We’ve all heard the term before: ghost towns. It evokes specific, sepia-toned images. Steel mining towns haunted by crumbling shack housing and the sound of clanging metal; forgotten military housing projects, streets on streets of beige single-family homes standing empty; Western gold mining towns, with their false-front saloons left to the tumbleweeds. There’s a kind of romantic sadness in the still-standing structures of days gone by. Or, if you’re the superstitious sort, there’s a haunting, eerie wonder about what might still walk those kinds of empty streets.
For the town of Daniels, ghost town is a bit of a misnomer, even though that’s the term its Wikipedia pages uses. Daniels straddles the Patapsco River east of Woodstock and north of Old Ellicott City in Baltimore and Howard counties, Maryland, United State, but there isn’t enough of it left for it to be called a town anymore.
Hurricane Agnes made landfall in the United States on June 19, 1972 near Panama City, Florida. It travelled up the east coast and though it eventually downgraded into a tropical storm, when it hit Maryland it still had enough rain in it to do $75 million in damages–$400 million today. Statewide, roads flooded and bridges threatened to collapse. Major roads leading into Ellicott City were closed and the historic downtown area reported twelve feet of standing water.
These floods swept away most of the bones of Daniels. The water wrecked the mill, tore down the empty homes, laid waste to all but the shells of a couple churches, and tossed around the few remaining cars that had been left behind when the town closed down.
Forty-eight years ago, that kind of flooding in the Ellicott City area was more incredible than expected. The historic district has suffered sixteen floods since 1837. Main Street is a narrow road winding down a steep hill, with the Patapsco woods bracketing all in a sea of green. It’s like any other historic downtown on the East Coast, probably, with its approximately seven antique shops, charming tiny restaurants, and curio stores. But even if is like any other historic district, Old Ellicott City is precious to me.
I’ve lived my whole life less than fifteen minutes from Historic Main Street. For long as I can remember, I’ve seen the old guard stores—the Forget-Me-Not Factory, Gramp’s Attic Books, the Discovery dress shop—survive while a revolving door of new businesses never seem to be able to hold on for more than two years. The newest and shiniest storefronts can’t seem to make it in a town established in 1772. In my family, as I and my five siblings grew up, it was tradition for one of our parents to take us out to Old Elicott City once a year for a day trip. My dad with the boys, my mom with the girls. Lunch at the Trolley Stop, fresh fudge from the candy shop whose name I can never recall, housed in the same store space as a shop that sells faux-Native dreamcatchers, T-shirts with howling wolves, and assorted crystals. I always resented cutesy boutiques for taking up my sacred, unchanging space. I was devastated when, sometime in my early teens, Mumbles and Squeaks’ toy store gave way to a shinier, newer toy store, and then to something else forgettable and quickly closed. I still have the stuffed snow leopard that was my day-trip gift when I was—eight? Nine? Details escape me, but I am twenty-three now and her fur is still soft.
At the bottom of the hill runs the Patapsco River, which has a long memory of rising to burst its banks when summer storms rage hard enough, but only with the most vicious of them. Longtime residents of Main Street know the tales, and they know where the flood markers are on the telephone pole at the bottom of Main Street that show how high the water’s risen. At the bottom of the hill across Frederick Road, the Trolley Stop Diner’s walls are packed with framed historical photos of the town, of celebrities with no connection to Ellicott City, and of the floods. Those grainy, black-and-white images create distance. This is history.
The expected way of things changed in 2016 when, for the first time in recorded history, the street flooded from the top town. Two little creeks high on the hill overflowed on June 30, when six inches of rain fell in just two hours. A solid wall of water, rushed by gravity, ripped down the street; it killed two people, taking out cars, storefronts, and even the street’s historic clock. The community linked arms, cleaned up, and rebuilt as best they knew how, with local concerts and other fundraising events pooling desperate funds to stitch the world back together. The day trips stopped that year, and they never restarted.
In September 2017, I got a job on Main Street working in a tiny, cramped clothing store that sold hand-made sweaters, dresses, and necklaces from Indonesia. It was a desperately lonely job at times, especially on rainy or needle-cold days when I’d see perhaps a maximum of four people in a seven-hour shift. But there was also peace in that tiny space—so small that more than three people in it prompted claustrophobia—and there was a steady comfort in the marijuana smoke I smelled from the upstairs tenants almost every day I was there.
