To Be Known As Berwyn

One hundred-twenty-five years ago, on April 2, 1896, the Town of Berwyn Heights was incorporated by an Act of the Maryland Assembly. But as you may know, that was not the beginning of the community. Before that there was Charlton Heights, named after Benjamin Charlton, one of the men who created the subdivision platted in 1888. Sometimes readers ask why the name changed. We thought we knew. Delving into the subject, however, turned out to be an exercise in “the more you learn, the less you know.”

The first use of Berwyn apparently was in connection with the construction of a Presbyterian Church in 1890-1891 on what is now the corner of Potomac Avenue and Quebec Street in College Park. “It was named Berwyn Chapel in honor of the invalid son by that name whose father had made a substantial donation to the church.” So says T. Raymond Burch (1894-1978) in his seminal history of College Park.1 Burch was a lifelong resident of Berwyn, ran a real estate business there, served as postmaster (1934-1936), as well as Delegate to the Maryland Assembly (1947-1950).

Burch’s account is largely confirmed by the recollections of Pierce Middleton, a grandson of Frank L. Middleton, one of the founders of the church. In a letter to Maryland Secretary of State Winfried Kelley, he writes that in his professional life his grandfather was a patent attorney in the firm Spear, Middleton, Donaldson & Hall of Washington, D.C. Attorney Middleton had a client from Pennsylvania who offered to donate a large sum of money towards the construction of the church on condition it be named in memory of his promising young son, Berwyn, who had died unexpectedly. The offer was accepted and the church named Berwyn Memorial Chapel.2 Ann Harris Davidson, the author of a pictorial history of Berwyn Heights, adds that the church donor came from Berwyn, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia on the once prestigious Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.3

Berwyn Chapel Gymnasium

Berwyn Chapel Gymnasium, early 20th century (with permission from Margaret Westfield, daughter of Frances Keefauver Hoyert)

The completion of Berwyn Chapel was the culmination of the efforts of a religious organization called The Golden Chain to find a permanent home. The Golden Chain had formed at Haddaway Methodist Episcopal Chapel to promote Christian teachings in the area. It stood where today the Berwyn Heights Shell gas station is located before it was destroyed by fire. Led by the Elders Frank L. Middleton (1862-1930) and Henry P. Viles (1841-1912), the Golden Chain separated from Haddaway Chapel in 1885 and built a small mission house near the B&O’s Branchville Station. The congregation grew quickly and asked to be taken under the care of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C. In 1890, the Golden Chain had a larger church erected in the new subdivision of Central Heights.4 Frank Middleton’s father Leander, a building contractor in Washington, D.C., and his brother Harry built the church on land donated by the developer of the subdivision.5

Still standing – The Lake House at Berwyn Road & Potomac Avenue It served as the parsonage of Berwyn Presbyterian Church, 1919-1958.

Berwyn Chapel became the social center of the emerging community. It’s original leaders, the Middletons, the Viles and the Joyners among them, all lived nearby. Frank Middleton, who was married to Henry and Isadore Viles’ daughter, Blanche, served as pastor until 1913. Isadore Viles and the Joyner sisters Ada and Elsie were active running Sunday School. Members soon formed clubs and societies around the church: notably a Choral Society, a Ladies Aid Society, and a Women’s Missionary Society. As the church prospered, additions were built onto the original chapel: an auditorium, Sunday school rooms, a library and last but not least a gymnasium, complete with apparatus for indoor fitness training and a director to conduct classes.6

On the business side of community development, records of land purchases and subdivision show that several key figures collaborated in creating the community of Berwyn.

Francis Shanabrook (1814-1901), originally from Adams County, PA, was a prolific businessman. He operated a truck farm (growing vegetables for sale) in Baltimore County with his wife Ellen Wise,7 then moved into Baltimore City around 1867, where he ran a tobacco shop and then a liquor store at the corner of Lexington and Paca Streets.8 Following the death of his wife in 1873, Francis removed to Elkridge Landing in Howard County where he boarded with the widow Sarah Boyle9 and began to deal in real estate.

