Laurel, Maryland, has a long and illustrious history that dates back before 1870, when it was officially designated a town. Originally, Laurel was called Laurel Factory, which was a nod to the grist mill that had occupied a position as a major manufacturer and employer in the area since the early 1800s. In 1875, Laurel Factory became simply “Laurel.” With its location between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and position on the Patuxent River, Laurel has thrived since its inception.
The Snowden family is generally recognized as the first to settle in the area that would later become Laurel. The Patuxent River was a major thoroughfare in this time, enabling people to travel by water instead of by land. The years passed, and the Snowdens worked to build their fortune in iron. Eventually, the iron works also expanded to mills and other factories. Nicholas Snowden is credited with establishing the first cotton mill in the area, which grew for years. Upon Nicholas Snowden’s death in 1831, the family parcel was divided among his heirs. In 1835, several of these heirs joined their holdings to open the Patuxent Cotton Manufacturing Company.
The company built a community of stone and brick homes for the workers to live in, some of which are still standing today. In fact, one house has become a museum. After thriving for two decades, the mills burned down, but they were immediately rebuilt. Except for a short hiatus during the Civil War, the mill remained in operation until it closed during the 1940s. It has now been partially dismantled due to concerns about safety, and there are plans to stabilize the structure that remains.
The original five commissioners of Laurel were elected in 1870, and this type of leadership was used for 20 years. Then, in 1890, Laurel’s government transitioned to a mayor-and-council leadership with three separate wards. In 1899, Laurel became the location of the first public high school in the county, thanks to the work of Mayor Edward Phelps; the school building still stands today.
Civil War History
Laurel was a slave-holding community, with many local landowners owning slaves. During the Civil War, Laurel’s citizens were a mixture of Union and Confederate, although the majority leaned toward the South. Men fighting in the conflict joined forces on both sides. Laurel was occupied by Union troops, who were guarding the railroad because it served as the only railroad between Washington, D.C., and the North. A small army hospital was established in Laurel.
20th Century and Beyond
Thanks to its ideal location between large metropolitan areas, Laurel grew throughout the 20th century into a bustling community. Railroads enabled people to travel easily in and out of Laurel. Government employees commuted on hourly trains, and a trolley also ran on the half-hour. The town was filled with manufacturers, stores, and even a music academy. The mill continued to occupy a prominent place in local commerce, and a number of homes were built in growing neighborhoods. The cotton mill served as a staging ground during World War I, and then-Lt. Dwight D. Eisenhower lived in Laurel while he was assigned to Fort Meade. During World War II, Laurel’s nearness to Fort Meade led to its involvement in war activities, with many people involved in war efforts living in Laurel.
Prosperity and expansion have made Laurel into the city it is today. Extensive renovation projects have transformed old buildings into revitalized structures, and the Laurel Museum on Main Street serves to educate the public about Laurel’s fascinating history.