Then, two years later, much the same on May 18, 2020, when eight inches of rain fell in, again, in two hours. The town that had just limped back to its feet under the mantle of #ECStrong was gutted once again. I remember watching the rain wall that night and knowing deep in my gut that Ellicott City was gone—again. My job was gone. Though the store wasn’t ruined, it would be months and months before it could reopen, and I wasn’t going to wait. These were not the rainstorms of old, meteorologists warned. They were called “1,000-year storms:” rain events so intense they’re expected to happen once a millennium in a given region.
We called Agens a natural disaster, and we call the 2016 and 2018 floods the same. The reasons for the recent ones are obvious. Maryland is getting warmer. Overdevelopment at the top and bottom of Main Street means there’s not enough ground left to absorb runoff. Heavy rainstorms are becoming more frequent in the mid-Atlantic as the climate changes. But in my gut, I couldn’t help but boil it down to one simple thought: we did this. We overbuilt and paid the price as the world got warmer around us.
There was no one left to rebuild Daniels when Agnes took it down in 1972. Again and again, the Ellicott City businessowners will keep salvaging Main Street’s history long after their pockets run empty. Many of them probably don’t know about the onetime ghost town just a few* miles away that went down once—and only once—to water.
A few grainy and, faded old photographs preserved in the Digital Maryland collection—accessible through Baltimore County Public Library’s website—are the only visual clues left of what Daniels was like. In July 2020, I tracked down an aerial photo of Daniels in those archives. Taken in 1940, it shows a road winding through the town with the Patapsco River on one side and a row of seven homes on the other, along with a church. These houses are all completely identical, especially from a distance—two-story homes, each story with a row of six windows, a front porch with a roof, two chimneys at each end of the house. The kind of idyllic suburban symmetry that once rose easily around the prospect of a place to work—mills, steel plants, so on. The kind that now rises in half-million dollar cul-de-sacs, where stretches of pretty but entirely nonprofitable fields used to be.
Trees in barren, leafless winter stretches slope gently up a hill behind the home. The Patapsco hills flow unbroken up to the horizon level at the top of the photo, where a couple of miniscule barns dot the line. I was lost in wondering how much of that land has since been developed when something caught my eye, and I squinted at the top left. I saw the blinding white walls of what looks like a complete building for a blink, until I realized that the blob in between those walls is a tree, and that the building has no roof.
I felt a little thrill at that, because I know that building. I’d been there just months ago. Those walls belong to St. Stanislaus Kosta Catholic Church, which ministered to Daniels until 1927 when lightning stuck the spire, sparking a fire that burned most of the church to the ground. The walls that remained stayed standing, bones haunting the cookie-cutter mill town homes.
I visited the ruins the day after Christmas in 2019. It was unseasonably warm, my mom wanted to go for a walk, and she’d been to the church ruins before, seeing as we live less than twenty minutes from all of the different areas of Patapsco State Park.
Off River Road in Ellicott City, a paved footpath runs for over a mile into the woods, with the river on the left and hills sloping sharp and wooded on the right. My mom had to navigate us to the actual site with GPS coordinates and walking directions, because there’s no path up from the trail—you have to pick and clamber your way up a lumped set of hills strewn with leaves and fallen foliage. We’d made the mistake of bringing the dog with us—an excitable pit bull mix with absolutely no concept of obstacles or caution—and I had to guide her over and under fallen trees while praying she wouldn’t snag her leash and send me flying back down the hill. My mom can’t tolerate walking her at the best of times. Pepper stops and starts too often, darts off on her every whim, and tangles herself around most available telephone poles.
When I finally made it high enough to see the crumbled walls, my heart jolted with the specific wonder I have only for abandoned and forgotten things. That wonder, funnily enough, began in the Ellicott City area.
I can date this with a frightening accuracy only available to me because of digital photo metadata. On Saturday, April 9th, 2013, I was fifteen years old and, much to my dismay now, was still parting my hair in the middle. My oldest sister, Ellie—who would have been twenty-one at the time—brought me exploring in what’s colloquially known as the “creepy college” in Patapsco Woods. In the wooded hills, St. Mary’s college was once a seminary where students studied for six years before being ordained as Catholic priests. Established in 1868, it operated until 1972—there were only ten students in the final graduating class. The area wouldn’t be annexed into the Patapsco State Park map until 1987, but it still feels like part of the Patapsco woods tradition that the buildings were left for vines, rot, and rain to claim. Vandals arsonists, and the tacky moniker of “Hell House” made the buildings more or less impossible to repurpose; in keeping with a gritty, made-by-locals image, arsonists burned the site again on Halloween night, 1997.