Sarah E. Boyle (1827-1917), who owned a tavern in Elkridge Landing,10 partnered with Shanabrook buying and selling land in the Branchville area. In 1874, she purchased at auction 437 acres of the Higgins farm, in particular two tracts known as Red House and Chews Folly, which she subsequently sold off in pieces.11 The largest parcel, containing 236 acres, went to John P. Bewley (1826-1880) and family.12 The Bewley’s operated a dairy farm, and gradually sold off parts of the property for development. Mrs. Boyle leased another large parcel of 120 acres to Shanabrook for a term of 5 years starting in 1876 at the rate of $144 per annum. The lease agreement allowed Shanabrook to sell all or parts of the land, or purchase the entire property outright.13 In 1879, Shanabrook purchased 20 acres of the Higgins lands14 and another 20 acres in 1885.15 Frank Middleton also purchased a tract from Mrs. Boyle in 1886, the deed being witnessed by his father Leander B. Middleton (1840-1895) and Francis Shanabrook.16

Shanabrook used 20 acres of the land he controlled to plat the Central Heights subdivision in August 1889.17 He then built some 15 homes for sale and a store house near the B&O tracks.18 He sold a small parcel of land to the B&O Railroad for the construction of a new Charlton Heights railroad station19 and donated land for the Berwyn Chapel. The Central Heights plat map memorializes the role of the developers Shanabrook, Boyle, Middleton, and Bewley with streets named after them.

Central Heights MD plat

Shanabrook Central Heights plat dated August 1889. The B&O Depot is on the lower left.

Only a few months after platting the subdivision, Shanabrook sold it to a Washington real estate developer and President of the Lincoln National Bank, John A. Prescott in December 1889.20 Having purchased the subdivision, Prescott served as Treasurer of a group of investors that incorporated the Berwyn Land Improvement Company of Washington D.C. in January 1890.21 The Company’s board of directors included Frank Middleton and Ellis Spear (1834-1917), both of whom, you may recall, were partners in the D.C. law firm Spear, Middleton, Donaldson & Hall. General Spear, a former Commissioner of Patents and a friend of Middleton, became president of the Company. The new owners had the tract resurveyed and recorded under the name Berwyn in July 1890.22 The streets were renamed and improved, and new houses built. Then, in January 1891, John Prescott sold the Berwyn subdivision to Frank Middleton.23

Note that the use of Berwyn in Berwyn Land Improvement Company occurred prior to the laying of the corner stone of the future church in May1890 and the official naming of Berwyn Chapel in April 1891.24 This reverses the sequence of events as commonly told, that is to say the naming of the community followed the naming of the church. What to make of this? Does it mean the entire subdivision was named after the boy Berwyn? Maybe. It does appear that Frank Middleton was key to naming the subdivision, considering his role as a developer and as a leader of the church. Furthermore, the Middletons may well have had connections to Berwyn, PA as Frank’s father, Leander Middleton, was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania25 not too far from Berwyn.

The renaming of Charlton Heights had to wait until its incorporation in 1896, which followed the death of Benjamin Charlton in June 1894 and James Waugh in May 1895. Both men were instrumental in the creation of Charlton Heights. Waugh resided there until his passing and owned a large number of lots in the subdivision. It is unlikely Waugh, Charlton or Charlton’s nephew Edward Graves, who also owned a substantial chunk of the subdivision, would have considered a name change.

However, Charlton Heights’ reputation had taken a blow from the bankruptcy of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company in 1892 and subsequent lawsuits by disgruntled clients who had purchased property in the community based on promises of high-end amenities that never materialized.26 When the opportunity arose, residents changed the name of this place to Berwyn Heights. The B&O railroad station and post office followed suit27

Author: Kerstin Harper

1History and Development of the City of College Park, Berwyn Heights, Greenbelt and Adjacent Area,” T. Raymond Burch, 1965. See also “The Berwyn News,” Vol. 18, Issue 10, December 2010, p.2; and “Berwyn Heights, The History of a Small Maryland Town,” Donald D. Skarda, 1976, p. 35.

2Letter from Canon A. Pierce Middleton to Winfried Kelley, Maryland Secretary of State,” (shared with former Berwyn Heights Mayor Bill Armistead), 14 November 1991; and “Lengthy Illness Fatal to Lawyer,” The Evening Star, 13 March 1930, p. A-9.

