In an unprecedented move for the company, Wal-Mart -- one of the nation's largest retailers -- is allowing an archaeological survey on historically sensitive land near Dundalk before building a mega-store there.
The decision comes on the heels of abortive attempts by Wal-Mart to locate in historic areas in other parts of the country.
"If they agreed to allow an archaeological excavation, I think that's good. They're not easy," said Constance E. Beaumont, director for state and local policy for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The newest Maryland Wal-Mart site, between Old North Point Road and North Point Boulevard, played a significant role as a second line of defense in the War of 1812 when British troops invaded American soil and marched across the eastern Baltimore County tract. Preservationists are hoping to find artifacts such as soldiers' buckles or buttons.
The two-day Battle of North Point in 1814 is considered a turning point in the confrontation, eventually leading to an American victory.
"The battle basically saved our country," said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who led the charge in persuading Wal-Mart officials to permit the dig. "I thought it was the right thing to do," he said of the company's decision. "It's good for the county and good for them."
Like many mega-stores, Wal-Mart often faces opposition from communities across the country that fear its impact on their neighborhoods. It also has come up against preservationists in the past.
Two years ago, after opponents waged a heated battle, Wal-Mart backed off a proposal to put a store on land near the Catskill Mountains in New York where Native American objects and burial sites had been found.
The company also created a maelstrom when it considered locating a store at Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington in Virginia. Historians nationwide protested. Wal-Mart eventually withdrew the proposal.
Before breaking ground this summer for a $5 million, 135,000-square-foot store adjacent to North Point Plaza, Wal-Mart is prepared to pay for the archaeological dig, which is expected to take about two weeks. The cost and start date have not been determined.
For the past six months, preservationists have pushed for a sweep of the 17-acre plot that was a gathering place for troops from both sides during the battle.
At first, Wal-Mart officials were noncommittal. "The county executive encouraged them with a little bit of arm-twisting and telling them how important it is to the county," said Robert Hoffman, a Towson attorney representing Wal-Mart.
Keith Morris, a spokesman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, said the dig -- a first for the company -- will not interfere with a schedule to open the store in early 1999. There are 2,368 Wal-Marts across the country.
Morris said officials were unaware of the site's role in history when they selected the North Point location.
"This was the best site in the market," he said. "At the time, no site was listed as having historical significance. In the end, it was a surprise to us, too."
County historian John W. McGrain said the parcel was not listed with the county Landmarks Preservation Commission. "Nobody had ever written about it," he said. "Early mapping was rather inadequate. Maps were very crudely drawn."
Still, preservationists determined the land was an active site during the War of 1812. But they are uncertain what items, if any, they will find.
"You never know until you're in there," said Judith Kremen, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust. "We're hoping we're going to find metal buttons, bullets, the lead to make the bullets. If we're real, real lucky, we'll find where they made the bullets."
Even if they come up empty-handed, Kremen said, "if we can get a large company like Wal-Mart to consider this, we will have made an important contribution."
Pub Date: 6/10/98