Backstory and Context
Before the arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century, the Potomac River was the center of a thriving Native American civilization, the people whom the Europeans called Piscataway. Like other encounters between Europeans and Native Americans in the New World, Pisctaway interactions with Europeans, starting in St. Mary’s City, started in comparative harmony and a spirit of cooperation but devolved into conflict and dislocation.
Broad Creek, some 100 miles upriver from St. Mary’s City, was first settled during the middle of the sixteenth century. Humphrey Haggett, a Charles County lawyer, patented a 500-acre tract called Battersea in 1662. During the 1980s, National Park Service archaeologists discovered an earthfast house east of the current structure, where the family of Thomas Lewis probably lived c. 1690, farming the land and raising livestock on the frontier of colonial Maryland. It was also during this period that Want Water, later called Lyles House, was built by Thomas Addison, the son of the prominent colonial settler John Addison, who participated in the rebellion of the Protestant Association against the proprietary government of Maryland.
During the eighteenth century, part of the land at Battersea became the site of the port town called Broad Creek, created by the colonial assembly to encourage commerce. Through the Broad Creek estuary, the settlers were connected to a larger Atlantic and global trading world. They grew tobacco for export and bought goods imported from Europe and Asia as well as chattel slaves brought on the Middle Passage from Africa. During this period, the ship builder named Humphrey Batts, who lived in the Want Water house, built a tobacco inspection warehouse and a canal. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the families Magruder and Lyles came to settle at Broad Creek; the merchant and farmer Enoch Magruder probably built Harmony Hall c. 1760.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the tobacco economy of the Chesapeake region declined precipitously, bringing an end to the prosperity its residents had known for several generations. The nineteenth century also brought decline and change to Broad Creek. The Magruder and Lyles families continued to live at Harmony Hall and Want Water during the first decades of the nineteenth century, after which both properties were occupied by renter and sojourners. The conclusion of the Civil War resulted in the emancipation of the slave community at Broad Creek, many of whom continued to live and work at or around the Harmony Hall property. During the 1890s, a German immigrant named Robert Stein, an explorer and linguist, bought the Harmony Hall mansion and encouraged his German relatives to settle at Broad Creek, beginning the community of Silesia.
In the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the property was purchased by a native Southerner and government bureaucrat named Charles Wallace Collins. Collins would rebuild and “restore” the property at Harmony Hall in the image of an antebellum Southern plantation. After retiring from government service, he wrote several books, including Whither Solid South?, a work that advocated racial segregation and proposed an electoral “Southern strategy,” which was adapted and used by the Dixiecrat Party in 1948. Collins also proposed that African Americans should be resettled in Africa.
During the 1960s, Harmony Hall was acquired by the National Park Service, as part of a project to build a Maryland extension of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. This plan never came to fruition, largely because of opposition to it in Congress, and the National Park Service was left to maintain and administer several historic properties, including Harmony Hall, along the Potomac River. Since the 1980s, when the Park Service took full possession of the property after the death of Sue Spencer Collins, NPS has worked to develop a long-term plan for the property. Between 1984 and 1999, Harmony Hall was rented out to private investors for use as a horse farm. When these tenants were evicted in 1999, NPS began to search for new ways to use and save Harmony Hall from destruction.
With each passing day, the future of Harmony Hall and its historical and archaeological artifacts appear more and more grim. The property risks sharing the same fate as Want Water, now in ruins after decades of neglect. Park Service employees and local preservationist have proposed many ideas for “saving” Harmony Hall – “renting” it to a non-profit organization for restoration and use; selling it to a private party; developing it as riverfront nature park or as a venue for music concerts. As of the completion of this work, none of these plans have been fully developed or funded. Given the current dislocation of the U.S. economy, finding the will and money to restore the rapidly declining colonial mansion has become an even more difficult task.
Future interpretive plans should seriously consider Harmony Hall’s troubling place in the racial history of the United States. Chattel African slaves lived on and worked the land at Broad Creek from its earliest days. Charles Wallace Collins protested against the national movement toward racial “integration” and crafted the electoral strategy used by pro-segregation Dixiecrat Party. Collins, Walter Dulany Addison, and Robert Stein advocated the resettlement of African Americans to African “colonies.” Despite their efforts, Prince George’s County has emerged as the most affluent majority African-American county in the United States. Much work remains to be done to improve the state of racial relations in the United States, however, and future plans for Harmony Hall should consider its troubling legacy – along with the creativity and innovation of generations of European and African-American “settlers” at Broad Creek.
Broad Creek Historic District. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1983.
Broad Creek Historic District Design Guidelines. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1987-88.
Broad Creek Historic District: Livingston Road Streetscape Guidelines and Alternatives. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1995.
Collins, Charles W. Whither Solid South?: A Study of Politics and Race Relations. New Orleans: Pelican Press, 1947.
Floyd, Bianca P. Records & Recollections: Early Black History in Prince George’s County, Maryland. M-NCPPC, 1989.
Reed, Charles V. "History of Harmony Hall." National Park Service (unpublished), 2010.