- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
From a river of silver to an alleged Indian romance, the names of Southern Maryland’s towns and communities are packed with stories.
Some of the stories are connected to major people in the life of those towns and communities. Others give honor to a memorable leader, place or ship. Some have legends passed down from generation to generation.
Southern Maryland has several towns and communities, so a comprehensive account of how Southern Maryland communities got their names could span a textbook. This account, rather, pulls together the insights of several accounts to explain how some communities in Southern Maryland got the names they bear today.
Generational stories, notable people
Some towns, such as La Plata and Indian Head, have stories passed down through multiple generations that attempt to explain how the towns got their names.
La Plata town resident David H. Chapman said his family has passed down a story that his great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Chapman, named a portion of his 6,000 total acres “La Plata farm” after seeing the Rio de la Plata, or “river of silver,” in Argentina on travels with his ill son, George Chapman.
An April 17, 1978, article in the Times-Crescent newspaper tells a tale that David Chapman confirmed in his story.
The article states that “‘Colonel Sam’ had been quite impressed with the beauty of South America during his travels, particularly with the La Plata River which the natives call ‘river of silver.’ One morning, upon arising at an early hour, he looked down some of the ravines surrounding his property here and they reminded him in appearance of ‘a river of silver’ with the early morning sunrise reflected in the dew upon the many cobwebs spun across the vegetation. He decided at that moment to name this portion of the property ‘La Plata’ for the beautiful river he so much admired.”
La Plata is “silver” in Spanish.
The location of La Plata farm lies in the vicinity of Milton M. Somers Middle School. A tornado on Nov. 9, 1926, destroyed the residence along with the town’s elementary school, killing 17 people, 14 of them schoolchildren.
Another account in “Charles County, Maryland: A History,” written by Jack D. Brown et al, denies that the name refers to the La Plata River or the town of La Plata in Argentina.
“The land was originally part of [the Chapman family’s] extensive, flat acreage that caused them to name their farm ‘Le Plateau,’ French for that type of terrain,” the book reads. “French names were common in the naming of Colonial lands, as was their corruption. Le Plateau was corrupted to La Plata. The name has nothing to do with the Spanish word for silver.”
Others say the area was called Chapmantown prior to being named La Plata. David Chapman said that a map he owns from the 1850s states that land near present-day La Plata was called Chapmantown.
An account titled “100 Years: The Heart of Charles County” by John M. Wearmouth states that an 1861 map by E. & G.W. Blunt identifies Chapmantown near the same location as present-day La Plata. La Plata’s first post office opened in 1873 and Robert F. Chapman, a son of John Grant Chapman Sr. and grandson of Samuel Chapman, became the first postmaster. That same year, the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, subsidized from the Pennsylvania Railroad, opened a train station called La Plata, according to Wearmouth’s account.
La Plata became an incorporated town in 1888 and then became the county seat in 1895, replacing Port Tobacco.
The name for Indian Head has uncertain origins, with a legend and the presence of Native Americans in the past given as explanations.
One local historian of Indian Head, Dorothy Beecher Artes, penned a poem called “The Legend of Indian Head” that states that a Native American romance between an Algonquin “princess” and an “Indian brave” from Virginia led the princess’ father to tell the brave to stay away from his daughter or else. One night, when the Indian brave and Algonquin princess attempted to sneak away, the Indian brave was caught. Consequently, the chief cut off the brave’s head and placed it on a stick to remind people not to trespass their grounds.
Maurice Proctor, a member of the Tribal Council for the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, and representative at the American Indian Cultural Center in Waldorf, dismissed the poem as fiction. Proctor said that Native American tribes did not refer to sons and daughters of tribal leaders as “princes” and “princesses” — that was something that Hollywood introduced in the 1940s. Proctor also said local tribes did not decapitate intruders.
Carroll “Po” Edward Artes Jr., Dorothy Beecher Artes’ son, said his mother developed the poem interviewing longtime residents of Indian Head during the 1950s.
