Gerry Chriest of Eastship Road, like me and I’ll bet most folks around here, recently noticed something different. On Willow Spring Road near St. Timothy’s is a small but prominent sign that says, “St. Helena, Dundalk’s Oldest Neighborhood.”

Being a sagacious man, Mr. Chriest pondered the deeper layers of meaning implied by this sign, and several questions arose in his mind. So he sent them to me.

When I got them, I paused to think (for once) and rein in in my overdeveloped willingness to see the workings of dark conspiracies in mundane objects. Instead, I stuck to the obvious. Who put up such a sign? What is its purpose? What dread, hidden power — oh, sorry. Are the claims made by the sign true? Can St. Helena be a neighborhood of Dundalk when Dundalk itself is not incorporated? If so, is it really the oldest neighborhood in town? How did it get its name? And just who is St. Helena?

I started by bumping off the obvious. St. Helena was the mother of Roman emperor Constantine who became a Christian in the 3rd century. She was converted by her son, who embraced the faith after his victory at the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge.

And the sign went up about four months ago, according to George Wischhusen, president of the St. Helena Neighborhood Association. The association paid for the sign and placed it in a prominent position because its members felt that the area needed “a symbol of pride,” in the words of Mr. Wischhusen.

As for this question about the neighborhood’s inclusion, in a prior column I pointed out that Dundalk is largely a state of mind. In an unincorporated town, boundaries are mostly a matter of consensus.

Absurd purists may claim one’s street name has to end in “ship” or start with “dun” to live in Dundalk. These people confuse the concepts of neighborhood and town. Dundalk is a town. St. Helena is a neighborhood. It is as much a part of Dundalk as Watersedge, Turner Station or Logan Village. Old Dundalk is just another of Dundalk’s constituent and picturesque neighborhoods.

So, now for the hard questions. Is St. Helena the oldest neighborhood, and how did it get its name? For these mysteries, I descended into that vault of wonders known as the archive of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.

The files indicate that the land upon which the neighborhood sits was subdivided from a larger tract known as Longwood Farm in the early 1890s. Charles Lewis bought this portion of the farm with the intention of developing it into a village . He organized the St. Helena improvement Co., which plotted the subdivision and filed plans for streets and utilities in 1892.

By 1916, when the idea of Dundalk was just getting started, St. Helena had three churches, a school and its own volunteer fire department. In fact, before the Dundalk Company began building, the entire area was known generally as St. Helena. It was a simple accident of fate that the Bethlehem Steel execs who envisioned a planned community for their workers chose the name of the local foundry for their community rather than use the pre-existing name. Otherwise, I would now be writing a column about the history of Greater St. Helena.

But, as to the origin of the name, the files contained a mystery. The account in the files states that Arthur Bryan, a colonel in the English army, received the tract as a grant from the Lord Proprietory of the colony. He wished to name his new estate “Bonaparte” because of his admiration for the French leader, but his daughters objected and begged him to change the name. He then selected, according to this account, the name St. Helena, the site of Napoleon’s ultimate exile.

Friends, this story has problems. Lord Baltimore stopped handing out substantial land grants in the late 1600s. We gained our independence in 1783, when Napoleon was 14-years-old. He rose to power in the 1790s and was not exiled to St. Helena until 1815.

If the Napoleon origin of the name is true, then it is unlikely that Bryan either received his grant from Lord Baltimore or was an officer in the British army. In addition, Bryan’s will was not recorded until 1850, according to Baltimore County historian John McGrain. If that is the year he died, he would have been over a hundred years old to have been of proper age for a colonel in the Revolution.

He could have been an immigrant British colonel, but, as Mr. McGrain pointed out, he signed his will with an X. Illiteracy would have disqualified him for officership in either the English or American army. Mr. McGrain suggests that the title was an honorific of the type often given to prominent landowners of the period (sort of the way Brits use the word “squire”).

So the naming legend has some holes. But I never found anything to contradict the legend’s claim about Bryan’s daughters begging him not to name the area “Bonaparte, “ so it could be true. If so, the neighborhood is named for a site of exile and death. Isn’t history fun?

(first published 2001)