Counties, was first named on the map resulting from those explorations. Later, settlers grew crops here, especially tobacco, and built mills which brought industry to the area.  Laruel was originally named Laurel Factory in 1837 when Edward Snowden became the first postmaster. It was a mill town with schools and shops where mill workers lived in company-owned housing until the 1860s. The surrounding agricultural areas included what is now North Laurel.

Laurel maintains a historic district and is home to the Laurel Park Racecourse, a thoroughbred racetrack that opened in 1911. Perhaps more interesting and certainly unexpected, maybe even to those living in the general area, is Dinosaur Park, a rich fossil site where visitors can join paleontologists and volunteers in searching for early Cretaceous fossils.

Back on the Howard County side of the river, dinosaurs also once roamed, as did horses. The horses still do, but not so many dinosaurs anymore. Race horses have long been big business in Maryland and particularly in Howard County. On U.S. Route 1 near North Laurel, the Laurel Raceway opened in 1948 and operated under that name until it was rechristened the Freestate Raceway in 1979. It closed in 1988 and was sold for development as an industrial park. Today, a retail shopping center and car dealership live there, not four miles from that townhome that appears in Ice on the Bay.

But so far as I know, none of my detectives have ever shopped there.

The Edge of the County

Howard County, Maryland is a diverse place. It hosts business and commerce and agriculture. Its population densities range from fairly rural to well-packed suburban. And although on average it is one of the better-off placed in Maryland, rich and middle class and poor alike call it home.

Its land, too, is diverse. Situated on the Piedmont, the hilly plateau between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont (literally “foothills”)  is the remains of several ancient mountain chains, which makes it geologically complex.  For those of us living on the rolling surface, the region can be most beautiful, at least when not overcome by human development.

But sometimes nature and humanity work together. The southern border of Howard County falls along the Patuxent River, which at the midpoint of its course alongside the county flares into Triadelphia Reservoir, created in 1943 by the construction of Brighton Dam. Dam and reservoir are managed by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), an inter-county agency that handles drinking water and wastewater treatment for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. The reservoir provides drinking water to those jurisdictions, but oddly not to most of Howard County. A small portion of southeastern Howard County is served by WSSC, but most of the eastern half of the county gets its water from Baltimore, while the western half relies on private wells.

WSSC maintains recreational facilities around the reservoir, too. Hiking, picnicking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, and hunting are all available. Only self-powered or battery powered vessels are allowed on the lake, of course, to protect water quality, and permits are required.

Among the recreational facilities on the Triadelphia property is an azalea garden near the dam, featuring over 22,000 azalea bushes sited in a 5 acre hardwood forest. I’ve never been there, and might not be anytime soon. My wife is allergic to the darn things.  But for azalea lovers, it must be quite a place to visit. It’s a collection that probably rivals that of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, the azalea garden is temporarily closed. Brighton Dam is currently undergoing maintenance to ensure its future life. Although structurally sound, it’s over 70 years old.  Most of us need a bit of work by that point in our lives! The collection will presumably open to the public again after the work is complete.

Detective Lieutenant Rick Peller and crew haven’t been sighted in the vicinity of Triadelphia Reservoir so far, but one never knows. In the future, clues to some dastardly crime might just turn up in the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, pay the area a visit yourself if you happen to get down that way.

The Rural Side of Howard County

If you stick to the eastern side of Howard County, you won’t see anything rural about it. Aside from the swath of forest along the Patapsco River to the northeast, where the Patapsco Valley State Park straddles the county line, the area is well developed. Businesses and residential neighborhoods cluster along the Interstate 95 corridor stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., including Hanover, Elkridge, Jessup, Savage, and North Laurel. Two other major thoroughfares parallel I95 to the east: U.S. Route 1 and, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland Route 295, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. These three key connectors funnel large amounts of traffic between the two cities and serve all points in between.

To the west of I95, one more key highway runs roughly north-south: U.S. 29, which connects Ellicott City with Columbia and  communities to the south, eventually passing through Silver Spring and into the heart of Washington. But one or two miles west of U.S. 29, the population begins to thin out, and you enter the rural side of Howard County. Here you’ll find less residential housing and more active farmland. This isn’t the Midwest, with its vast tracts of open fields and ten or fewer souls per square mile, but the farms are there.

According to Howard County’s Economic Development Authority, one-quarter of the county’s land is farmland, supporting agricultural sales in excess of $200 million annually. The U.S.D.A. offered a rather lower estimate in 2012, although the county may have been including sales other than crops and livestock, the only items the U.S.D.A considered. For example, horses are big business in Maryland, home of the Preakness Stakes, and Howard County has more horses per acre than any other county in the country. Boarding and training services surely bring in a lot of cash.

In some of these less developed areas, expensive housing has replaced farmland.  West Friendship (which readers of my novel True Death will recognize as the general area where Sandra Peller was killed in a hit-and-run) attracted a fair bit of this sort of development, as has Clarksville and some other areas. Other locales feature more ordinary housing, particularly those strung along the major north-south state routes: 32, 97, and 94. Fields and pastures fill in the gaps between these residential areas, as can readily be seen in satellite photos of the county. But those fields don’t go on for miles and miles. Before too long, you’ll hit another cluster of housing.

Way out in the northwest corner of the county, there is a curiosity. Here, the county lines intersect in a very strange way. The northern boundary of Howard County tracks westward along the south branch of the Patapsco river to its headwaters in an underground pond called Parr’s Spring. Parr’s Spring is, roughly speaking, the meeting point of four Maryland counties: Howard, Carroll, Frederick, and Montgomery. But Montgomery County’s boundary forms a spike thrusting northeastward toward the spring until it vanishes in a point a bit short of that spot. As a result, there are one or two properties that, according to the maps at any rate, straddle the three counties of Howard, Montgomery, and Frederick.

I’ve wondered for several years now how those people are billed for property taxes!