“Older folks in the community circulated it as possible,” said Artes Jr., who now lives in Stewartstown, Pa. He described his mother as a “collector of stories, a historian of sorts” who loved to research and loved the library.
Julia King, a professor of anthropogy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who co-authored “Pathways to History,” a textbook on the history of Charles County, wrote that an archaeological site near the Naval Support Facility, Indian Head reveals that Native American tribes once lived on the peninsula.
The St. Charles Cos. spokesman Craig Renner said that St. Charles was originally called Linda City, honoring the wife of Arthur Desser, who owned the property from 1959 to 1961. Subsequent developers named the area St. Charles City in 1961 and then St. Charles in 1968.
The initial name for the community that became Waldorf was actually Beantown, and the community’s first post office was established there in 1844, according to the account “Signposts and Settlers: The History of Place Names in the Middle Atlantic States” by Robert I. Alotta. One rail station built in 1868 in the area took the name of Waldorf and in 1880, the town became Waldorf, according to Alotta’s account.
Christine Arnold-Lourie, professor of history at the College of Southern Maryland and co-author of “Pathways to History,” said the town name is German for “village of the woods” or “Forestville.”
A contemporary of the time, John Hanson Mitchell, wrote an intriguing statement about the town’s name change, Arnold-Lourie said. On the back of a business card, Mitchell wrote, “Beantown station has been changed to Waldorf. This we consider a great improvement. There is an iconic twang about it, suggestive of sauerkraut and beer.”
Mitchell also wrote that the name Waldorf reflects the town’s musical nature more so than Beantown. The business card is undated, Arnold-Lourie said.
Alotta’s account states that a likely source for the name is railroad financier John Jacob Astor, who was born in Walldorf, Germany. The family is known for owning the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City at one time.
Arnold-Lourie said that when she investigated the Mitchell family papers, they did not mention any members of the Astor family. As a prominent family in Charles County, the Mitchells would have likely mentioned the Astors if they had a relationship with Charles County, Arnold-Lourie said.
Bryans Road does not actually have a road named Bryans Road, but its name apparently comes from a man named Bryan — Alexander Marbury Bryan Sr., according to a 1978 article in the Times-Crescent. Bryan lived in the estate called Strawberry Hill, which used to be located in the present-day location of the Strawberry Hills subdivision, off Marshall Hall Road in Bryans Road.
The house now is in Prince George’s County in the town of Piscataway. According to his obituary, quoted in the Times-Crescent article, Bryan was active in politics and identified with the Republican Party.
“He devoted practically all of his life to farming as was one of the best known and most generally liked residents of his section of the county,” the obituary states.
Benedict, founded in 1683, was named for the fourth Lord Baltimore, Benedict Leonard Calvert. It was named Benedict-Leonardtown at first before becoming Benedict-town and then Benedict, according to Alotta’s account.
Business ventures, railroads
The southern portion of Calvert County, which now includes Lusby and Solomons, initially belonged to Edward Eltonhead after the first Lord Baltimore granted him 5,000 acres of land in 1662, according to Calvert County Historical Society documents.
The island portion of Solomons actually had several names, including Bourne’s Island, Somervell’s Island and Sandy Island, prior to becoming Solomons.
The reason for the name Solomons comes from Isaac Solomon, an entrepreneur from Philadelphia who started an oyster canning factory on the island in 1867. The business venture lasted until 1875, but the name stuck.
Calvert County Historical Society documents state that Isaac Solomon lived in the house known as Solomons House around 1865. The house is the oldest structure on the island, dating back to 1780. The house is now the visitors center at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
The Prince Frederick Recorder reported in a 1972 article that Charles Solomon, Isaac Solomon’s son, was Solomons Island’s first postmaster in 1870. The name became Solomons in 1884.
The mainland portion of Solomons was at one time named Johnstown after John Olsen, a Norway native who was the first person to build a house on the mainland, shortly after a bridge connected to the island in 1870, according to Calvert County Historical Society documents. The area also was named Avondale, after a community of the same name was built around the turn of the century.
