Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Rich Mill History Finely Woven into Laurel’s Fabric

Jun 04, 2012 07:31PM ● By Anonymous

One can only wonder what Laurel’s founders would think of this present-day city. With its population of 25,115 (the 2010 Census figure), sprawl into three counties (Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, and Howard), the evolution of Main Street and its conversion from a well-located (as it happened) mill town to suburbia, and onwards to the early stages of today’s renaissance, Laurel has come a long ways since first settlement.

Earliest Settlers

Laurel was founded as Laurel Factory, a nod to its status as a mill town. Prior to English settlement, the area is known to have been the site for Native American camps, and a number of their artifacts have been found over the years by local citizens.

Located on the fall line of the Patuxent River, it was the potential for water power that made the site a natural for manufacturing operations.

During the Civil War, Laurel Factory was occupied by Union troops guarding the railroad, which was the only rail connection between the North and Washington, D.C., at that time. The 109th New York and 141st New York had the primary rail guard function in Laurel during the early years of the war; the town was also the site of a small army hospital, associated with a larger operation at Annapolis Junction.

Laurel’s location on the railroad ensured it was of continuing interest to Union interests, although the town’s citizens had Union, as well as Confederate, persuasions; soldiers from both sides died during the conflict.

“Interestingly, Laurel’s location, which proved to be important during the conflict, is also what eventually secured Laurel’s place as a convenient suburb to Baltimore and Washington in the ensuing years,” says Lindsey Baker, executive director of the Laurel Historical Society.

First in Prince George’s

True, later 19th century Laurel was evolving into an early version of today’s suburban community, with excellent rail—and stagecoach—connections to Washington and Baltimore. The town incorporated in 1870 as Laurel, sans “Factory,” a reflection of its aspirations and economic realities; and what had been a commissioner form of government switched to its present day mayor-and-council form in 1890.

During this period, Laurel became an economic and cultural center for the surrounding area, which was largely rural. City maps, business directories and photos from the period reflect a variety of businesses along Main Street and elsewhere, from grocers to small manufacturers, to dry goods stores.

Another for instance was the Academy of Music, which rose at the corner of Prince George Street and Route 1 in 1878. A map of the period shows a community still dominated by the mill, but with many small lots and new subdivisions.

The town is the site of many Prince George’s County firsts: the public library, public high school and national bank. Laurel can also boast of Prince George’s County’s oldest continuously operating volunteer fire department, which was formed after a fire devastated its downtown in 1899.

During the 20th century, Laurel’s place was cemented as an independent small town, as well as a locale that served as a thriving suburb to the growing metropolises of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Laurel’s many government workers’ commuter needs were served by additions to the hourly trains; in addition, a trolley service operated with a half-hour schedule from Sixth Street and Main, downtown to the Treasury Building in Washington, from 1902 to 1925.

Such easy accessibility was also a factor behind the opening of Laurel Park, the town’s internationally-famous horse racing track, which offically opened on October 2, 1911, with its first meeting held under the direction of the Laurel Four-County Fair.

One newspaper, the Laurel Leader, was formed shortly before the turn of the century and it still exists under that name to this day; earlier papers existed for shorter periods, and more recently others have appeared, notably The Gazette.

Suburbia Beckons

During World War I, the cotton mill became a staging ground and residence for soldiers from Fort Meade—including a young Lt. Dwight Eisenhower and wife Mamie. A movie theater opened in the 1920s that featured first-run silent films, and later talkies.

Image courtesy Laurel Historical Society and Museum

During The Depression, Laurel residents shared many of the country’s hardships; stores closed and families moved in together; hobos were known to have gotten off the train as it stopped or slowed, and followed sidewalks marked toward homes that would offer some food or clothing.

Prosperity rose during and after the World War II, when the population began to grow, which started a trend that has continued to the present. A population of 2,500 in 1930 reached 8,503 by 1960, at which point more than 50 percent of the population worked for such federal government divisions as the National Security Agency, the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Silver Spring, or elsewhere in and around Washington.

In addition, Laurel evolved into a preeminent retail center in the Corridor, with the opening of Laurel Shopping Center in 1958, then the debut of Laurel Mall in 1964.

In 1970, the town celebrated its official 100th Anniversary with week of commemorative festivities, including the publishing of a history book, the production of a play called “The Laurel 100 Story,” window displays, a parade, and fireworks display.

During the ’80s and ’90s, Laurel’s population continued to grow, reaching 19,438 in 1990. It was around that time that Laurel Patuxent Place was built on Main Street and the city expanded its borders to encompass the Wellington development. Laurel Lakes shopping center disappeared, but reemerged with new stores; and the Stanley Library, which opened in 1967, completed a major expansion. It has since outgrown its site on Seventh Street, and plans are underway to build a new facility on the site or elsewhere in town.

Laurel Park, which opened in October 1911, recently celebrated it’s 100th Anniversary.

 “What impresses me is that Laurel has grown so much since I grew up here in the ’40s and ’50s,” says Jim McCeney, now a Main Street resident, “but we’re really two different towns. We have a large population, but we’re really still that small town that I was born in 1941. It’s retained much of the character that it’s always had, even as we have moved into a new era.”

Moving to the Future

As the economy continues to slowly escape from the cloud of The Great Recession, Laurel’s horizon is regaining a rosy hue. The Base Realignment and Closure at Fort Meade will have a dramatic impact on the town, as it has on much of central Maryland, and that will result in a kickstart of various projects that were tabled in recent years due to obvious economic issues.

The state of Maryland’s new superhighway, the Inter-County Connector, will soon be complete. It will connect Gaithersburg in Montgomery County with the suburb at Route 1, which should mean an additional impact on the plans for Greenberg Gibbons Commercial’s mixed-use redevelopment of Laurel Mall, which will be renamed Laurel Towne Centre.

Also coming from just outside of the southern boundary of the city will be the massive Konterra Town Center East project, which will include office, hotel and residential construction encompassing approximately 500 acres. Construction of its I-95 interchange at Contee Road will begin shortly.

Also in the planning stage are the planned transit-oriented developments, one by MI Developments next to Laurel Park, another at the Laurel MARC station at the foot of Main Street; plus the mixed-use Hawthorne Place on the east side of Route 1 at Marshall Avenue, with construction slated to start this summer.

“The city’s recent designation as a Sustainable Community will also help encourage revitalization projects on Main Street, as well as the Route One Corridor,” said Karl Brendle, director of community planning and business services. “This designation helps small businesses obtain state funding for neighborhood revitalization projects designed to help small business.”

These and other projects are filling the city’s pipeline, ready for construction as the economy improves—and Laurel again becomes a focal point in the Corridor.