3Then & Now: Berwyn Heights,” Ann Harris Davidson, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, p. 63. In a personal email, Ms. Davidson says that this piece of information came from the late Frances Keefauver-Hoyert, historian and long-time member of Berwyn Presbyterian Church.

4History 1885-1958 Berwyn United Presbyterian Church,” attributed to Frances Keefauver-Hoyert by current Deacon of Berwyn Presbyterian Church Rex Powell and Church Historian Barbara Simmons.

5Burch, History and Development of the City of College Park, Chapter “Churches.”

6Burch, History and Development of the City of College Park, Chapter “Churches,” and College Park News, The Evening Star, 15 April 1901, p.15; and “Berwyn among the Beautiful Maryland Hills,” The Washington Times, 17 May 1903, p.5; and “Better Facilities for Getting in and out of Washington,” The Evening Star, 20 April 1901, p. 15.

7“Mortgagee’s Sale of a Fine Truck Farm in the 12 District of Baltimore County,” Baltimore County Union, 5 February 1882, p.2; and Baltimore County Land Records, Deed March 4, 1867 Francis & Ellen Shanabrook to George Ehrhardt, Book 52-365.

8Baltimore City Business Directories, 1868-1874.

9Boyle, Sarah E.; p. T 396, Enumeration District 101, Howard County, Maryland, Census Bureau, 10th Census of the United States, 1880.

10Martenet, Simon J. Martenet’s Map of Howard County, Maryland: drawn entirely from actual surveys. Baltimore: John Schofield, 1860. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002624032/> .

11PGC Land Records, Deed 26 December 1874, Thomas Brundige, Trustee to Sarah Boyle, Book HB 9-575.

12PGC Land Records, Indenture 19 February 1896, Sarah Boyle to John Bewley, parts of Red House, Chews Folly & Rossburg tracts, Book HB 11-64.

13PGC Land Records, Lease 13 November 1876, Sarah Boyle to Francis Shanabrook, 120 acres, Book HB 12-486.

14PGC Land Records, Deed 9 October 1876, Sarah Boyle to Francis Shanabrook, Book ATB 1-602.

15PGC Land Records, Deed 13 January 1885, Sarah Boyle to Francis Shanabrook, Book 4-239.

16PGC Land Records, Deed 6 March 1886, Sarah Boyle to Frank Middleton (Shanabrook cosigner), Book 6-222.

17PGC Land Records, Central Heights plat, August 1889, Book 13-467.

18Burch, History and Development of the City of College Park, Chapter “Berwyn.”

19PGC Land Records, Deed 28 September1888, Francis Shanabrook to B&O RR, 40,000 square feet, Book 10-451.

20PGC Land Records, Deed 16 December 1889, Francis Shanabrook to John Prescott, Central Heights subdivision, Book 12-609; and “John A Prescott,” obituary, The Washington Times, 15 May 1919, p. 5.

21To be Known as Berwyn,” Evening Star, 12 February 1890, p.8.

22 PGC Land Records, Plat Book BB-5 54.

23 PGC Land Records, Deed 5 January 1891, John A. Prescott to Frank L. Middleton, Book 17-361.

24 “History 1885-1958 Berwyn United Presbyterian Church,” Frances Keefauver-Hoyert.

25 Birth Record of Leander B. Middleton’s Daughter Annie V., Washington, D.C, Select Births & Christenings, 1830-1955.

26“Equity Case Files re: lawsuits against Charlton Heights Improvement Company, Charlton Heights Investment & Building Association,” Record Group 21, Entry 69, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.

27 Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832- 1971; National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C., Roll #: 56; Archive Publication #: M841.

One response

  1. Thanks for the update – very well written and full of information.What’s not to like? Big Love to BH & all the “friendlies” there. Jim Benson ps – Big Love was the preferred ending to any of Maude Benson’s letters to family.

    —————————————–From: “Berwyn Heights Historical Committee” To: 1benson99@charter.net Cc: Sent: Saturday May 1 2021 8:37:57PM Subject: [New post] To Be Known As Berwyn

    BH history fan posted: “One hundred-twenty-five years ago, on April 2, 1896, the Town of Berwyn Heights was incorporated by an Act of the Maryland Assembly. But as you may know, that was not the beginning of the community. Before that there was Charlton Heights, named after Benj”

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