This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the Laurel Historical Society’s newsletter.
One of the lesser-known chapters in the history of the Laurel area concerns a vanished community which was located in the wooded area south of Sandy Fork and the American Legion home, commonly called Old Forge. The mysterious site was an important one in the 18th and 19th centuries, featuring a bridge over Broad Creek for travelers using the original stage road. The Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868 depicts a sawmill, gristmill, store, and several houses clustered around the bridge. There was also an A.M.E. church on the south side of the creek at that time, but it does not appear on the map. In the early years of the 20th century, “Old Forge Camp” was described as the largest “colored” campmeeting in Sussex County. Today, the forge, mills, houses, church, campground, bridge, and even the road are long gone.
Old Forge has received little attention from historians, probably because the name doesn’t appear in early records. Local journalist Orlando V. Wootten wrote two fascinating articles about Old Forge for the Daily Times and The Archeolog in 1968 and 1975, respectively, based on his own visits to the site as well as information from Carmel Moore. Both were accompanied by striking photos of abandoned millstones and other features. The second article was reprinted in The History of Nineteenth Century Laurel in 1983. Wootten lamented the absence of “documentary evidence or primary sources of historical information on Old Forge,” despite the fact that Scharf’s History of Delaware mentioned that the forge and mills had been built “many years before” 1807, when they were owned by Josiah Polk.
But the reason for Old Forge’s apparent absence from early records is simple: The community wasn’t called Old Forge back then. It was called Broad Creek Bridge.
Possibly the earliest references to Broad Creek Bridge were made in 1723, when the area was part of Nanticoke Hundred in Somerset County, Maryland:
“Thomas Gordan appointed Overseer of the roads in Nanticoak hundred from Broad Creek bridge to the Cows bridge at the head of the Indian river…”
“Henry Friggs appointed Overseer of the roads in the afsd hundred from Broad Creek to Gravelly Branch…”
A similar reference appears the following year:
“Ordered that James Bowcher be overseer of the road from Broad Creek bridge halfe way to the Cow bridge it being the halfe of Wm. Burtons Limmitts from the Cow Bridge…”
Friggs is probably the same man called Henry Freaks in 1711, who was awarded 3,000 pounds of tobacco in damages due to the creation of the Nanticoke reservation known as Broad Creek Town. James Bouger was another early landowner.
The bridge was also used as a landmark in surveys of nearby tracts of land. In 1726, “Cypress Swamp” was surveyed for Robert Givans, and described as beginning at a red oak on the northeast side of the creek, “about a mile & halfe above ye Bridge…” Three years later, the first bounder of “Givans Lot” was a cypress tree a mere two poles (approximately 33 feet) below the bridge. Another survey for Givans mentions a cart road leading eastward from the bridge to a swamp; this road might have been the basis of part of today’s Route 24. Givans owned several hundred acres of land around Broad Creek Bridge, as well as lands along Deep Creek to the north.
A noteworthy reference appears in 1736, when Paris Chipman petitioned for permission to clear a new road, at his own expense, between Broad Creek Bridge and Chipman’s mill dam. Evidently Chipman had built a sawmill downstream of a wading place where the old road crossed a branch, causing the wading place to become impassable. It is likely that this record describes the creation of Chipman’s Pond, and that the new pond flooded the old road and wading place.
Another interesting reference appears in 1747, when Presbyterian minister Rev. Charles Tenant mentioned Broad Creek Bridge in a list of places for “public service and preaching…” This is significant, because the early religious history of Broad Creek is a bit mysterious. In the 1880s, Scharf’s contributor Rev. Benjamin Douglass suggested that Christ Church, built in 1771, replaced an earlier structure, vaguely citing local tradition.
Additionally, it is known that a Presbyterian church was built along the same branch sometime prior to the Revolution, during which it was burned. Tenant’s mention of Broad Creek Bridge is also significant because he seems to be using the name to refer to the community located around the bridge, as opposed to earlier records which seem to use the name to refer to the literal bridge. However, although his list specifically mentions meeting houses at other locations, it does not actually say that there was one at Broad Creek Bridge. The history of the Broad Creek Presbyterians between the 1740s and 1780s deserves further research.
The 1750s saw several surveys for Joseph Marshall which mention Broad Creek Bridge, roads, and other features. Perhaps the most important is a 1755 resurvey of a tract including land formerly owned by Robert Givans, and excluding land which had been “taken away by water.” The new 114-acre tract was called Saw Mill Lot. Although the document does not say whether there was already a sawmill there, the reference to encroaching water suggests that the creek had already been dammed to create a mill pond. This could have occurred as early as the late 1720s or early 1730s, under Robert Givans. In any case, it is clear that Saw Mill Lot surrounded the section of Broad Creek which would later be known as Old Forge Pond.
In 1770, the Maryland legislature authorized the purchase of “a Lott of Ground at or near Broad Creek Bridge in [Stepney] Parish and Erecting and Building thereon a Chapel of Ease to the said Parish,” resulting in the construction of Broad Creek Chapel between 1771 and 1772. Tradition holds that the iron nails, hinges, etc., used in the structure were produced at the nearby forge. It’s not clear why the site at Chipman’s Pond, about a mile north of Broad Creek Bridge, was chosen, but the decision seems to support the theory that the name Broad Creek Bridge was used to refer to the entire community at that time.
By 1807, as mentioned previously, Josiah Polk owned the forge, gristmill, and sawmill at the site. When he died—probably in the late 1830s—ownership passed to his brother, John, although the old forge was abandoned. The mills were called the Polk Mills during this period, even after they were sold to the Chipman family. They were operated during most of the 19th century, changing hands several times.
Both the mills and the bridge were mentioned in 1848, when James Horsey donated a half-acre parcel on the south side of the creek to a group of free blacks led by Samson Matthews. The church they founded would be known as Old Forge A.M.E., though the name does not appear in the deed. The congregation hosted an annual campmeeting beginning in 1855. The church was closed in 1909, but sister church Mt. Pisgah continued to hold campmeetings for several years. In The Churches of Delaware, published in 1947, Zebley stated that nothing survived to mark the site. The history of this church and campmeeting will be explored in greater detail in a future article.
The community at Broad Creek Bridge can be considered a direct ancestor of the town of Laurel, and it is to be hoped that we will be able to learn more about its story, from its mysterious beginnings in the colonial era until its seemingly rapid abandonment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifics about the Old Forge, in particular, are elusive. The search continues.
1. The Archaeological Society of Delaware provides PDF copies of The Archeolog at delawarearchaeology.org.
2. Colonial court and land records are held by the Maryland State Archives; searchable at msa.maryland.gov and plats.net, respectively.
3. Tract maps created by John Lyon and Mike Hitch identified original landowners around Broad Creek Bridge.