Huntingtown was originally along Hunting Creek, opposite of what is now Lord Calvert Bowling on Route 4, Calvert County Historical Society archivist Karen Sykes said.
The 1683 state act for the “Laying Out of Towns” established Hunting Town that year. After the British burned Huntingtown down in 1814, the town moved three miles north to the town’s current location, Sykes said.
The name Prince Frederick honors Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was the son of King George II. According to Calvert County Historical Society documents, the town was called Williams’ Old Fields, referencing William Williams, who owned the property until 1725. The town became known as Prince Fredericktown in 1725, which is also the year it became the county seat of Calvert. In 1911, the town became Prince Frederick.
The first reference to Dunkirk in Calvert County is the estate name for William Groome, a 17th-century landowner, according to Calvert County Historical Society documents. The land stretched for 200 acres and bordered Lyons Creek. Around 1782, several families owned land named Dunkirk, including the Gover, Ireland and Lane families.
The Smith family also played a notable role in the area that became known as Dunkirk, owning property in the area as early as 1670, according to a 1996 Calvert Independent article written by Bartley Wood, a member of the Calvert County Historical Society. Around 1800, the Smith family acquired property named Dunkirk.
Calvert County Historical Society documents state that the 1860 U.S. census shows three areas comprising present-day Dunkirk: Smithville, Smiths Town and Dunkirk. Smithville United Methodist Church, which received its land through Bowie Smith, still bears the name of the former village, though the area is part of the town of Dunkirk today.
As for the reason why the town is called Dunkirk, Wood wrote there is a legend that a cobbler who was living with the Drury family in the northern end of Calvert County wanted the town to be called Dunkirk because it reminded him of the “quaint countryside” of Dunkirk, England, his hometown.
It is common knowledge that railroads spurred the development of Chesapeake Beach and North Beach. However, Chesapeake Beach could have been called “Colorado Beach” if one railroad tycoon had had his choice.
Otto Mears was a railroad tycoon from Colorado, but born in Courland, Russia, who partnered with another railroad tycoon, David Moffat, to develop a resort close to Washington, D.C, according to a Feb. 1984 Rural Living article called “A Resort to Rival Atlantic City” by Candice F. Ransom.
Mears and Moffett formed the Chesapeake Beach Railroad Co. in the 1890s, opening up the rail line in Chesapeake Beach in 1899.
In June 1900, the resort at Chesapeake Beach opened, six years after the first post office opened in the town. During a promotional campaign to name the town, Mears wanted the town to be called Colorado Beach, but the name Chesapeake Beach won out, Ransom wrote.
North Beach came along a short time later, thanks to the North Chesapeake Beach Land and Improvement Co., which acquired the property that became North Beach in 1900, according to land records. North Beach was incorporated in 1910.
Both towns served as major resort destinations in the early 20th century, with a carousel, a roller coaster, souvenir shops and other amenities. The Chesapeake Beach Railroad connected to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Hyattsville, Ransom wrote, allowing Washington, D.C., area residents to visit the two towns. The resorts declined with the onset of the Great Depression and the availability of automobiles, Ransom wrote.
Today, however, there are plenty of amenities present, including the Chesapeake Beach Water Park, Chesapeake Beach Resort Spa and Hotel, plenty of shops along major streets and major events near the towns’ boardwalk.
Owings was originally a station on the Chesapeake Beach Railroad, according to “Otto Mears Goes East: The Chesapeake Beach Railway,” by Ames W. Williams. It was an important freight and mail distribution point in Calvert County, Williams wrote.
An obituary from Feb. 3, 1939, documents Harry P. Owings as the person behind the town’s name, as he was involved in farming and real estate business in the area.
“He contributed much to the successful operation of the Chesapeake Beach railway, which for years meant so much to the growth of Calvert, and it was for him that the station of ‘Owings’ was named and subsequently the post office and town,” the obituary states.
