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As Towson turns 250, new book by historian John McGrain fondly recalls a simpler Towson of old

The Maryland and Pennsylvania (Ma and Pa) Railroad traveled through the hills of rural Maryland and Pennsylvania. Pictured above is the Ma and Pa Railroad Station in Towson in 1934.
The Maryland and Pennsylvania (Ma and Pa) Railroad traveled through the hills of rural Maryland and Pennsylvania. Pictured above is the Ma and Pa Railroad Station in Towson in 1934. (Baltimore Sun files)

John W. McGrain Jr., the prolific local historian and photographer, celebrates Towson’s 250th birthday and transition from a one-house village to a modern bustling county seat in his recently published book “250 Candles for Towson: Documents and Memoirs.”

McGrain, who is in his late 80s, was the former secretary of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Committee, and since 1998 has been the official county historian. He has written a charming love letter to a place that he loved in former times, before the wrecking ball arrived and hideous architecture took over.

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The wagon of Groom's Ice Company was a part of the Towson scene at the turn of the century. Pictured is the wagon on York Road in 1898.
The wagon of Groom's Ice Company was a part of the Towson scene at the turn of the century. Pictured is the wagon on York Road in 1898. (Baltimore Sun files)

Towson’s beginnings date to the 17th century with two colonial land surveys, James Meadow and Tracey’s Park.

Towsontown was primarily a farming area and by the mid-1700s boasted three taverns that no doubt slaked the thirst of the locals.

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It sat alongside York Road, which was a turnpike that was finally completed between 1808 and 1810 by the Baltimore and York-town Turnpike Company.

Things really began to boom when county government settled there in 1857, and by 1880, the Post Office had trimmed the name of Towsontown to the present Towson.

F. Scott Fitzgerald took up residence at La Paix (the Turnbull estate, now the site of St. Joseph Hospital), in 1932 after wife Zelda suffered her second nervous breakdown and entered Phipps Clinic.
F. Scott Fitzgerald took up residence at La Paix (the Turnbull estate, now the site of St. Joseph Hospital), in 1932 after wife Zelda suffered her second nervous breakdown and entered Phipps Clinic. (Baltimore Sun files)

“For years it was an insignificant little place, consisting only of the tavern, which frequently changed hands, a dozen or so scattered houses, and a store or two. … There are a number of residents of Towson who remember the time when, for a quarter of a mile above and below the village, there stretched an unbroken line of great Conestoga wagons, drawn by six horses, en route to the West,” reported The Baltimore Sun on June 23, 1890, McGrain notes.

Horse-drawn streetcars stitched Baltimore to Towson in 1863, and 30 years later, the line was electrified and there began the romance of the old No. 8 line, which McGrain lovingly recalls from his days growing up there, until the end of service in 1963.

In 1882, what became the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, gave Towson greater access to the outside world when steam trains began puffing their way between Baltimore and York, Pa.

In 1963, No. 8 streetcars were still a familiar sight along York Road in Towson, as seen above. They would soon be replaced by buses.
In 1963, No. 8 streetcars were still a familiar sight along York Road in Towson, as seen above. They would soon be replaced by buses. (Robert Kniesche / Baltimore Sun)

Using wonderful archival material from libraries and his own extensive files, McGrain has also relied on many maps and photographs that he took, and which date back more than 70 years.

He chronicles in one chapter several old Towson characters he knew from his boyhood and through the years. His history and the photos of historic houses and buildings --- many now demolished --- are quite complete and make for compelling reading.

His color image of La Paix, the wonderful rambling Victorian confection that was once home to Jazz Age celebrities F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald west of York Road and now demolished, is today marked by two stone gates.

The lackluster and largely cold, modern, uninspiring architecture that today makes Towson look more like Gaithersburg or Rockville is the basis for a chapter that McGrain has titled “The Crass Assault on Towson.”

He writes that “enemies of the environment began their relentless attack on Towson” after World War II.

Truer words were never spoken.

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