Anyone acquainted with the history of Dundalk must eventually face the conclusion that we seem to have done most of the heavy lifting around here. The people of Dundalk made the steel and built the ships. They worked at Western Electric to make phone equipment and at General Motors to make cars and trucks. They loaded and unloaded the ships that brought the wealth of the world to Baltimore.
As if this weren’t enough, a friend recently brought to my attention Dundalk’s chapter in the story of a company that, through the sweat of its employees, literally provided the building blocks from which much of Baltimore was constructed. As you might expect, I learned the details from the remarkable files in the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.
The story starts in 1750 when the Berrys, a Maryland family, began making bricks locally. Anyone who’s taken a look at colonial buildings will see how crucial brickmaking was to early Maryland architecture. The Berrys prospered at their endeavors. In 1788, an ambitious man by the name of Alexander Russell married into the Berry clan by wedding Rachel Lane.
Through his newfound family connections, Russell set up a brickmaking operation in 1790 at Spring Gardens, where those big oil tanks that went up and down used to stand in South Baltimore. Within a few years, he built a successful company and took on partners. In the early 1800s, the concern was known as Burns, Berry and Russell.
By 1818 the business was called Burns, Russell and Co. In 1828, it provided over a million high-quality bricks for the construction of the Shot Tower. The company supplied the bricks for Mount Clare Station in 1830 and the Mount Clare Shops in 1833. At about the same time, the clay deposits crucial for the making of bricks began to play out at Spring Gardens. Burns and Russell moved their operations to Carroll’s Field, a site near Mount Clare where they paid the Carroll family for the right to strip the excellent clay deposits at the location and continue making bricks.
Business flourished throughout the 19th century. After the Civil War, William Francis Burns, son of original partner Finley Burns, left the company to become president of the B&O Railroad. By 1866, Alexander Russell III, grandson of the company’s founder, was the sole operator of Burns, Russell and Co.
But less than 10 years later, the company faced a big problem. The clay deposits at Carroll’s Field were pretty much exhausted. And that’s where we come in. In 1875, Russell bought a big tract of land at Willow Spring on the shores of Colgate Creek and the Patapsco River.
The clay at Willow Spring was reported to be of exceptional quality, and Russell constructed a large brickmaking plant at the site in the 1880s.
Time was of the essence. Burns, Russell and Co. had been contracted to supply the 17 million bricks needed to build Johns Hopkins Hospital. Begun in 1877, the hospital opened to the public in 1889. In the latter stages of construction, all of the bricks used to make it came from the Willow Spring plant in what would later come to be called Dundalk.
The company developed a reputation for superior quality, and demand soon outstripped supply. By 1889, clay sources in and around Baltimore were quickly running dry, their contents stripped and shipped to the Willow Spring facility for the production of bricks used throughout the United States.
Business boomed again, and bricks from Dundalk were used to build the Maryland Penitentiary, the First Baptist Church in Baltimore and other grand civic structures. During the late 1800s, the company began to experiment with machines that made bricks of less quality but more cheaply and quickly than the older methods.
In 1904, when a substantial amount of Baltimore went up in flames in the Great Baltimore Fire, the demand for these machine-made bricks skyrocketed. Soon, the company (now known as the Burns & Russell Co.) stopped making bricks by hand entirely. Its brickmaking facility became one of the most modern in the world.
By 1927, the company had taken all the clay from the ground on the Dundalk shore. It did not, however, leave the area. Company execs moved operations to a new site on North Point Road in 1929. Baltimore City bought the Willow Spring location to build the Municipal Airport, later Harbor field and now the Dundalk Marine Terminal.
The company made bricks at the new location until its facility was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1941. The needs of World War II prevented immediate rebuilding. Soon after the war, the company’s production objectives shifted. It began making glazed brick and, later, chemicals. It still exists today.
The 1941 fire ended Dundalk’s role as provider of the building blocks of Baltimore. But many of the grander buildings remain. And they’ve got our sweat in their bricks.
(first published 2004)