Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reaching for the Moon: the Story of Barbara Johns and Prince Edward County Public Schools

Photo of a photo displayed in the museum shows Farmvile in the 1950s.

Each winter, school children celebrate snow days. But despite missing many days in a row, when the snow again begins to fall, school children again celebrate.

But what if the schools simply closed and didn't reopen? What if the "snow day" was permanent, and even after the snow melted, students still couldn't return to school? Would the students continue to play outside and cheer "No more school!"? wondered Shirl Nunnally Early in an article recalling those days.

In the fall of 1959, Prince Edward County public schools failed to re-open for the school year, and remained locked shut until 1964. If you wonder, how could this have happened, then I recommend you visit Moton High School in Farmville, VA, which is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum and National Historic Site. This post is the story of those eventful years that led to a profound change in this country.

A modern day recreation of the tar-paper shacks.

Built in 1939 for a student population of 180, by 1951 Moton High School was heavily overcrowded at 450 students. It houses six classrooms and an office arranged around a central auditorium. It had no cafeteria or restrooms for teachers. Temporary classrooms were built of wood and tarpaper, that leaked when it rained and froze the students during the winter. School supplies were hand-me-downs from the white high school across town. Students arrived on old buses that sometimes could barely run. A school bus broke down on rail road tracks in March 1951 and was subsequently hit by a train, killing five Moton High School students.

Photo of a photo displayed in the museum. 

The struggle for civil rights took place not just on buses and at lunch counters, but also in classrooms and courtrooms. Prince Edward County's students started their county, the state, and the country on a 13-year-long journey from segregated to integrated public schools. Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old high school junior, started everyone on that journey by calling an unplanned student assembly and speaking passionately about the disparity between schools for white children and their school, Moton High School, on April 23, 1951. She spoke of the need for a new school and adequate supplies, including buses.

Her speech led to a "strike" by the Moton students, who eventually met with the local school board and school officials and consulted with Reverend L. Francis Griffin, pastor of the First Baptist Church. Johns and another student wrote a letter to attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, who were affiliated with the National Association for the
Barbara Johns
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The two lawyers agreed to take their case if the students had their parents' support AND were willing to challenge the constitutionality of segregation.

On May 23 (1951) Hill and Robinson filed suit in federal district court in the case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, charging that inequalities and discrimination in educational facilities existed and that segregation was unconstitutional.

The Moton High School suit wasn't the only one in the nation, nor the first. The NAACP had initiated a legal campaign in the 1930s, and by the time Davis was filed, similar cases were already being litigated from South Carolina, Kansas, Delaware, and Washington, DC. The Supreme Court decided to combine and hear the cases at one time under the Kansas case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

The outcome we know. On May 17, 1952, the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional. How schools were to be integrated was not specified by the Court until May 31, 1955, when the Court issued "Brown II," which ordered all public schools to integrate. Believing that as fell Virginia, so would the rest of the south fall, in 1956 the Virginia General Assembly had empowered the governor to close any schools under court order to desegregate, with the intent to resist implementation of the order to desegregate in an effort called "Massive Resistance."

Thus, in 1958, schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren County were closed, and remained so until January 1959, when both Federal and state courts declared the 1956 laws unconstitutional. Although statewide "Massive Resistance" was effectively dead, the General Assembly adopted tuition grant programs and "freedom of choice" plans that delayed widespread desegregation for another decade.

Photo of a photo displayed in the museum. 

But Prince Edward County wasn't having any of it. The Board of Supervisors refused to fund the schools, effectively shutting them down.

The 1446 white students went to Prince Edward Academy, a private school supported by segregationists. The 1700 African American students had few alternatives. Although some students went to live with relatives in other counties, most could not, depending on New York state college students and churches for their education. One of those was Shirl Nunnally Early. Meanwhile, the NAACP challenged the closing of Prince Edward schools in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward. While the Court grinded toward its decision, "Free Schools," open to all students, opened in Prince Edward in 1963. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that Prince Edward County's schools must be integrated AND opened in 1964.

In 2001, the Moton Museum opened, committed to the preservation and positive interpretation of the history of civil rights in education, specifically as it relates to Prince Edward County. But it has meaning well beyond Prince Edward County and Virginia.

This exhibit shows the first day back for the Moton High School students.

The museum moved me, more than I'd expected. The exhibits lead visitors through the events, explaining the background leading up to the Moton student strike and the events that followed. You emerge with an appreciation for today's educational system, for all its faults. You also gain an appreciation of conditions before desegregation, and how difficult and tense the struggle for equal educational opportunities was.

