Soldiers Delight, Baltimore County

Return to Maryland geology tour index

Soldiers Delight Serpentine Barrens is located in the Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area in western Baltimore County. The barrens are underlain by serpentinite, a rock that contains very little quartz and aluminum-bearing minerals and consists mainly of serpentine. When serpentinite weathers most of the rock dissolves leaving behind a thin, sand- and clay-poor soil which is easily eroded. Therefore the land surface over serpentinites is stony, unfertile and sparsely vegetated - hence the term "serpentine barren." Typically a serpentine barren contains scrub oak and pine, cedar, grasses and some unique and rare wildflowers.

Serpentine barren
Serpentine barren

Serpentine is valued as a decorative building stone, road material, and, in two Maryland localities, a historic source of chromium ore. During the 19th century Soldiers Delight and the Bare Hills district of Baltimore City were the largest producers of chrome in the world. In these two locations, chromite is a significant accessory mineral in the serpentine and was mined up until 1860. Several old mines and quarries are still visible in these serpentine barrens. An excerpt from the MGS Baltimore County Report of 1929 discusses the historical chrome deposits, and is adapted here:

The commercial source of the element chromium is exclusively in the mineral chromite, which when pure, is an iron chromate of the formula FeO.Cr2O3. It is a heavy, opaque, iron- to brown-black mineral, with a pitchy luster, uneven fracture and hardness nearly that of steel. Geologically it is almost entirely restricted in occurrence to the dark ultrabasic rocks and their serpentinous derivatives. In Maryland chromite is found only in serpentine – a rock which is readily recognized by the barren country it produces. These “barrens,” as they are locally called, are stretches of uncultivated country which support only a sparse growth of grass, scrub oak, and pine. It is believed that this condition is due to the chemical composition of serpentine (a hydrous magnesium silicate), which prevents a vigorous growth of vegetation, thus allowing the soil to be rapidly eroded, leaving the dull, fractured, greenish-yellow serpentine rock exposed at the surface.

Entrance to old chromite mine
Entrance to old chromite mine

The principal use of chromium is in the manufacture of ferrochrome, which, in turn, is used in making high- grade steel. The second most important use is as a refractory substance – chiefly as a lining in the basic open-hearth steel process, which produces three-quarters of the steel of the United States. Considerable amounts are used in the chemical industries – in tanning, dyeing cloth, and for pigments.

The history of chrome mining in Baltimore County is of particular interest, in that it was due to the activities of Isaac Tyson, Jr., of Baltimore, that Maryland came to be the chrome producing center of the world for a considerable time*. It was on Tyson’s farm at Bare Hills, just north of Baltimore, that chromite was first discovered and mined. This date is variously placed between 1808 and 1827, but from the fact that most of the workings at Bare Hills had been abandoned some time previous to 1833 a time nearer to 1808 is probably correct. The occurrences at Soldiers Delight, the barren stretch of country 12 miles northwest of Baltimore, were discovered in 1827, and the discovery of other regions in Maryland followed soon after. These were all the result of the superior acumen of Tyson, who recognized that the chromite always occurs in the serpentine and was able to follow this rock by the barren areas to which it gives rise.

All the ore mined in Maryland and the adjacent region in southeastern Pennsylvania was shipped to Baltimore, and nearly all of the chrome produced in the world between 1828 and 1850 came here. Isaac Tyson, Jr. established a chrome plant in Baltimore in 1845, and thereby gained a monopoly in the chemical use of chrome as well as in its mining. Maryland continued to be the principle producer of chrome until the middle of the 19th century, when the deposits in Asia Minor assumed importance, and the exports from Baltimore ceased in 1860. The Baltimore Chrome Works maintained its monopoly until 1885, and continued to do a thriving business until 1908, when the Tyson family sold out to the Mutual Chemical Company of America.

The mining of chromite again became active in Maryland during the 1870's, but since 1880 there has been but a small and irregular production of sand chrome, and, except a small amount between 1917 and 1925, none of rock chrome.

The mineral chromite is widely disseminated in small quantities in the serpentine of Bare Hills and Soldiers Delight, but is is only at a few places that it occurred in payable quantities. These bodies of richer material are very irregular in size and shape, and it is very difficult to determine their value or extent. At several places at Bare Hills adits run into the hill below the outcrops above failed to find ore at the lower levels. The dimensions of the ore bodies vary from a few inches to several hundred feet in extent. Since serpentine weathers more readily than chromite the disintegration of the rock leaves the chromite intact, and surfaces waters collect it at favorable localities. This “sand chrome,” as it is called, is recovered by washing, and has been the main source of the more recent workings at Soldiers Delight.

Because of the comparative small size of the Maryland chromite deposits, the mining and milling of the ore has been on a small scale and by simple methods. Many of the workings at Bare Hills and Soldiers Delight were in small open pits, and these may still be seen from the roads which traverse the areas. At both localities, however, shafts with drifts were dug and at some places large volumes of rock removed. The Weir mine, Soldiers Delight, on the Ward's Chapel Road, 1.5 miles north of Holbrook, was the largest in the county, and the workings, which consist of two vertical shafts 60 feet apart, are said to have reached a depth of 200 feet. The Choate mine, on Deer Park Road, Soldiers Delight, was another large operation, and considerable work was done during 1917 and 1918 in clearing debris about the mine, but no ore was produced.