Dundalk residents and some preservationist groups fear that a developer’s plans to build storage units on one of the last undeveloped pieces of battleground land from a key War of 1812 battle may destroy human remains that they believe are yet to be unearthed on the property.
The proposed building would be an extension of a Prime Storage facility on North Point Boulevard, near Norris Lane. Developer Bob Moser is seeking to build the additional structure along North Point Road, just south of existing storage buildings.
The new facility would be 13,600 square feet, according to a site plan, rising as high as 40 feet — roughly three stories.
Baltimore County approved the project as a limited exemption from standard development processes because it’s a minor commercial structure, so neither public notice nor hearings were required. Moser bought the land for the extension in 2017, according to state property records.
The property is near the site of the former Patapsco Neck Methodist Meeting House, used as a field hospital during the Battle of North Point in September 1814. Around 70 American and British soldiers were killed during the two-day battle, and the story goes, British bodies were buried in unmarked graves near the long-gone church that was used as a makeshift hospital.
A 1990s archaeological survey found no evidence of remains on the property where the project is proposed. But community groups and state and federal agencies want to halt the development for a more thorough investigation they say would determine the truth.
“It’s gotten to this point because people did not know this history, even though there are people out in the wilderness crying that this is an important site,” said Robert Reyes, who served on the state and Baltimore County War of 1812 bicentennial commissions in 2012.
The Battle of North Point, the first skirmish in the Battle of Baltimore, by many accounts marked a key American victory, killing a British commanding general and stopping the invader’s march to Baltimore — possibly saving the city from occupation.
“The War of 1812 literally ended in our backyard,” said George Fischer, president of the Gray Manor and Northshire Community Association, which opposes the development.
Around 3,200 Maryland militiamen camped near the Methodist meeting house on Sept. 11, 1814. The next night, British troops camped there after driving Americans across Bread and Cheese Creek. American and British physicians worked side by side in the meeting house to treat the wounded.
A monument on the property commemorating the Methodist church’s role in the battle is listed in Maryland’s Inventory of Historic Properties.
The church is gone, but a 1994 dig by archaeologist Kathy Liston uncovered evidence of its location and relics of a cemetery used by the Methodist church as late as the 1920s. However, despite the local lore, Liston did not find evidence of British soldiers buried there.
Liston’s work involved metal detection, surface collection and stripping of the top layer of soil, which revealed no graves where the new building is proposed. Liston, who has since retired, said any remains possibly buried there were destroyed by the construction of a farmhouse in the 1930s.
She did find evidence of 35 burials on a piece of Moser’s land that’s set to be purchased and preserved by the county for $102,000 in Program Open Space funds. The terms of that sale, however, require Prime Storage to first secure all permits to build its new storage shed.
Brianna Pearce, chief compliance officer for Prime Storage, told The Baltimore Sun in an email that ground-penetrating radar surveyed 45,000 square feet of property owned by Prime Storage in 2019, an area that includes land not slated for development.
The firm found evidence of 21 burials on land not included in the proposed expansion, Pearce said. She would not say if the survey covered the land where the expansion is proposed.
“Prime has worked with Baltimore County in an effort to ensure that the proposed project does not impact those burial sites and that the portion of the site having historical significance will be preserved,” Pearce wrote.
But community groups — Gray Manor and Northshire Community Association, the Dundalk-Patapsco United Methodist Church, Clean Bread and Cheese Creek Inc., Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, and Friends of the North Point Battlefield — have fought the development’s advance.
“It’s not like they’re putting something there that’s needed by the community,” said John Long, who leads the volunteer group Clean Bread and Cheese Creek in cleanup efforts around the waterway. There are two other storage facilities just over a mile away on North Point Road.
Liston, the archaeologist, said the land and burial sites have been whittled away by a go-kart track and farming operation. The widening of North Point Road destroyed possibly as many as 15 burials in the 1920s, Liston said. There are anecdotal reports of human bones emerging from the embankment.
She estimated in her 1994 excavation that there could be as many as 50 graves, based on coffin hardware found across the site.
“You shouldn’t [build] because it is hallowed ground,” Liston said. “But then, of course, the whole area was hallowed ground and the whole area was built up.”
Liston doesn’t support the Prime Storage project.
“However,” she said, “I cannot say that it needs to be stopped because I think there are more burials there.”
‘Bad things happen to good gravesites’
Development potentially threatening the buried dead is “not an unusual problem” in the state, said Eileen McGuckian, president of the Coalition to Preserve Maryland Burials.
Residents in Baltimore’s Westfield neighborhood, for instance, have for years disputed a developer’s plans to build five homes on property they say could contain unmarked graves of members of a once-prominent Baltimore family.
“Burial sites are us. It’s part of our lives, part of our history,” McGuckian said. “It happens all the time and it happens all across Maryland. Bad things happen to good gravesites.”
State law does little to preemptively protect burials from encroaching development, although it’s illegal to remove human remains unless the state’s attorney of the county involved signs off.
Baltimore County is among the majority of Maryland jurisdictions that lack local law protecting burial sites, although surrounding jurisdictions — Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties — have enacted ordinances to protect historic cemeteries.
Developers in Anne Arundel, for instance, must identify all historic resources, including graves, before submitting a plan for review. Historic resources that are found are evaluated by the county to see if they should be preserved.
“A local ordinance would be the perfect thing to have so you can deal with this at the local level and the onus isn’t totally on the property owner” to resolve, McGuckian said.
Republican County Councilman Todd Crandell, who represents the area, plans to introduce legislation that may compel property owners to prove there are no burials on a site proposed for development if the possibility exists that there are human remains.
County Attorney James Benjamin wrote in an email to The Sun that the county had done its “due diligence” in assessing the property during development review.
Fischer appealed the county’s decision to exempt the project from standard development processes, but the Board of Appeals ruled in Moser’s favor in August last year.
The opponents “reasonably advocate for some type of historic designation and preservation here,” the board wrote in its opinion, but noted that the board had no authority to decide if a property was entitled to such a designation.
Regardless of whether bones lie beneath the proposed building, the community, historians and environmental preservationists say that the mere question of the burial site, and its proximity to undisturbed, historically significant land should be enough to halt the project.
In a letter of opposition to the project addressed to Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., the National Park Service said the land has been identified as a “high potential historic site” to add to the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, a path connecting resources that led to the creation of the U.S. national anthem during the War of 1812.
“The whole parcel is one of the last undeveloped portions of the North Point Battlefield,” Liston said. “The state should preserve the entire parcel as a state historic park.”