I am awed and proud to say that my sons don't see color and race the way my generation and the ones before me do. In our middle-class, suburban neighborhood in Maryland, my youngest son has friends of many cultures and heritages, and the minority of those friends are white. So times have changed, and for the better. Not to say we don't have further to go. But what would Barbara Johns have thought about how desegregation has made those friendships possible?

We visited Moton Museum on the same day we spent exploring other fun things to do around Prince Edward County and Farmville, VA. (Please check out the nearby Civil War battlefield Sailor's Creek Battlefield State Park, the challenge of ziplining and the ropes course at Sandy Creek Retreat and Outdoor Adventure, and the High Bridge Rail Trail.)

Know before you go: There's enough to do in the area to keep yourself busy two days. If you do, then consider staying at one of the quaint, but comfortable, cabins at Sandy River Retreat, in Rice.

Getting there: 900 Griffin Blvd (at South Main Street), Farmville, VA

Hours: Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment


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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Six Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses You Need to See!

These are six of my favorite lighthouses in the Mid-Atlantic region -- from a variety of locations, including the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay, and Delaware Bay. During the summer months you can find boat tours of both the Chesapeake and Delaware bays that will take you to the various lighthouses; many lighthouses you can drive to.

6. Cape May Lighthouse: this lighthouse is both lovely from a distance (from the Cape May, NJ boardwalk) or up close. It's also worth climbing to the top for the views of the surrounding wildlife refuge and shoreline. Bonus: you can also explore Cape May, NJ, as well -- such a lovely little town!

5. From the water or by land, the Chesapeake Bay's Cove Point Lighthouse is picturesque and lovely. What's even cooler is you can rent it out and stay there for a few nights or a week! (Yes, you know I want to do that!!)

4. Thomas Shoal LighthouseSitting just outside of Annapolis in the Chesapeake Bay, this is Maryland's most photographed lighthouse. It just sits there and looks pretty. This screwpile lighthouse is picturesque both inside and out! It's currently being restored to its former glory, and I look forward to returning to see it in a few years, completely restored. Periodically, you can find boat tours sponsored by the U.S. Lighthouse Society that will take you out to it and for a tour of the inside.

3. Delaware Bay's Miah Maull Lighthouse -- This is a favorite more for its story than for its looks. It's named for a man, Jeremiah Maull, who lost his life on the very shoal the lighthouse now marks. He was a Delaware Bay ships pilot expert in the bay's channels and hazards. He perished, ironically, while aboard a ship as a passenger, not as the pilot. He was honored by having a lighthouse erected on the shoal where he died.

2. Virginia's lovely Assateague Lighthouse has warned passing ships and local waterman of the shallow waters off Assateague for many years. Interestingly, when the lighthouse was first built, it was on the southern-most end of the island. The land now south of the lighthouse is actually new land, that has grown out about 2 miles since the lighthouse was first built.

1. Sharpes Island Light House --You have to see it by boat, but this one is a favorite because it's all askew -- and I totally sympathize! It's Maryland's very own leaning Tower of Piza. Apparently ice-flows almost knocked it over in the 1970s and it's been tilted ever since.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Doctor Mudd House

Dr. Samuel Mudd was a lucky man: he missed swinging on the gallows by one jury vote, although he was sent to Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, for over 3 years. The jury pivoted on a key fact: whether he knew the man he treated that dark and stormy night in April was John Wilkes Booth. The defense claimed he didn't. The defense also claimed Dr. Mudd barely knew Booth.

But Dr. Mudd later admitted he had, well after he had received his presidential pardon, and had returned to his farm and medical practice in Waldorf.

The Dr. Mudd house is entirely furnished with family pieces -- this because the home has never left the family before it was turned into a house museum in the late 1970s. All the furnishings were either authentic to the years when Dr. Mudd and his immediate offspring lived there or are Mudd family pieces.

The couch where Mudd had examined Booth is still in place in the parlor.

I like this house. It's layout is a little different than traditional center-hall colonial homes. It's obvious that Dr Mudd adjusted the floor plans to accommodate his profession: his bedroom is small, and opens just off of the dining room. When Dr Mudd was in active practice, people knew to come up to the back bedroom window and knock on it. He could then get up, dress, and leave the house to make the house call without disrupting the rest of the family.

The bed where Booth rested before resuming his escape.

A number of Dr. Mudd artifacts are displayed in a case in the upstairs hallway, mostly carvings and artwork he made during his interment at Fort Jefferson. Our guide talked quite openly about his involvement, and hence, guilt in the conspiracy, and the fact that he was lucky to have avoided the same fate that Mary Surratt met. I'd met this docent before, in fact, at the Booth Symposium I'd attended with my sister and friend earlier in the month, and had been impressed by how much she knew about the Booth family!

