Laurel's early days mirror the growth and evolution of small industrial towns across the Unites States. An 1811 grist mill evolved into an 1840's cotton mill employing more than 700 workers. The town was originally called Laurel Factory, in recognition of its status as a mill town. Prior to English settlement, the area now called Laurel is known to have been the site for Native American camps, and a number of artifacts have been found by local citizens.
Located on the fall line of the Patuxent River, potential water power meant that the site was a natural for manufacturing. Nicholas Snowden (1789-1831) built a stone flouring mill on the river in 1811. By 1820 the flouring mill had become a merchant mill, and in 1824 the site began producing Cotton Duck.
The Washington Branch of the B&O Railroad arrived in Laurel Factory the same year the Patuxent Manufacturing Company was chartered (1835). The new company was managed by Horace Capron (1804-1885), an early superintendent of the Savage factory, who had married Louisa Snowden in 1834. By 1845 two large factories – the Patuxent Factory and Avondale Mill - had been built here employing between 700-800 operatives. The firm also constructed fifty blocks of two-storey stone and brick houses for these workers, many of which are still standing. One of these is now the home of the Laurel Historical Society and The Laurel Museum.
As mentioned, Laurel Factory was a company town. Its acquired name reflected the prevalence of Mountain Laurel in the local area. As a contemporary magazine observed in 1848: “..there is no community in the country, where the obligation of honor, honesty, and truth, and of religion and morality are more scrupulously observed.”
Churches and a town’s infrastructure arrived with the mill. The Methodist Church was organized in 1840, and St. Mary of the Mills, a Roman Catholic Church originally served by Jesuits from Georgetown was built in 1843. St. Philips Episcopal Church followed in 1848. In addition the company established assembly rooms for meetings and social events, and Capron also erected a school house at his own expense. To support the mill operations, a substantial machine shop was also built in the early days.
The history of the Laurel’s mills reflected the vicissitudes facing cotton manufactories in the late nineteenth century. Fire destroyed the (Patuxent) mill in 1855 but it was immediately rebuilt. The mill closed during much of the Civil war, and during the remainder of the 19th century the mill opened, closed, was sold, and reopened. To avoid occasional problems from low water or high water, steam power was added as a backup to run the mill’s carding machines, looms and spinning machines. The impact of occasional mill closures on the town’s economy and population was often grave. The main cotton mill had closed for good by 1929. The Avondale Mill remained in business longer and took on a number of different functions. In 1991 it unfortunately burned while awaiting rehabilitation.
During the Civil War Laurel Factory was occupied by Union troops guarding the railroad, the only rail connection between the North and Washington, D.C. at the time. The 109th New York and 141st New York had the primary rail guard function in Laurel in the early years of the war. And Laurel was 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 throughout the war. Its citizens had both Union and Confederate persuasions, though likely more of the population sympathized with the South. Soldiers from the community died on both sides in the conflict.
By the late 19th Century the Laurel was evolving into an early suburban community, with excellent transportation and access to both Washington and Baltimore by rail and stagecoach. The town incorporated in 1870 as Laurel, dropping the word “Factory”, a reflection of both its aspirations and economic realities. Originally a Commissioner form of government, it switched to a Mayor and Council form in 1890.
During this period Laurel was an economic and cultural center for the surrounding area that remained largely rural. City maps, business directories and photos from the period reflect a variety of businesses from grocers to small manufacturers, to dry goods stores. An Academy of Music was built at the corner of Prince George Street and Rt. 1 in 1878. A map of the period shows a community still dominated by the mill, but with many small lots and new subdivisions.
Laurel is the site of many Prince George’s County firsts, including the first public library, first public high school, and first national bank. Laurel can also boast of Prince George’s County’s oldest continuously operating volunteer fire department, formed after a fire devastated the downtown in 1899.
Like the rest of Prince George’s County, Laurel was first a slave-holding, and then a segregated community. Prior to the Civil War, local plantation owners, including the Jenkins at Montpelier, had slaves. An old letter hints at a slave graveyard in the vicinity of what would have been the Talbott Plantation in town.
There were eighty-eight names identified as “col” in the 1894 Ross and Fairall Directory. Adults’ professions were listed as laborers, servants, drivers. There were also thriving African American communities surrounding the town, including Hall Town and Rossville. Some of Laurel’s African-American residents were employed as ironworkers in Charles Coffins’ Ironwork Furnace in Muirkirk, south of Laurel. In town the Grove, the area to which Black residents were restricted in the 1800s, became the center of the African American Community.