I was just shy of four months old when that final fire sealed the deal. No one else attempted renovations. In 2006, the buildings were fully demolished, leaving behind a system of basements with cracked stonework inside and window holes looking out into the lush green of the park. My sister, ten times braver and cooler than me, had already been to the site with friends at night—being the kid who reminded teachers about homework they’d assigned, I could have never. We tracked through dusty, moss-folded basements, poked around cracked water tanks and remnants of walls, and trekked up a set of unconscionably steep stairs to an outdoor altar splashed with graffiti.
I have many pictures from that day that I adore, despite the grainy, too-green light quality of a digital camera that was already three years old in 2013. My favorite of these is my sister standing on the stone altar, underneath a canopy dome splashed with rust, sections of its roof gone and letting in the spring sun. She’s rocked up slightly on her toes, standing perfectly in front of the metal frame for a crucifix ten feet high, head and torso turned to the right like something else crumbled and has caught her eye. Sunlight catches on her T-shirt, illuminating its Batman logo. Behind her, a tracery of knotted branches and trailed brown vines. I’m grateful that she indulged my incessant photography. I now have a perfect capture of an emotion I can’t name but that I learned to feel that day—fascination and love for abandoned things. A kind of breath reserved just for molding history.
At St. Stainislaus Kosta, I didn’t make the connection that, eight years after I’d first discovered my love of the lost among Catholic ruins in Patapsco, I was tapping that exact same vein. But I still thrilled. Cracked stone steps, the second from the bottom missing, lead up into the chapel floor now covered in a carpet of dead leaves. I secured the dog’s leash to a nearby fallen tree and leapt the gap from first step to third. Less of the two walls remain now than in the photo from 1940., but enough still stands that one wall still has a doorway with a lintel of ivy and vines. I stepped in and out, in and out, trying to guess how many people could have gathered to worship in such a small space. Forty? Maybe fifty?
Other, newer congregations have come and gone. A fire pit, made presumably from stones that had fallen from the church, sits in the clearing between the two standing walls. Small pieces of parties linger—Bud Light cans and water bottles. There is less graffiti than one might expect, but there are still some black-and-blue tags on the walls, which upset my mom.
“Why can’t people just leave things alone?” she said, irritated. I had no answer then. Now, I’d say this: people need to make memories, and there wasn’t anyone to care if friends smoked and drank under stars and the ghosts of old prayers.
Up the hill behind the church, I spotted a thin dirt path. I untied Pepper, who was annoyed that I’d left her out of sniffing around. Winding up through dead weeds and fallen branches, I got another shot of wonder when I walked right into a cluster of faded brown graves.
The earliest birth dates belong to John Hickey in 1853, and to his wife, Laura Virginia Colson, in 1854. The latest goes to Muriel Mary Hickey in 1919. The earliest birth date also had the shortest life. Muriel died on May 3, the day she was born. But hers is not the only infant grave. Of the twenty-two memorials there, five are for children who died at two years old or younger. Standing there, though, I was only struck by Muriel’s.
In 1919, the morality rate for neonatal infants in America—babies age zero to twenty-seven days—was 7%. For infants up to a year old, 13%. In the 1919 Mortality Statistics report compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, there were twenty-seven causes of death listed for infants under the age of one, with the final entry being “all other causes.” Tuberculosis, whooping cough, croup, malformations, syphilis, and more. With the distance of a century, it was once easy for me to imagine parents of the early 20th century as pragmatic, weeping softly but with restraint at the death of an infant while planning their next child. Without the vaccines and health codes of the modern hospital and the intense, day-by-day knowledge we now have of natal development, babies died more often. Parents knew that. Parents knew having children was a necessary act of creating new workers, extending family lines, ensuring survival. That’s how I once thought in 21st century world, where most of my friends in high school were one of three carefully planned children, growing up in the lap of middle-class privilege. A child dying today is a rarer tragedy, a different breed than the whooping cough deaths of 1919—so I had thought.
