Volume 12, Issue 50 ~ December 9 - December 15, 2004

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By Steve Carr

This Land is Our Land
Touring Patapsco Valley State Park

There’s mischief afoot, so my friend Jimmy and I took a bicycle trip to check it out.

Patapsco Valley State Park is one of the likely targets on the long list of “surplus” state properties being bandied about by the Governor’s Office as potentially up for development.

A patchwork of public lands that follow the upriver sections of the Patapsco that stretches from Mt. Airy to Baltimore Harbor, the park is another unique face of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this one deeply forested and chock-full of history and mystery.

Imagining the Past
The Patapsco River was the Little Engine that Could during this nation’s Industrial Revolution. It helped propel Baltimore into a manufacturing capital and a seaport of world renown. Colonial-era mills along the meandering river initially provided the energy to process grain, then morphed into hydro-powered factories that made the canvas tents for the Union Army in the Civil War — plus a myriad of other items like denim and hoses. Big bucks were made by several large manufacturing firms in the valley until the end of the First World War, and sizable company towns were scattered along the narrow alluvial river deltas. Long gone and since forgotten, towns like Daniels, Elysville, Alberton and Oella are inching their way back into the landscape like Mayan ruins.

It can be difficult to imagine the past, especially when it’s covered in vines. But the domed ruins of gutted factories, the abandoned Studebakers and Packards and the discarded washing machines and refrigerators scattered across the landscape tell a story of once-great promise, when a worker and his family could rent a seven-room house from John A. Gary & Sons for $4.50 a week, complete with free firewood. Then dreams lit the Patapsco Valley with hope and prosperity.

A few minutes down the trail, and nature’s work replaced humankind’s. This fairly deep gorge had been turned on its ear, way back a few hundred million years ago when the rock that fenced in this river had been formed. First rock. Baltimore Gneiss. Black and silver and grey and twisted like only Mother Earth can do.

The bottomland benches between the rock and the river are equally misshapen. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes stalled north of Baltimore and sent a wall of water running down the Patapsco River Valley. Hundreds of years of history, families, businesses — the whole shebang — vanished. What was not washed away by the storm was eventually bulldozed into oblivion by the C.R. Daniels Company, which decided the renovations, estimated at $750,000, were just too expensive.

Seeing the Present
Nowadays, the Patapsco River is known for its unique flavor around Baltimore, which is to say rather foul and polluted. But the headwaters tell a far different story.

Imagine a winding trail along a slow-moving ribbon of crystal-clear, green water rushing over silver granite, lined with white-boy sycamores and big honking poplars. Electric-green mosses and gray lichens cover everything that doesn’t move. Giant dinosaur-shaped lumps of honeysuckle and greenbrier provide impenetrable nesting cover for the year-round bird crew: chickadees, wrens and cardinals. Large yellow spiders with bright orange bellies dance across their sunlit webs, as a fat fluffy rabbit nibbles on the bright green tops of creeping cedar. Brittle leaves the color of red wine create a crunchy carpet underfoot. Little tributary streams trickle in from the bottom of the surrounding stone cliffs and steeply-forested hills, cascading over granite with an ancient song that started way back when.

Suddenly a train whistle sounds in the distance, and the whole river valley hums and rattles. Trains and factories have always gone hand in hand, and while the hurricane wiped out business, it did not wipe out the railroad, which still runs to this day between Baltimore and Pennsylvania.

The rumbling train lumbers upriver like something from another time and place, as flatbed after flatbed of brown desert-camouflage fuel trucks and Humvees head toward — where? Iraq? Afghanistan? Another mystery.

This Sunday’s Sermon
At a well-traveled side trail from the north, we climb the steep ridge to see where it might lead. Giant yellow poplars cover the surrounding hillsides like scarecrows, and the forest is silent. The sun suddenly comes out, illuminating the woods in glorious cathedral light. Our eyes follow it to the gray-stone ruins of a long-abandoned church.

At the turn of the century, the inhabitants of the bustling town of Alberton constructed a Catholic chapel in these woods. There were no roads, merely walking trails to this peaceful place of worship. The parishioners christened it St. Stanislaus Kostka. There was no full-time priest to minister this working-class flock, so a priest from the nearby Woodstock College of the Sacred Heart made his way down river each Sunday — sometimes skating atop the frozen water — to give mass. In 1920, lightning struck the church; it was never rebuilt.

We step through the chapel doorway as if going into Sunday worship. The outside walls stand, but the roof has caved in and large blocks of ivy-covered granite litter the interior of the church like prehistoric seats. Sitting down, we look around in wonder, imagining the stories these crumbling walls could tell: Of Christmas past, of weddings and births, of fortunes and famine and fiery loss.

A few crumbling and faded gravestones poke out of the ground at the rear of the church. The Hickey family, long departed. Yet plastic flowers have recently been placed beside one of the older graves.

In this sacred place, Jimmy begins his Sunday sermon.

“How can the governor ever seriously consider selling off a magical place like this?” he asks, his eyes fixed on a small memorial of red ribbons and rusty medals deposited by previous travelers, a shrine to the forgotten.

I shake my head and frown. “He says that he is just doing an inventory.”

Jimmy scoots forward on his boulder chair and demands, “Have you seen the darn list? We’re talking about over 3,000 acres of state-owned land. Like Elk Neck, Gambrill, Savage River, Garrett and Cedarville state forests; Urbanna Lake and Hughesville Pond; the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds and Crownsville Hospital; some of North Beach; Cunningham Falls State Park; land along the Youghigeney. And this place. What are these people thinking?”

“It’s hard to say,” I answer as a white puffball cloud moves across the face of the sun, and the temperature suddenly drops. A gust of chilly wind from the north rattles the branches of a small redbud tree that has taken root inside the church. “Maybe they’re short on cash and need to help balance the state’s books.”

Jimmy picks up a piece of white marble and tossed it angrily at the place where the altar stood. “Selling off our children’s assets is just plain stupid. We bought these properties, using taxpayers’ money, to preserve as open space for us all. Now we’re going to throw that away because the governor can’t have his way with slots? That just makes no sense to me.”

Jimmy lobs another rock through a long vanished window. “So why don’t we sell off the State House or Fort McHenry while we’re at it? Bet we’d get a bunch of money for them.”

“Don’t give them any ideas,” I say ruefully.

The Moral of the Story
I don’t know whether Gov. Robert Ehrlich really intends to hold a fire sale with state park lands. No one knows. The governor seems a nice enough fellow. He’s an outdoors guy. He has two lovely children. I think he genuinely cares about the Bay.

But if Hurricane Agnes, world wars, lightning, the Great Depression, and the C.R. Daniels Company could not destroy the wondrous essence of the Patapsco River Valley, then no one should. Be they governor or king, they shouldn’t be allowed to sell off that which is not theirs. It really is that simple.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.