BALTIMORE, September 8, 2011—Imagine far-ranging vistas, tall prairie-like grasses, and unusual plants that might be more at home in the Wild West in Owing Mills, no less. That’s Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area.
Spanning more than 1,900 acres, it has more than 39 rare, threatened, or endangered plant species as well as rare insects, rocks and minerals, like the serpentinite for which they are famous.Vistas are not commercialized, save for a few high power lines.
A part of Soldiers Delight has been designated “Maryland Wildland,” which are limited areas of land or water that have retained their wilderness character, although not necessarily completely natural and undisturbed, or have rare or vanishing species of plant or animal life.
The seven miles of trails at Soldiers Delight provide a different hiking experience than other area paths. Hikers can experience a serene, more contemplative way of spending time outdoors than on more highly trafficked tails. Wildflowers dot the scenery, as well as brushy meadows. Trail walkers will also come across closed mine openings. (Pets are allowed on a short leash, but equestrians and cyclists are prohibited due to the sensitive nature of the area.)
Visitors of all ages can participate in a fun activity called “letterboxing,” which combines aspects of scavenger hunting, geocaching, hiking and creative expression. Soldiers Delight has several small weatherproof boxes where letterboxers – as they are called – leave their unique stamps or ciphers on a logbook to record their successful completion of the challenge. Letterboxers earn the combination to open the lockbox from clues they find while completing the adventure.
Soldiers Delight has a well-developed educational program. The Visitor’s Center is being converted into a Nature Center. Live small animals and reptiles will be kept on the premises.
Soldiers Delight also has uncommon geological qualities, according to the Maryland Geological Survey. The trails have a bald, low-lying appearance. The area has been deemed “serpentine barren”. Serpentinite lacks quartz and aluminum, which creates makes for soil lacking in clay. Clay-poor soil is quite unfertile; about the only surviving vegetation is scrubby meadowland. However, Serpentinite is a source for chromium ore. Amazingly, during the 19th century, Soldiers Delight was the greatest producer of chrome in the world. Chrome is crucial not only for making high-grade steel and stainless steel, but also for several chemical processes like dyeing and tanning.
There was a time when Soldier’s Delight was not so delightful: it was the site of the first hanging and gibbeting in Maryland. It occurred during Colonial times when the King’s Law ruled the land. Before the Age of Enlightenment, there were still remnants of bloodthirsty Medieval practices in place with disregard for the sanctity of all human bodies, even here in the colonies.
According to Soldiers Delight Barrens: Preservation of a Rare Ecosystem, by Claudia J. Floyd, in 1751, a twenty-year old colonist named John Berry lived nearby on a farm at the corner of Delight and Cherry Hill Roads. He was found guilty of axing his stepmother to death and nearly succeeding with killing his stepfather in the same manner while they slept. The presiding judge at Joppatowne ordered that John Berry be hung from the highest point in the area, as a lesson to the public of his infamy.
Soldier’s Delight, which has several hills at 600 feet or more above sea level, was chosen for the site of the scaffold. The site has the dubious honor of being called forevermore “Berry’s Hill.” The judge’s sentence detailed that he be hung in chains until dismembered by decay and vultures. Area residents reported hearing him howling at night as the wolves snapped at his feet during his slow, painful death. Berry’s skull, according to local legend, hung there for years as a reminder of the costs of such a heinous crime.
Soldiers Delight’s commercial bounty was put to use by Isaac Tyson, Jr. He discovered chromium on his own farm property at Bare Hills. He then made the geologic connect that the element is always found in serpentine barrens. Tyson then founded a chrome company in Baltimore; he had the monopoly on the mining of chrome and its practical chemical use. Later in the century, even greater stores of chrome were discovered in Turkey; the need to harvest chrome out of Baltimore came to an abrupt halt.
One of the succeeding owners, Frederick A. Dolfield, re-opened one of the mines briefly during WWI when the government requested his assistance with the war effort.
In pre-Colonial days, Native Americans naturally kept the trees from growing in the area when they employed the technique of fire hunting for food. They set massive fires to flush out all the wild game from the grasslands.
How did Soldiers Delight get its curious name? According to Soldiers Delight Park Naturalist Stephen Badger and Seasonal Park Naturalist Brooke Warrington, it’s a bit of a mystery, because many of the back stories of the park may have been lost to antiquity. However, there are two likely possibilities as to how the park got its name. Native Americans may have named the area, with colonists later translating the name into English. The grassy lands offer a clear vision over a long distance and protection against surprise attacks. The other strong possibility as to how Soldiers Delight got its name is from the King’s Rangers in 1693, which patrolled the area from their base at Fort Garrison.
Planning your adventure
The visitor center is located at 5100 Deer Park Road in Owings Mills, Maryland, 21117. The Visitor Center is open Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (weather permitting). Sunday through Friday, the Visitor Center will be open only when staff is available. Call ahead at 410-922-3044 if you would like to have access to the Visitor Center outside our normal hours. For more information, check out their website.