But Muriel’s grave made my chest constrict. To come into this world screaming, to barely learn how to breathe before it’s all over. Did her parents know she was ill from the time she left the womb, or was her passing swift in the night? To know your child will die before a few days are out, or to have her stolen senselessly mid-breath: both seemed equally horrible. James and Annie clearly grieved enough to order her a grave plot and tombstone, an expense not always afforded for infants in that era; burials are costly, and with such a high infant mortality rate it was common for them to be laid in unmarked graves. But not little Muriel.
There had been no hint of ghosts between the walls of the old church. Faith permeates foundations. But among the graves in full winter daylight, I felt unsettled. Not afraid, as graveyards have never scared me, but it was like there was a sudden question under my skin about this graveyard that I couldn’t answer. Why had the graves been left to crumble? I didn’t know, the day after Christmas, about the history of Daniels and the town’s sudden closing. I didn’t know that all of the town’s citizens had been forced to move inside of a year and that they probably would not have had time to make plans for the cemetery grounds. All I saw were the mossy graves of infants and their families. I saw consecrated ground left to the woods. I saw that in a nearby pip jutting from a slab of concrete, some soul had left a fake pink flower, its plastic petals stiff and shining. It was the only real color around me.
Months later in early August, I tried to visit the remaining ruins of Daniels, which are just over half a mile west of Stainslaus Kosta. The dam named for the town still remains in the Patapsco River, and is considered a historical landmark. According to the GPS coordinates supplied by Atlas Obscura, the last few standing churches and the remains of some flooded cars are on a hill just across this part of the river.
There are two ways to cross. The first (probably illegal) way would involves climbing the steps to the railroad tracks, right next to the dam plant. When I visited, a cop was parked directly underneath the tracks. Even my wanderlust isn’t that stubborn.
The second way is simply to wade. Signs at the parking area and at the dam’s metal viewing platform forbid swimming, or any activity in the water within two hundred feet at the dam. Three or four families were in the river. Adults in bikinis and swim trunks lounged on rocks, their bags dumped on a tiny island of dirt that hadn’t gone under the current. Further down—but definitely still within two hundred feet—kids kicked and splashed and squealed in an area where the water wasn’t too deep, while parents and presumably aunts, uncles, and cousins watched. I heard snatches of shouted Spanish over the roaring falls.
I picked my way down the steep, forested bank, contemplated my options, and removed my socks and shoes. I’d discovered on arrival that my camera was dead, but the bag was still useful—in went my socks, my car keys, and my cell phone. I poked out several feet into the cool water and immediately began slipping on the hundreds of rocks in the riverbed, so I went back—too stubborn to put my shoes back on—and found a suitable walking stick. Some of the adults were eyeing me, but I wasn’t a threat to their sunbathing. I was fixed on the beginnings of a footpath on the opposite bank, and it was becoming almost romantic; I would sink my feet into mud, stub my toes on stone, make myself an absolute fool, anything to get on that path.
As my toes gripped moss and slime, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who’d had to pack up in the space of a year or so when the Daniels company closed the mill town. I didn’t mourn their catalogue-cut homes. But the graves troubled me—the little bones of a day-old infant, the tiny handful of families who’d been the first spine of Daniels. Three churches for a tiny town.
Past the mid-point of the river, where a strip of sand and stone rise higher than the rest, the river becomes uncertainly deep. I tested with my stick—about knee-height. I stepped gingerly, and the flow of the water changed in a snap to sucking, yanking around my feet, shoving my knees towards downstream. I could stand, but my whole position had changed. I marveled at the adults who’d pushed to that little island to deposit their clothes, their towels and sunscreen. I took another step and the water went above my knees, lapping at the hems of my shorts, and I distinctly heard my the former-Marine version of my mother’s voice: “excuse me, you did WHAT?!”
I turned back.
I tried another point about twenty feet downstream, where a family with three small children played near another strip of island—this one holding onto a section of old stone wall that must’ve been at least twenty feet high. I waded into the still water at the bank and began pushing out when a voice startled me: “Hi!” I didn’t fully register the noise until it came again, soft and kind: “Hi!”
A plump woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties, was sitting in the water with her wrinkled knees just poking out above the surface. Her short, dark hair was swept back and streaked with silver, and her brown skin was wrinkled and freckled all around a genuine smile. It was a smile I recognized from my siblings who are on the autism spectrum: untroubled, uncomplicated by any of the social webs that would have made me nervous to greet a stranger. I grinned, said “hey!” and kept forging on. She was the first and only person there to fully acknowledge my presence.
