Digging Into the Past Before the Interstate Moved In

When the state started talking about building an expressway across northeastern Maryland in the early 1960s, the proposal alarmed a group of local history enthusiasts

It wasn’t that they were against moving ahead as these progressive-minded citizens knew the region urgently needed I-95, the proposed fast route without one traffic light between Baltimore and Philadelphia.  This group worried that once construction on the massive highway got underway, the big earth moving machines cutting a 300-foot wide path across Harford and Cecil counties would destroy all evidence of prehistoric civilizations buried in the soil before the European contact period.  Also, the evidence of the early historical period could be lost as the expressway crossed over sources of energy for manufacturing (the valleys and streams) in the pre-electrification age.

So the Northeastern Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Maryland led by George Reynolds set out to ensure the corridor was documented before progress obliterated all traces of early culture.  This involved building support with transportation planners, state officials, politicians and residents, as well as raising money to support the project.  George was successful for he raised $1,000 largely from private sources.

Archaeologists and construction crews worked side by side in the summer of 1962, as both rushed to complete their tasks before the planned opening date in November 1963.  Skilled volunteers, aided by one professional, Daniel G. Crozer of Temple University, looked for artifacts along the right-of-way, while the heavy equipment operators scooped up the earth, building the highway across the top of the Chesapeake.

Large parts of I-95 traversed heavily wooded, uncultivated areas where little or no archaeological research had been carried out.  Investigators never know what they’ll find until the fieldwork is done, but the strong possibility existed that relics from Native-American Culture or a village might be buried below the top soil along the route.  These discoveries would answer questions about cultural patterns of Maryland’s prehistoric people.

Because of the limited time for fieldwork, this undertaking was classified as salvage archaeology.   This is survey and excavation work that is carried out in areas threatened by construction.  Unlike traditional studies, these projects must be done quickly to rescue cultural resources before they are lost.  The investigation involved site surveys, surface-hunting , test pitting and aerial observations.

For four weeks in the summer of 1962, before the big highway changed the landscape, the knowledgable volunteers and one professional made use of every available hour.  The salvage effort uncovered a jasper quarry that had been heavily worked by prehistoric people.  Until that point, it was thought that the jasper projectile points used by Maryland Indians were made in Pennsylvania.  “Frantsi Rock Shelter” is located on the east bank of the Big Elk Creek and yielded hundreds of artifacts, some dating as far back as 3000. B.C.  The enthusiasts also found Indian pottery, worked stone, knife blades, projectile points, bone material, scrapers, and mussel shells.  George created an exhibit of these stone-age relics and it was housed in the basement of the public library for decades.  The full report for this study is archived at the state’s archaeological library at the Maryland Historical Trust.

George’s interest in archaeology and local history never diminished.  Over the decades he’s been involved in all of the major digs in the county, including the one at the Elk Landing when the county detention center was being built.  A Native-American burial site was discovered there.  He has helped reveal much of what had been lost to centuries of time by being an advocate for archaeology and history in Cecil County.  He has also been on the frontline, out there digging and studying the secrets of the soil.

Evening Sun, July 18, 1962

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16 responses to “Digging Into the Past Before the Interstate Moved In

  1. Old George is mr history in the county. Knowa more about ii then anyone else. I did some digging with him. My hats off to you george.

    • Digger, thanks for sharing your comments about George. I agree that George is Mr. History. He was telling me that since the early 1950s, he’s been involved in this line of work avocationally. I’m always amazed at his recall of facts. And when we get questions at the Historical Society we can’t answer George is our go to person.

      Must’ve been interesting digging on projects in Cecil County with George. Were you on the “northeastern expressway” dig or some other one?

  2. this is old george himself, I am glad that some one remembers. For over 60 years I have enjoyed looking into the burried past of the middle atlantic. who lived in our back yard from 11,000 years ago until the Europeans came here? then in 1976, i became heavily envolved in our historical past. our Big and Little
    Elk creeks were the power source for local industry and 18 mills were built on the Big Elk and 16 on the little Elk. I MUST take my notes and photo’s and write
    and published them…. george…

  3. George thanks for always generously sharing your understanding of the past. The insights you’ve accumulated over 60 years of studying the County are amazing. Definitely publish George. Thanks so much for working to protect the past and for all the work you’ve done in community and church groups as you continue with such valuable work that greatly aids the community. I hadn’t heard of your early work on the expressway until recently.

  4. George, You and your family were next door neighbors for years and you taught me and my brother Jimmy alot over the years. Jimmy loved going on the archaeological digs with you. He could spot an arrowhead from a mile away! Whenever we lost a stone out of jewelrey, we always called him to find it. He always did. You gave us alot of info about my house, which used to be the Barksdale Post Office from 1888-1908

    • Janet George is working on a book summarizing his decades of archeaological fieldwork in the county. Can’t wait to have a copy of that as he continues sharing his knowledge.

  5. is that old george himself. if that dont beat it all. when we was on the job you taught me a lot more about history then anyone else. that hollingsworth one was the best. you done good work George.

  6. george reynolds

    thanks mike for replacing that photo of me on this web site NOW IF I CAN JUST ERASE IT ON MY F.B. site..

  7. Hard to tell for sure, but I bet that is Elmer Jones on the left in that photo. I have a picture of George that my grandparents had from back in those days. I need to get it to him.

  8. I have a copy of the picture at the top of the page. My grandmother, Virginia Jones, is in the lower left of that picture.

    • Milford, thanks for identifying more info on the photo. I think George said to me that he didn’t remember that picture getting published in the newspaper. Interesting how they were out there trying to document Cecil County’s past all those decades ago.

  9. I actually thought that top picture was from the Sheep Rock excavation in PA. I found it with some other photos that I thought were from there. I will look and see if there is anything written on the back of it.

    There was a fairly active chapter of the Archeological Society of MD in Cecil for a number of years. They did work at Rodger’s Tavern, Brick Meeting House in Calvert and other places. George knows all of that and more.

    • Milford, I’ll get Geroge to check it out again. He provided the photos. By-the-way, I was talking to him yesterday. He’s working on a project with sonar to scan some land today. Amazing how active that group was and the projects they did, which have added to our understanding of the past. I’m still always impressed with the professionalism and energy the Northeastern Maryland ARcheaological Society has. They do great work.

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