The house is reputedly haunted and has been featured on Ghost Hunters, and I think some other similar shows, but during the tour I avoided asking about possible haunts, and prayed that the other couple on the tour wouldn't think to ask either. I've learned from experience that a discussion about resident ghosts can totally derail a museum house tour. and I wasn't there for the ghosts: I was there for the history.

What's so cool about both Surratt's Tavern and the Dr. Samuel Mudd House is that both places are Maryland history AND part of our national historical record. Following the Lincoln assassination conspiracy and Booth's desperate dash that dark and stormy night leads straight into Southern Maryland, and into a time when the state was divided with itself.

Getting there: The Dr. Mudd House is located at 3725 Dr Samuel Mudd Rd, Waldorf, MD 20601.


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The path Booth followed on his escape route.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Day Trip on a Budget: Checking Out an Historic Mansion in a State Park

If you're trying to day trip on a budget, your best bet is to check out the state parks. Nominal entrance fees -- even if you're from out of state -- make these a great go-to resource for anyone watching their bottom line.

One of my favorite day trips was to Susquehanna State Park. I discovered there's a neat old mansion there, former home to the Carter-Archer family, as well as the site of preserved grist mill village, Rock Run.

There's a lovely trail that follows the stately Susquehanna River -- and lots more to discover in that park. Read the original post about the mansion and the visit to Rock Run here.

Susquehanna State Park is also home of the privately run Steppingstone Museum. Exhibits include antique farm implements, wood-wrights shop, blacksmith shop, and restored farm house. Steppingstone Museum also hosts special events throughout the year. Please call the museum office at 410-939-2299 for more information, or visit their website at

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On-a-Budget: daily March – October $2/vehicle; out-of-state residents $4/vehicle; open weekends only November - February

Hours: 9 a.m. to Sunset; Picnic Area open 10 a.m. to Sunset. The Rock Run Gristmill is open on weekends and holidays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day, and upon request. The Carter-Archer Mansion is also open on weekends and holidays, Memorial Day to Labor Day from 1 to 4 p.m., and upon request. for more information and updates on the park's historic sites, please contact staff at 410-557-7994.

Dogs: Welcome in the area and the trails, but not in the grist mill or mansion, so if you're planning on poking around in those buildings, then get one of your group to agree to stand outside with the pooches or leave the poor mutts at home.

Websites: Pages/central/susquehanna.aspx

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mary Surratt: Guilty as Charged? Or Innocent?

You don't have to be a huge history buff to be interested in exploring some of the places that figure in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If you haven't traveled down to Washington DC to see Fords Theater and the little house across the street where Lincoln died, you really should try to do so. But there are some interesting places connected to the conspiracy to assassinate a President outside of DC that can provide us some insight into the lives and perspectives of the conspirators.

One such place is Surratt's Tavern. Mary Surratt is an interesting and not entirely unsympathetic figure in Maryland and national history. She had a hard life, and a horrible and possibly undeserved death. She was a woman of her times - by all accounts a strong-willed woman, smart enough to run several businesses, with definite opinions and an allegiance to a failed cause. She had a drunkard for a husband and a son who ran to Canada and left her to hang for their crimes (he was later acquitted).

Mary was born in either 1820 or 1823 in what is now Clinton, MD. Her family owned a tobacco plantation. Although protestants, they sent her to the Academy for Young Ladies, a private Catholic academy in Alexandria, VA. She converted to Catholicism and remained so for the rest of her life. She met John Harrison Surratt in 1839, when she was 16 or 19 and he was 26.

The bar and post office in Surratt's Tavern.
John's adoptive family was a wealthy couple who owned a farm, part of which he inherited. They had everything going for them: education, property, money. The couple married in 1840 and over the next 4 years, their three children were born, including John Jr in 1844. Despite all this, as well as additional property from John's adoptive parents, which helped start some joint business ventures, John's behavior deteriorated after 1845. He drank heavily, often failed to pay his debts, and his temper was increasingly volatile and violent.

For years she and her husband ran a tavern in what was then known as Surrattsville, as well as ran several other businesses -- in fact, at times they did quite well. Well enough, in fact, that all three children were sent to private Catholic boarding schools. In the tavern was the local post office. They sold tobacco in addition to spirits. For 50 cents you could have dinner; another 25 cents space on a shared bed if you were a traveler and needed to stay the night. The house and tavern (the tavern was a room in the house) stood on a 300-acre farm; a handful of slaves helped run the farm, and one, "Aunt Rachel," worked in the kitchen.