I splashed into the same problems here. Past the midpoint of the river, the water became two feet steeper in the space of one step, and it was at least another fifteen feet to the other bank. Past the rush, I was certain I’d find closure for my burning curiosity. If I could see the last churches and perhaps find the last foundations of felled homes, I could finally connect to the town lives that had been broken up so suddenly. I could let the ghosts know that I’d seen the graves of their families, that they were still standing even as the forest reclaimed them.
Or, it would be my own body tumbling down the river, striking rock and scrabbling for purchase, battered but certainly still surviving—right? I thought of water bowling through the cookie-cutter town of Daniels. Water ripping out chunks of the pavement on Main Street, tilting telephone poles and throwing antiques hundreds of feet downriver to be found days later, waterlogged and robbed of their value. I thought of graves left to the woods.
I couldn’t make it across the river. Since then, torrential spit-of-the-moment storms have hit Maryland again and again.
I live in Arbutus, Maryland, a dinky little town with surrounding suburbs some fourteen minutes east of Old Ellicott City. My neighborhood street is on a hill, and a creek called Herbert Run flows perpendicular to the bottom of my street. The banks are at least seven feet high. In my adolescence, that creek was mine. My best friend Colleen and I spent many a hazy summer afternoon sitting on the rocks and trailing our toes in lightly sludged water, pretending there wasn’t traffic rumbling nearby and spinning out dreams of our futures. We named it Peace Creek. We didn’t know it already had a name.
During heavy rains the waters rush and rise, but in the twelve years I’ve lived in Arbutus, they have never flooded over to the connecting avenue. Until this August.
Herbert Run burst its banks on August 12th during a storm that lasted longer than an hour, one with crunchy thunder and driving, soaking rain that had my dog whimpering under a table. Maryland spats never used to last more than twenty minutes, give or take. In this summer, we’ve been soaked through again and again, adjacent days of storms cracking along; when I was a kid growing up in Maryland, summer storms were a rare treat. They were exciting.
They were exciting because they were special—they were something incredible, and a little bit frightening. I have that same thrill about ghost towns, too, and about old, crumbled graves. But the more I learn about the people who have to leave graves behind and about storms that raze entire communities to the ground, the more my excitement becomes eclipsed by grief. The landscape I knew just ten, fifteen years ago is already changing under the pressure of time and rain. Ellicott City will flood again—I’m certain of that—and how much more history, I wonder, will wash away?
That day in August, the rain washed the entire connecting road in muddy currents, while neighbors who never really talk huddled under umbrellas together and felt superior to the numbskulls whose cars kept approaching the flood, as though will would be enough to keep their engines from flooding. I watched young kids shirtless and splashing in water that surely carried animal shit, trash, life-ending parasites that eat your eyeballs—and though their joy was infectious, I also kept an eye on their parents. A child of no more than two feet tall could easily tumble into the brown rush. There were adults there to save him if that happened, but would they be there in time to stop him from hitting his head on the hidden asphalt, swallowing filthy water?
Muriel Mary’s epitaph was simple: “Gone so soon.” Gone so soon, the pavement disappearing underwater in just minutes. I think of the chubby kids splashing muddy water on each other—too young to know the world they’re entering didn’t use to flood like this, that they could slip and vanish in an instant if they’re not careful. I think of Daniels, most of its memories ripped down in a day. I think of Main Street, shredded time and again as people too stubborn, too hopeful, too in love with the area cling to the buildings that stand. We no longer live in a world where we expect infants and toddlers to die. We no longer abandon family graves in the woods.
Storms like this one keep coming. Sudden rains slap into more summer days than when I was a child. The Patapsco River is going to keep rushing and rising for a while, I think, and it’ll be a long time before I can cross that river—if I can. Come fall and winter, the water will be too cold to walk through if I have any sense. Come spring, come the rains. Closer to home, the water keeps falling more and harder. I fret over the fate and care of ruins when sooner rather than later, the waters may compel us to leave for higher ground, and we might abandon our homes to ghost towns and floods.
Clara Jeske is an essayist and short story writer born and raised in Maryland. She aspires to work as an editor, and has work forthcoming in Ligeia and Free State Review. In her free time, she can be found painting, gardening, baking, and reading too many books at the same time. Find her online @JeskeClara on Twitter and @clara.lynne.jeske on Instagram.