Thank you to Nathan Dennies, volunteer chair of the the Greater Hampden Heritage Alliance, for contributing this short history of cotton duck and textile mills in Hampden and Woodberry.

Hampden-Woodberry is nestled in the picturesque Jones Falls Valley, flanked by the verdure of Druid Hill Park and Wyman Park. Artists—particularly painters—were drawn to the natural scenes along the Jones Falls right outside the city. Hampden-Woodberry was included in the wildly popular two-volume book Picturesque America by poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant. In his illustrated guide to American scenery, Bryant describes the quaint charms of the Jones Falls and surrounding reservoirs. By then, the textile industry had already made its mark on the area. Bryant saw this as a negative. He writes of the “huge dragon” of city development “eating away the green fields of the country.” In the 1870s, the textile industry in Hampden-Woodberry was well on the rise, an industry that began where the city’s grain industry left off.

Grist mills for a growing city

Flour had once been the economic lifeblood of Baltimore. John Stevenson’s experiment with exporting flour from Baltimore to Ireland in 1750 had created a lucrative niche for the fledgling port. The Jones Falls provided reliable water power for the mills and the stream’s close proximity to the port made it an obvious place for industry. Several flouring mills soon appeared in Hampden-Woodberry, including one established by abolitionist and businessman Elisha Tyson, near what is now the Woodberry light rail stop. Tyson also helped to establish the Jones Falls Turnpike on an old Native American trail along Falls Road, and kept a summer home in Stone Hill.

The flouring mills flourished into the early 1800s. There were as many as a dozen flouring mills within four miles of Baltimore. However, a saturated market created fierce competition. Even worse, the United States was being pulled into the Napoleonic Wars, caught in the middle of naval conflicts between France and Great Britain. American merchant ships were being seized by the British Navy and thousands of American sailors were captured. In response, Thomas Jefferson embargoed British goods, which the United States relied on for cotton products. By this time, the closely guarded secrets of the British textile industry secrets were up for grabs after industrialist Samuel Slater established America’s first cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Enterprising industrialists in Baltimore took note of the growing demand for American cotton products and began converting the flouring mills along the Jones Falls into cotton mills.

Early cotton mills on the Jones Falls

The first cotton mill in Baltimore, and third in the United States, was the Mount Washington Mill, established in 1811. The mill would be in operation for forty years before two enterprising industrialists, Horatio Gambrill and David Carroll, bought the mill in 1853 and began to maximize its potential. Gambrill and Carroll began purchasing flouring mills in Hampden-Woodberry in 1839 and converting them into textile mills, specifically for the production of cotton duck.They began with Whitehall Mill, and soon established Woodberry Mill and Mount Vernon Mill. They found cheap labor in rural Pennsylvania and Appalachia. Small farms in the mid 1800s had trouble competing with new mechanized farming technology, such as the reaper, which could harvest crops more efficiently than workers could by hand. Out of work and in need of money, the mills seemed like a much better opportunity for farm workers than staying put.

By the mid-1840s, Gambrill and Carroll had established their workforce. Mill villages were quickly erected in Stone Hill and Woodberry. The design of these villages were intentionally paternalistic. Workers lived in cottage-like duplexes made of stone quarried just north of the mills along the Jones Falls. The supervisors of the mills also lived in the villages. David Carroll had his estate built on the hill overlooking Stone Hill, giving workers the impression that the boss was always watching. Strict moral rules were enforced.Taverns and dance halls were not allowed within 1-mile of the mill villages. The mills provided basic services for the workers, too, such as churches and company stores.

Mill villages in Hampden-Woodberry

Textile production in Hampden-Woodberry hit its stride in the 1870s, during the throes of a national depression.  In 1870, 631 workers were employed by the mills. By the end of that decade, the workforce grew to nearly 3,000. In addition to the textile mills was the Poole and Hunt Machine Works, established in 1853. By 1888, the company employed 700 workers, making up one-third of the iron workforce in Baltimore. The opening of the stately Meadow Mill in 1877 signaled the prosperity of the mills. Built by William E. Hooper, a partner of Gambrill and Carroll, Meadow Mill was one of the most successful and certainly the most beautiful of the mills. Hooper took care to give this center of industry an idyllic touch. The grounds were landscaped with flower beds and curving paths. Surrounded by woods on a hill bordering Druid Hill Park, Hooper developed the Brick Hill village for his growing workforce.

At the end of the century, the mills in Hampden-Woodberry merged with several other mills around the country to form the Mt. Vernon-Woodberry Cotton Duck Company. This gilded-age giant controlled about 80% of the world’s cotton duck. It was during this time, too, that the textile mills in Hampden Woodberry reached their peak at 4,000 workers. The people of this large workforce had made their home here, and with it came rapid development. However, tensions were rising between workers and mill owners, the inevitable outcome of an increasingly large workforce coming up against an increasingly controlling employer.