Woodlawn Replaced Powhatan Mill & Town
By: Martha Hendrickson
March 31, 2015
Today we know Woodlawn as a community, the national headquarters of the Social Security Administration and the previous location of the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. But did you know that before 1902 there was no Woodlawn, but a mill and mill town called Powhatan?
From an original investment by John and E. Levering, the company of Baltimore Manufacturing at the Powhatan Cotton Works built a new mill on the Gwynn’s Falls. The water driven mill began operations in 1811 and by 1813 it had 4,000 spindles in operation. In 1815 it was incorporated and called Powhatan Mfg. Co. The 1820 census indicated that there were 5,300 spindles, 45 power looms, 15 women, and 58 boys and girls in spinning plus 23 girls on power looms. Shortly after the Powhatan mill was established another mill was built nearby upstream called the Pocahantas. Over the years a mill town grew up around Powhatan and Pocahontas Mills. By 1881 the population was 300 and consisted of 63 houses, a general store, a post office, a school, and a Methodist Episcopal Church. The Powhatan Lodge no 23, Independent order of Asbestos Grange no. 172., and Patrons of Husbandry were organizations active in the Powhatan vicinity.
It is unknown why the mill was named after the Native Americans made famous by Pocahontas and the early English settlers in Virginia; according to the authors of Woodlawn, Franklintown and Hebbville, Three Communities, Two Centuries, there is no conclusive evidence of a permanent settlement of Native Americans in the area. It is more likely that it may have been part of a disputed zone between the Algonquian Nation (which included Powhatans) and the Susquehannocks in the north; there have been various Native American artifacts found by residents over the years.
The mill was relatively successful. It changed ownership over the years and produced cotton duck important for the use in sails, mail bags and tents important from the 1840s to 1890’s. However, like many small mills in Maryland, it struggled with fires. The fire of Dec 7, 1895 was the final death toll for the Powhatan mill. It burned down completely, and was never rebuilt. The town buildings were not affected by the fire, but inhabitants gradually moved away since the Pocahontas Mill had already been abandoned. The property was sold, and in 1902, the Woodlawn Cemetery Company was formed as part of a need to provide larger public cemeteries.
Most of the town was razed to make way for the cemetery with several exceptions: the post office, a house, and the Powhatan Methodist Episcopal Church were moved across the river. In the winter of 1902 the frozen ice of the dammed river provided the means to move the Methodist church. The church was moved to 2119 Gwynn Oak Ave near to what we now know as downtown Woodlawn; the intersection of Windsor Mill and Gwynn Oak Aves. In 1930, the Powhatan Church congregation merged with St Luke’s Methodist Church congregation and became St Luke’s Methodist Episcopal Church. A new chapel was built in 1930 and the old Powhatan church building was moved behind the new one and used as a social hall and classrooms. It is still in used today and is on the Maryland Register of Historic Places (BA-2104).
One remaining building of Powhatan is visible today across the lake from the duck feeding area as a stone structure used by the Woodlawn cemetery company for storage. Other evidence of the town is the old Powhatan cemetery which is in the Wesley Section of Woodlawn Cemetery. The graves are identifiable as burials before 1904. (Our HSBC cemetery transcription files list the individual graves and shows the location of the section.)
In 1904 the cemetery company succeeded in changing the name of the town to Woodlawn. And so the entire area became known as Woodlawn thus erasing Powhatan from the map. – M. Hendrickson
Sources: Woodlawn History Committee, Woodlawn, Franklintown and Hebbville, Three Communities, Two Centuries (Woodlawn Rec. & Parks Council, 1977); John McGrain, Molinography of Maryland, Mills of Baltimore County, City and neighboring Counties (2007); Cemetery Transcription files at HSBC.