Passionist-Irvington, Maryland Infancy Narratives December 7, 2003: Second Sunday of Advent

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by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
Historian/Director-Passionist Historical Archives

Neighborhoods have a pulse. How often do we travel local streets or find ourselves stuck in traffic and wonder how old that building is? When was that school built? When was that church dedicated? Present day respect for the Irvington neighborhood is based on respect for its long history.

Several weeks ago I was wandering through the Knott library shelves at St. Mary’s Seminary and University. I came across a large nine hundred and forty seven page book written by J. Thomas Scharf, A.M. The title was History of Baltimore City and County. From the Earliest Period to the Present Day: including Biographical Sketches of their Representative Men. (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881). Because of its age, the style of history consists of much information about important leaders–most of whom the title states are important men. We have to pick through the pages with care to find the names of women. One can not escape the fact of how much nineteenth century Baltimore identified people by race and ethnicity. This prejudice of daily life had a direct impact on every day success in one’s social life, education, and economic well-being. Overall, it is easy to read this grand history of the past and easily miss how the average person lived their day. Nevertheless the Scharf history does help us enter into the Passionist-Irvington infancy narrative. Let us step back in time and imagine what this area might have looked like before 1880. The Irvington area was considered to be in the First District located just west of Baltimore City.

We might remember that Catonsville was named for Richard Caton who came to the United States in 1785. In 1786 he married Elizabeth Carroll who was the eldest daughter of Charles Carroll of Carrolltown. It was he who gave the couple a portion of his estate located in what was known in 1881 as the first district of Baltimore County. In 1870 the population was 9405.

Catonsville was the country home to a good many Baltimore City merchants. Water power derived from the Patapsco River and Gwyn’s Falls which in turn enabled manufacturing. Union Manufacturing and the Glen Estate were also in the district.

Years ago Irvington was considered quite far away from the hustle and bustle of Baltimore City. It was a mile and one half from the city limits between Frederick turnpike and old Frederick Road. The Scharf history notes that it was a “development of city extension and the popular desire for suburban homes in a salubrious and easily accessible neighborhood.” It was, in part, developed into city-street lots from the Schwartz estate under the direction of C. Irving Ditty who “graded three seventy-foot avenues running through from the pike to the old [Frederick] road, and having an aggregate frontage of nearly six thousand feet. Fine residences are being built upon these lots.” Surveys had been done for the introduction of water and gas, “and Irvington is rapidly growing in population and importance.” Notice how such things we take for granted: water and gas, were seen as signs of progress by 1880.

Transportation was of major importance in this First District. Both the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ran for ten miles through the southwest area as did part of the Baltimore and Potomac Road. The Baltimore and Catonsville horse railway made travel from Baltimore to Catonsville accessible. The northern part of the district was served by the Baltimore, Calverton, and Powhatan Railway. Main roads through the area were Frederick Turnpike, old Frederick road, Windsor Road, Sulphur Spring road and Wilkens Avenue. “The surface is rolling and beautifully diversified.”

Baltimore and Catonsville Passenger Railway Company was incorporated March 3, 1860 to operate passenger cars from Baltimore to Catonsville and points beyond using Frederick turnpike. An 1874 law allowed them to use steam instead of horse-power as long as the locomotives were “smokeless, fireless, and noiseless” except as merited at that time. William Wilkens was a member of the October 29, 1860 company membership and its president. Construction on the road began on March 26, 1861 and opened for travel in August 1862.

Wilkens was an important person in the area. His family operated a large curled hair and bristle manufacturing industry. William Wilkens & Co was located on Frederick Road several hundred yards from the city limits since 1847. The plant employed seven hundred people and produced forty thousand pounds of goods each week. Firm member Louis Wilkens, the son of William Wilkens, had a fine residence on Frederick Road about five miles from Baltimore.

Perhaps the next time we wait at Monastery Avenue or S. Morley Street to turn on to Frederick Road we might recall how we are waiting our turn to get on a road that has been busy since before the Civil War. Irvington’s past is about the legacy of people who reside in the shadow of Baltimore city. Rich have lived in the area. Workers have always come to the area. Others have come to Irvington to make a temporary home as they made plans to get a better life for their families.

Today, we might pause and ask ourselves the following question: Is the person waiting for the number 2 bus someone passing through the neighborhood or do they live around the corner?

If you wish to find out more about the history of the Passionists please consult

Please contact Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. at [email protected] if you have any comments.

Permission of Archives needed for publication.