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County's Roads Mark History's Footsteps

Bob Baldwin, a retired Anne Arundel road contractor, remembers working alongside his family taking soil samples as a boy.
Bob Baldwin, a retired Anne Arundel road contractor, remembers working alongside his family taking soil samples as a boy. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Grace Gallagher
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Digging in dirt was simple business for young Bob Baldwin, who, like many boys, enjoyed nothing more than scooping the sandy stuff while his father and uncle worked the heavy equipment.

His family of "dirt contractors" scraped together soil samples from every corner of the county to find out whether the land would support the roads the state intended to build.

"It was my job to dig a hole and fill a bag with 40 or 50 pounds of dirt," said Baldwin, 72, who remembers, as a preteen, squatting on a quiet stretch of Busch's Frontage Road with a shovel, scooping out dirt and clay where Route 50 now runs.

Thanks in part to the dirt contractors of the past half-century, Anne Arundel County is now covered by 1,750 miles of asphalt.

While others may easily slip into the habit of defining Anne Arundel County by the waterways that form most of its boundaries, longtime residents such as Baldwin know that the county's highways and byways are a compelling road map to the past.

Because of 1997 legislation that granted several dozen roads in the county special protections, there are still some roads that reflect the county's rural history even as they provide passage to a rapidly developing future.

Unlike some of the popular "heritage" trails being blazed by the local tourism industry to draw visitors into historic buildings and museums, the Scenic and Historic Roads designation is intended to help residents understand the way communities once were linked.

"The scenic and historic road program is not so much about tourism as it is about preserving roads and making sure the character of the roads is maintained," said Jenna Solomon, assistant historic preservation planner for the county's office of planning and zoning.

For example, she said, the high berms along the edges of many of the roads in southern Anne Arundel County are being spared from development. They represent years and years of travel that pushed the surface down several feet. "We need to make sure there is no development on either side of these roads. It's worth preserving because it's something you can't reproduce any other way. It's taken 300 or 400 years to happen that way."

Other designated roads include those village road systems in Glen Burnie that developed around the train station and the network of intersections around Upper Marlboro where farmers once assembled their produce wagons. From those little thoroughfares, they'd make their way to the Patuxent River where the goods were taken aboard flat boats to broader markets, until the river became impassible due to silt.

"We built these roads for functions that haven't stood the test of time," said George Cardwell, the county's chief of transportation planning. "Some roads get improved and others don't because their destinations don't draw the way they once did."

Physically, the roads' composition also tells a history of the county. Under layers of asphalt, many of the oldest roads were paved in crushed oysters. Baldwin knows that oyster shells aren't the only artifacts buried under today's smooth surfaces.

He remembers fondly the way King George Street in downtown Annapolis used to dead-end at the water. From there, water ferries would taxi people across the Chesapeake Bay. Now, Gate 1 at the U.S. Naval Academy sits firmly on the site of the old ferry strip.

"Coming into town was one of the highlights of a trip to Ocean City," said Baldwin, sounding slightly wistful. After all, it was his family's company, Reliable Contracting, that provided the fill dirt upon which the Naval Academy was built. "Now it's hard to believe it's the same old road."

To see which roads are designated as scenic and historic, check out the county's Web site at http://www.aacounty.org/PlanZone/Resources/ScenicHistoricRoads.pdf.

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