The obituary also states that the original name of the station was Friendship, but Moffat changed the name to Owings in 1899 as a tribute and in order not to conflict with another town named Friendship.
Honoring ships, people, trees
Up to 1932, Lexington Park was called Jarboesville after one of Maryland’s earlier French pioneers, John Jarboe, according to Alotta’s account.
In 1940, the U.S. Navy made plans to build the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, which broke ground in 1942 and was commissioned on April 1, 1943, according to the station’s website.
Prior to that commission, the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier that started out as a battle cruiser in 1919, was in combat during the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942, when Japanese forces damaged the carrier with torpedo attacks. After the crew abandoned ship, the carrier was scuttled, according to the Navy Historical Center’s website.
Dave Seeman, a former Navy carrier pilot and exhibits director with the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, said that the Lexington was a well-known ship, and its loss was a disaster on the heels of the Pearl Harbor attack.
The battle kept Japanese forces from advancing onward from New Guinea, Seeman said.
“The USS Lexington was a symbol of what was now to be the power of the Navy,” Seeman said, “as it represented the development of the U.S. Navy that depended on aircraft rather than battleships.”
The importance of the Lexington in the U.S. Navy’s development of naval aviation made it appropriate for the community around Patuxent River Naval Air Station to take the same name, Seeman said.
Callaway got its name from William Levi Callaway, who was the town’s first postmaster. Callaway’s son, Tall Timbers resident William Lee Callaway, recalled that his father opened a W.C. Durant automobile dealership, which was under General Motors at that time, at the town’s current shopping center in 1920.
“As the business grew and more people came in, he would go down to Great Mills to pick up his mail and his neighbor’s mail,” Callaway said.
One day, Callaway said his father decided to apply for a post office to be in the town, and got the post office and became the first postmaster, along with his wife, Mary Callaway.
The post office was originally near the main shopping center, Callaway said, but in 1970 the U.S. Postal Service moved the post office a mile south of the center.
Callaway did not become a postmaster like his father, as the pay was quite meager, he said. Instead, Callaway became a corporate accountant but retired and now works at Callaway Retail Enterprises in Callaway.
Leonardtown honors Benedict Leonard Calvert, the fourth Lord Baltimore. The town also has held the names Seymour Town and Newtowne, according to the town of Leonardtown’s website.
Mechanicsville came into existence around 1850 and, like the name suggests, was a place of several mechanics. One explanation comes from a 1981 article in The Enterprise stating that a Catholic priest, the Rev. Joseph M. Johnson, who was pastor of St. John Francis Regis Catholic Church in Hollywood, sought to document how the towns of St. Mary’s County got their name.
Johnson wrote the following in a booklet called “Good News About Citizens, Towns and Villages of St. Mary’s County, Maryland” that “we learn from tradition that the name arose at a meeting of expert mechanics and craftsmen, wood and iron fabricators, who claimed the area about the place as their home district, who were solicitous to designate the town with an appropriate and permanent name.”
“As most of the men around the place were craftsmen and mechanics of one kind or another, they clearly saw there were definite signs of the place becoming a sizeable village in the years ahead, that view suggested the idea of joining the two words together, making it Mechanicsville,” the book continues.
The story behind Hollywood’s name gets a similar explanation from Johnson.
“All the landed property in that area was owned by [the] M.C. Thompson family who operated a general merchandise store on the premises of their farm, serving a large neighborhood with goods and wares,” he said.
The place was called “Thompson’s Store” around the middle of the 19th century, Johnson wrote, but the area’s people had no set name for the town at that time.
“But near the front porch of Thompson’s store there stood a huge holly tree,” Johnson wrote. “It was very old. It has been there longer than anyone could remember. ... Everyone has seen it, knew it and admired it, and had spoken of its durability.”
Johnson wrote that one day some men stood by the tree and said, “Let’s call this place after that old tree. Let’s call it Hollywood.” Therefore, the place became known as Hollywood.
Staff writer Joseph Norris contributed to this report.