St. Mark’s United Methodist Church was constructed there in 1890. The Laurel Colored School (School No. 2), was constructed in 1884. Together they became the nucleus of the black community of Laurel. A second school, the Laurel Grove School just off Eighth Street operated until 1962. Laurel’s schools were not desegregated until the 1960s, and local African American teens had to commute to Lakeland High School in College Park, and later Fairmont High School in Capitol Heights rather than attending close-by Laurel High. The first African American student graduated from Laurel High School in 1961. Laurel’s African American community has celebrated its history for more than 100 years, and the town still celebrates with an Emancipation Day Parade.
The twentieth century cemented Laurel’s place as an independent small town that also served as a suburb to the growing Capital of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Laurel’s many government workers’ commuter needs were served by additions to the hourly trains, and a trolley service operated with a half-hour schedule from Sixth Street and Main, downtown to the Treasury Building from 1902-1925. One newspaper was formed shortly before the turn of the century (Laurel Leader) and it has carried through to this day. Earlier papers existed for short periods, and more recently others have appeared, notably the Gazette.
During World War I the cotton mill became a staging ground and residence for soldiers from Ft. Meade. A young Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie spent time living in Laurel during his Ft. Meade posting. A movie theater opened in the 1920’s featuring first run silent films, and later the most popular talkies.
During the depression years of the 1930’s, Laurel residents shared many of the country’s hardships. Stores closed and families moved in together. Hobos are known to have gotten off the train as it stopped or slowed, and followed sidewalk marks to homes that would offer some food or clothing, or which should be avoided.
Laurel’s proximity to Ft. Meade meant it was deeply involved in war-time activities during WWII. Many Laurel residents fought abroad. Special columns appeared in the newspaper reporting activities, the town was filled with wives and other workers involved in the war effort.
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Prosperity continued after the war and population growth has continued to this day. From a population of 2,500 in 1930, by 1940 it was 2823, 4482 in 1950, and by 1960 8503. By 1990 the population had grown to 19,438. Many commuted to their jobs. In 1960, more than 50% of the population worked for the federal government, either for NSA, the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak, or in downtown Washington. Well into the 1960’s Laurel was the commercial center between Washington and Baltimore. The Laurel Shopping Center opened in 1958; The Laurel Mall in 1964.
The old mill dam in Laurel, made of stone, was considered a hazard so it was partially dismantled in the 1940’s approximately, and efforts are now being undertaken to stabilize what remains.
In 1970 the town celebrated its 100th Anniversary with week of commemorative festivities, including a published history book, a play “The Laurel 100 Story,” window displays, a parade and fireworks display.
A difficult moment in history was not far behind, and the national political eye was on Laurel on May 15, 1972. Governor George Wallace, campaigning as an Independent was shot and paralyzed by Arthur Bremer. Click to read news story
During the 1980’s -1990’s Laurel continued to grow and expand. Patuxent Place was built on Main Street. The city expanded its borders to the Wellington Development. Laurel Lakes shopping center disappeared, to reemerge with new stores. The Stanley Library, which opened in 1967, completed a major expansion. Today it has outgrown the site on Seventh Street, and plans are underway to either build a new facility on the site or in a different location. There were also losses. The Avondale Mill, then the oldest mill still standing in Prince George’s county, burned in 1991. That site is now part of Riverfront Park, a linear park along the Patuxent River that with a paved pathway and picnic facilities.
The Laurel Historical Society, founded in 1975, spent the early 1990s preparing for a museum as the City of Laurel with grant funds managed reconstruction the building at 817 Main Street. The Laurel Museum now at that location opened for the first time to the public in May, 1996.
History again touched Laurel as it entered the current Millennium. Several of the 9/11 hijackers stayed at the Valencia and PinDel Motels on Rt. 1 in North Laurel prior to the events on 9/11/2001. Click to read news story
Laurel continues to grow, and its increasing diversity has brought it a rich community of new residents, and a variety of new restaurants, shops and commercial ventures. There are plans to redo The Laurel Mall, and develop areas around the historic train station and along Rt. 1. All of these will add to its rich history. So watch this space.
American Farmer, July 1848.
Diaries of George Nye. Laurel Museum Collection
History of Laurel – Originally published on the 50th Anniversary of the Laurel News Leader – Laurel Historical Society Collection
Horace Capron Autobiography, US Department of Agriculture, copy in Laurel Historical Society Library. Johnson, Sandra, “The African-American Experience in Laurel” (paper based on program presented to the Laurel Historical Society February 13, 2003.) Laurel Historical Society Collection.
Poe, Gertrude, ed. Laurel Maryland 1870-1970 Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet. Laurel, 1970. Reprint 1995.
Rosenbluh, Harry G, Ed. Laurel, Maryland 1870-1995 – 125th Anniversary Souvenir
Booklet (Laurel 125th Committee, 1995).
Ross & Fairall 1894 Residence and Business Directory, Laurel Historical Society Collection.
Ridgeway, Whitman, Anacostia Trails Heritage Area: Chapter 3.