Towson is an unincorporated community and a census-designated place in Baltimore County, Maryland. The population was 55,197 at the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Baltimore County and the second-most populated unincorporated county seat in the United States (after Ellicott City, Maryland in nearby Howard County).
The first inhabitants of the future Towson and central Baltimore County region were the "Susquehannock" Indians who hunted in the area. Their region included all of Baltimore County, though their primary settlement was further northeast along the Susquehanna River.
Towson was settled in 1752 when two Pennsylvania brothers, William and Thomas Towson, began farming an area of Sater's Hill, northeast of the present-day York and Joppa Roads. William's son, Ezekiel, opened the Towson Hotel to serve the increasing traffic of farmers bringing their produce and livestock to the port of Baltimore. Towson located the hotel at current-day Shealy Avenue and York Road, near the area's main crossroads. The village became known as "Towsontown".
In 1790, businessman Capt. Charles Ridgely completed the magnificent Hampton Mansion just north of Towsontown, the largest private house in America at the time. The Ridgelys lived there for six generations, until 1948. It is now preserved as the Hampton National Historic Site and open to the public.
After the ratification of the second Maryland Constitution of 1851, which provided for the jurisdictional separation of the former Baltimore Town, founded 1729, which had served as the county seat since 1767, now the City of Baltimore, since its incorporation in 1796-1797 by the General Assembly of Maryland. Several tortured sets of negotiations occurred to divide the various assets of the City and the County, such as the downtown Courthouse of 1805, the City/County Jail of 1801 along the Jones Falls (at East Madison Street) and the Almshouse, which was also jointly owned. After a series of elections and referendums, on February 13, 1854, Towson became the choice of the remaining, now mostly rural, eastern, northern and western portions of the County as the new county seat of Baltimore County by popular vote. The Court House, still in use by 2015, with its various annexes (and the separate county courts and administrative building) was originally designed by the local city architectural firm of Dixon, Balbirnie and Dixon and completed within a year, constructed of limestone and marble donated by the well-known Ridgely family of nearby Hampton Mansion, on land donated by Towson merchant Grafton Bosley. The County Courthouse was subsequently enlarged in 1910 through additional designs for north and south wings by well-known and regarded city architects, Baldwin & Pennington. Additional expansion later in 1926 and 1958 eventually created an H-shaped plan for the entire older courthouse. An additional modernistic Baltimore County Courts Building, with room for the new charter government since 1956 and administration of a county executive and county council, plus administrative and executive departments was erected in 1970-1971 across a plaza to the west of the older historic courthouse and series of additions The old Baltimore County Jail was built in 1855, and was later replaced by the 1980s by a new modern Baltimore County Detention Center, north of the town on Kenilworth Avenue, with an addition constructed in the 2010s.
From 1850 to 1874, another notable land owner, Amos Matthews, had a farm of that — with the exception of the largely natural parcel where the Kelso Home for Girls (currently Towson YMCA), was later erected — was wholly developed into the neighborhoods of West Towson, Southland Hills and other subdivisions beginning in the middle 1920s.
The second engagement took place around July 12, 1864, between Union and Confederate forces. On July 10, 1864, a 135-man Confederate cavalry detachment attacked the Northern Central Railway to the north in nearby Cockeysville, under orders from Gen. Bradley T. Johnson, late of Frederick, Maryland. The First and Second Maryland Cavalry, led by Baltimore County native and pre-war member of the Towson Horse Guards, Maj. Harry W. Gilmor, of "Glen Ellen", attacked strategic targets throughout Baltimore and Harford counties, including cutting telegraph wires along Harford Road, capturing two trains and a Union General, and destroying a railroad bridge in Joppa, Maryland. Following what became known as Gilmor's Raid, the cavalry encamped in Towson overnight at Ady's Hotel where his men rested and Gilmor met with friends. The next day, a large federal cavalry unit was dispatched from Baltimore to overtake Gilmor's forces. Though outnumbered by more than two to one, the Confederate cavalry attacked the federal unit, breaking the federal unit and chasing them down York Road to around current day Woodbourne Avenue within Baltimore City limits. Gilmor's forces traveled south along York Road as far south as Govans, before heading west to rejoin Gen. Johnson's main force. Following the war, Gilmor served as the Baltimore City Police Commissioner in the 1870s.
The Towson fire of 1878 destroyed most of the 500 block along the York Turnpike causing an estimated $38,000 in damage.
During the summer of 1894, the Towson Water Company laid wooden pipes and installed fire hydrants that were connected to an artesian well near Aigburth Vale. On November 2, 1894, Towson was supplied with electric service through connection with the Mount Washington Electric Light and Power Company.
At the beginning of the century, Towson remained largely a rural community. Land continued to be sold by the acre, rather than as home parcels. Most residences lay within Towson proper: no houses existed west of Central Avenue along Allegheny or Pennsylvania avenues, and there were only three homes along the West Chesapeake Avenue corridor.
In the 1910s, the Maryland State Normal School (now known as Towson University) was relocated to Towson. The Maryland Legislature had established the MSNS in 1865 as Maryland’s first teacher-training school, or normal school. This institution officially opened its doors on 15 January 1866, but as time passed, enrollment in the school grew exponentially, rendering the facilities inadequate. In 1910, the General Assembly formed a committee to oversee site selection, budget, and design plans for the new campus, which settled on an site in Towson and the General Assembly financed the $600,000 move in 1912. Construction began in 1913 on the Administration Building, now known as Stephens Hall. In September 1915, the new campus, comprising Stephens Hall, Newell Hall, and the power plant, began classes. The college underwent numerous name changes, settling on Towson University in 1997.
As the growth of Baltimore's suburbs became more pronounced after World War II, considerable office development took place in Towson's central core area. Many of the large Victorian and colonial-style residences in the vicinity of the Court House were demolished in the 1980s and 1990s for offices and parking.
Author Robert Coston, who grew up in the area of Towson now called "Historic East Towson," recalled in an interview the unique African-American history of that area during the mid-century: "I think that the Towson, Maryland area that I am familiar with differs from other parts of Maryland because of the proximity to one of the largest slave plantations in the country. The Ridgely Plantation which owned all of the property from Baltimore County to Baltimore City and other surrounding areas. ...This was a very unique place of which I have never heard of any equal to it. Every African American school age child in Baltimore County had to attend school at some point at Carver in East Towson. ...I realize now that as a youngster the older African Americans avoided talking about slavery or the nearby Ridgely Plantation because they themselves were not too far removed from slavery itself.