Hampden first came into being in 1802 as a cluster of houses built for workers who manned the newly erected flour and cotton mills along the Jones Falls Stream Valley. James Hughes was the first of a number of cotton mill owners who harnessed the water of the Jones Falls to power the flour and later, the cotton mills. Hampden was a part of a number of grain milling operations located along the many streams in the counties surrounding Baltimore City. The creation of these mills in turn spurred the growth of the port of Baltimore which exported the milled grains around the world. In 1810, the first cotton mill was opened on the Jones Falls by Washington Manufacturing Company in what is now Mount Washington.
By the 1830's, after the invention of the cotton gin, most of Hampden-Woodberry's flour mills were converted to cotton mills. In the 1870's the mill workforce increased from 616 to 2,931 people. This growth was propelled by the expansion of the Woodberry Mill and the building of the Meadowmill, which was the largest of the mills. Cotton duck, used to make sails for ships of all kinds, was in huge demand. By the 1890's, Hampden-Woodberry produced almost 80% of the world's cotton duck and was one of the biggest mill sites in the country. Most of the original residents of Hampden were immigrants from England, Germany and Poland. As the industrial revolution grew, people left farming communities from the adjacent counties and as far away as Pennsylvania to work in the mills.
Hampden derived its name from a developer, Henry Mankin, who named the town after John Hampden, a key figure in the English revolution of the 17th century. Hampden, a member of Parliament, took issue with a tax levied to pay for the royal navy. Hampden maintained that the tax was a form of taxation without representation. Others rallied around the cause that sparked a revolution in 1637. John Hampden, a member of a growing capitalist class, was viewed as a hero and champion of the people.
Hampden's economic power grew throughout the 19th century fueled by the cotton mills. At the turn of the 20th century, the workers of Hampden-Woodberry made up one of the largest workforces in the nation. During the first decade of the century several labor strikes resulted in improved wages and working conditions. During World War I, the demand for cotton duck kept the mills operation at full capacity. In the 1920's more labor strikes took place for pay increases and better working hours. This time, the strikes were not only unsuccessful but the mill owners began to move operations to the rural South in search of lower labor costs. The mills in Hampden-Woodberry were able to weather this setback and production at the mills increased to fuel the war effort during World War II. But the 1960's and 1970's saw the demise of the mills as demand of their products dried up.
Fortunately, the mills have been renovated by forward thinking companies and developers and enjoy a new lease on life. Mills now house artist studios, health clubs, high tech companies and more. The area within Hampden known as Stone Hill, one block deep along 2900 and 3000 blocks of Keswick Road, is a perfect example of the revitalization of the mill communities. An old community that is not a restored museum village or over-preserved, but comfortable and lived-in, preserved through the passing on of property and values from generation to generation since the community began about 160 years ago as mill housing. While the textile mills were bustling, benevolent paternalism was in vogue and one of the forms it took was workers housing. David Caroll owned some 200 houses in the valley - built them, maintained them and rented them at nominal fees to the workers. Some were built on the west of the Jones Falls, where today they cluster at the foot of Television Hill; others were built on a hill north of Mt. Vernon Mill No.2, and the final group was 46 houses erected on a hill on the other side of the mill. This last group of houses, due to the two feet thick stone walls, gives Stone Hill its name.
Stone Hill is a little known place. There aren't many ways into the neighborhood - by car from Keswick Avenue, or by foot along Pacific Street or up a flight of concrete steps from Chestnut Street. The steps, which are directly opposite the old Mt. Vernon Mill No.2 are evocative: they are a physical link between today's residential neighborhood and the bygone industrial complex that built the houses. The combination of the whirr of the machines in the old mill building and the chatter of women walking up Chestnut Street make climbing the steps a trip in time. (For more on Stone Hill, See "Stone Hill: The People and Their Stories" by Guy Hollyday, sold at Hometown Girl, 1000 West 36th Street in Hampden.)
Brick Hill, bounded by Falls Road and 33rd Street between Chestnut and Falscliff, is another example of a renewed mill village. Part of the area is the most intact mill village in the nation as acclaimed by CHAP. This area includes the old mill, now a "creative business center", the old manor home and the only surviving horse stable, now a loft home and party facility "The Elm: A Charming Place to Have a Party". These homes also overlook the Jones Falls Valley and enjoy access to the river and the future site of a Greenway.
Hampden had always been an almost self-sufficient community. There was work. There were places to worship, to recreate and to shop. Residents could find just about everything they needed right in the stores along 36th Street, known as "The Avenue." The Avenue was the main street of Hampden and a focal point for residents. On any Saturday night the street was thronged with people shopping, seeking entertainment or visiting with friends. When the mills closed completely, in the 1960's and '70's, residents moved out of the area and the stores that were once filled with customers became vacant.
In the early part of the 1970's, The Avenue clearly needed a shot in the arm to help get going again. This did not come until the 1990's when, attracted by low rents, a few entrepreneurs with vision, opened for business. Since then the Hampden commercial district has been on an economic upswing. Today, The Avenue and the area in general are thriving.