Moderately sized and tucked away in the southwestern part of Baltimore County, Catonsville is often seen as more of an access town than an actual destination. It is located a mere 10 minutes from BWI Airport, contains portions of 695 and Route 40, and is bordered by the more-famous Maryland landmarks of the Patapsco River, Baltimore City, Ellicott City and Columbia. Despite its reputation for being a nice place to drive through, the community has a life of its own that might take some visitors by surprise.

At peace: Benjamin Banneker Historical Park offers pleasant walking trails. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Catonsville has progressed as a community since its founding in 1729. (It was originally called Johnnycake after the type of cornbread served by a local inn.) What is known today as Frederick Road (or Route 144) was once called Frederick Turnpike, and in the late 1700s, Charles Carroll -- the longest-living signer of the Declaration of Independence -- commissioned his son-in-law, William Caton, to develop the land he owned that ran next to the road. The area was referred to as "Catonville," which eventually became Catonsville.

For many, Catonsville was a convenient place to stop on the way to someplace else. In the 1830s and 1840s, Catonsville was a popular lure for travelers who needed to rest on their journey up Frederick Turnpike. Where people go, commerce follows, and businessmen and their trades flocked to the area, establishing a series of stores along the road offering goods for travelers as well as residents. This might explain the old-fashioned feel of the buildings still standing on Frederick Road.

A nice place to live: Catonsville provides a country setting close to Baltimore. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Advances in transportation made Catonsville more and more accessible to Baltimore City, which made it an appealing place to live for some. The advent of trolley cars to replace the horse-and-buggy helped, and in the 1890s, a streetcar line was installed on a new road called Edmondson Avenue that took passengers to Ellicott City. The completion of Route 40 supplanted Frederick Road as the major western path out of Baltimore.

Catonsville gained notoriety in 1968, when nine citizens -- nuns, priests and Catholic lay people -- protested the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War by setting fire to the records of the local draft board, dramatically answering the question they posed: "Is it better to burn people or paper?" The actions of the "Catonsville Nine" -- as they came to be known -- were imitated by other anti-war activists, despite the Nine's imprisonment and harsh sentencing. The event inspired an award-winning play, a 1972 film version produced by Gregory Peck and the recent documentary, "Investigation of a Flame" by local filmmaker Lynn Sachs.

These days, Catonsville attracts considerably less media attention. And Routes 40 and 144 are no longer competitors, they're friendly neighbors, both offering, along with Edmondson Avenue (Catonsville's Big Three roads), bountiful diversions with minimal crowds, especially if you tire of downtown Baltimore's mob scene. Scenically, contemporary Catonsville is reminiscent of historic Annapolis. The architecture -- especially on Frederick Road -- is simplistic, quaint and old-fashioned.

Drive up Frederick Road and the first thing you'll notice is the selection of sign shops. Dixon Signs, Head Graphics and Sign-a-Rama are all within a few blocks of each other. Hey, where else are these people supposed to give their Ravens memorabilia that professional sheen?

Dagwood! The Taneytown Deli features delicious overstuffed sandwiches. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

If you feel the need to nosh while you wait for your sign to be finished, you are in the right place. There are plenty of restaurants in the area to satisfy every craving. The Indian Delight caters to Middle-Eastern or Asian tastes, Matthew's 1600 offers seafood and more, Pinocchio's can handle those in search of deli delectables, while Sam's Bagels and the Candy Box provide quick treats. Off Frederick, on Mellor Avenue, you'll find your best bet: the Taneytown Deli (see Sumptuous sandwiches). The sumptuous overstuffed sandwiches are worth the trip alone.

Music-lovers, rejoice. The recently renovated, two-story Frederick Road location of Record & Tape Traders is fully stocked, whether you're looking for that hard-to-find Best of Blur DVD, a black light-reactive fabric Jimi Hendrix wall-hanging or the latest album from local fave Brickfoot (see Music for the masses). And if the Pete Townsend CD you bought last week inspires you, just walk up the street a block and buy that Strat you've always wanted at Bill's Music House. Then, when you smash it up doing your best Pete Townsend imitation, pay a visit to the nearby Appalachian Bluegrass Guitars, which specializes in repairs and accessories. Rock on.

Primarily residential, Edmondson Avenue isn't as diverse or as charming as Frederick Road, but it does have a cutesy ice cream stand known as the Tastee Zone, a side-by-side chiropractor and psychologist office to ease the body and the mind in one trip, an enormous CVS and the curious Oakdale Pharmacy, where you can get a prescription filled and pick up various sundries.

Open 24 hours: Satisfy your sweet tooth and hunger pangs at the Double-T Diner. ( Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Catonsville's section of Route 40 is a several-mile stretch of big-name chains, including Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Kinko's, Baskin Robbins, Toys 'R' Us and Westview Mall. Other popular stores -- Sudsville Laundry, Bedding Barn, Dollar Value -- can also be found. There are typical fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and Taco Bell, in addition to such popular college grub-dispensers as the Double-T Diner (open 24 hours) which is especially handy for that 2 a.m. study break), an IHOP and the Old Country Buffet, featuring an insane array of all-you-can-eat dinner for less than $10.

For a taste of local history, visit the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, a small museum that honors "the first African-American Man of Science." A pioneer in the fields of astronomy and agriculture, Banneker spent most of his life in southern Baltimore County. Another must-see, The Townsend House and Pullen Museum, run by the Catonsville Historical Society, offers community antiques, memorabilia and various material collections. Even the Catonsville Library rests on a historical landmark. Castle Thunder, the Caton family's estate, used to be in its place.

A river runs through it: The Patapsco River can be seen from certain vantage points in Patapsco Valley State Park. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

The Patapsco Valley State Park, accessible from Route 40, offers 32 miles of biking, hiking, fishing, canoeing and camping fun, as well as a two-acre playground. It runs along the Patapsco River Valley, so it makes a scenic locale for a warm weather picnic. The Lurman Woodland Theatre, an outdoor music venue that specializes in family entertainment, is also nearby.

The other campus: Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville's humanities building provides a scenic study spot. ( Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

It's likely those noisemakers are hyped-up undergrads having fun after a full day of classes at Catonsville's higher-learning facilities -- the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Community College of Baltimore County.

Although these campuses rank among Catonsville's more prominent markers, the area can hardly be labeled as just another college town. Whether you're looking for name-brand shopping, small-town deals, outdoor recreation, indoor entertainment, a touch of local history or an affordable and safe residential area to call home, Catonsville appeals to all tastes.