In the 1850s however, their debts mounted, and they gradually sold off most of their land to pay the debts. John's drinking got worse. When the Civil War started, Maryland, of course, remained part of the United States ("the Union"), but the Surratts were Confederate sympathizers and their tavern regularly hosted fellow sympathizers and the tavern was even used as a safe house for Confederate spies. Mary was no dumb bunny: it's hard to explain how she could NOT have known all this.

Mary's gracious and elegant parlor.

Days after Lincoln's inauguration, eldest son Isaac left Maryland and traveled to Texas, where he enlisted in the Confederate States Army. John soon died, probably of a stroke. With the family facing some serious financial difficulties, John Jr and daughter Ann quit their studies to help their mother, although John Jr didn't help so much since he opted to become a courier for the Confederates, moving messages, cash, and contraband back and forth across enemy lines. The Confederate activities in and around Surrattsville drew the attention of the Union government. In late 1861, the Union Intelligence Service and 300 Union soldiers camped in Surrattsville and investigated the Surratts and others for Confederate activities.

By 1864, Mary was tired of running the farm and the businesses essentially on her own. Debt was still accumulating and remaining slaves had escaped. She looked to their house in Washington DC and decided to take in boarders there. But this move doesn't make sense: she had to furnish the house and go through the expense of the move at a time she could little afford either. Some scholars have concluded she moved there to aid in her and her son's espionage activities.

Just before Christmas 1864, Dr. Samuel Mudd introduced John Jr. to John Wilkes Booth, who then recruited John Jr. into his conspiracy to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. Confederate agents began frequenting the boarding house. Several of the conspirators roomed at the boarding house, and Booth visited many times over the next few months, sometimes at Mary Surratt's request. At the very least, she was guilty by association, although that isn't necessarily a hanging offense.

After the assassination, Mary was arrested and charged with abetting, aiding, concealing, counseling, and harboring her co-defendants. She was found guilty, primarily on the basis of circumstantial evidence, and hanged with the other conspirators, minus her son John Jr, who was in Canada, on 7 July. She was the first woman executed by the United States. Years later, John Jr was apprehended and tried, but by that time emotions had settled, and he was acquitted. I feel sure that had he been apprehended when his mother was, he also would have been found guilty and hanged.

The public dining room.

Surratt's Tavern is an interesting tour because you can really get a sense of how the family lived. Part of the house served as the tavern and post office, and there was a public dining room, as well as a private family dining room, which, though smaller, was the more elegant of the two. Downstairs, there is a clear delineation between the public and private spaces. Upstairs, a bedroom was dedicated for those who needed to stay the night, just across the hall from and adjacent to the family's bedrooms.

I've toured the house museum twice: the first time I was struck most by the kitchen, and how hard it was to have made those meals and essentially run the household from the kitchen space -- back breaking work for both Aunt Rachel, Mary and her daughter. On the second visit, I was struck by the dual dining rooms, and the difference in the spaces, how they were decorated, how Mary must have struggled to maintain order and elegance in the family's private dining room.

If you ask the docents what they think about Mary Surratt, whether she was truly guilty, they will dissemble. The Surratt Society's official position, at least as far as tours of Surratt's Tavern are concerned, is that it is up to you, the tourist, to decide. They share the basic facts of her life, answer questions as they come up if there's historical record, and leave it at that.

Visiting there, you'll also hear the story of slavery in Maryland, hear Aunt Rachel's story, and get to see the attic room where she slept, 

The table set for supper in the family's
private dining room.
Getting there: 9118 Brandywine Road, Clinton, MD 20735

Hours: Mon - Tues: Closed, Wed - Fri: 11 am - 3 pm, Sat - Sun: noon - 4 pm. The Surratt House Museum is closed on major holidays, and from December 15th to January 15th.

Dogs: Silly question, of course not!


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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Living History at Lander Lock House

From 1828-1924 the C&O Canal functioned as a transportation route for goods and passengers on the 184.5 mile route from Cumberland, MD to Washington, D.C. Now it's a great day trip destination for millions of people each year.

They come to bike or hike along the canal while enjoying the beauty of the Potomac River. Locks, lock houses, such as Lander Lock House, and aqueducts dot the towpath.

Lander House is now a living history museum, furnished upstairs and down in the 1920s time period.  But it's almost 100 years older than that. Built in 1836, the house is a simple brick house with two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs and a wide verandah that overlooks the towpath and the lock 29. Lander House is a typical example of what a 19th-century C&O Canal lockhouse on the eastern half of the canal looked like. Through the trees, the Potomac River can be glimpsed, although at the time the canal was active, the trees were cleared, leaving a lovely open view to the river.

The Lander house is one of 26 along the C&O Canal. Of those, four are open, including Lander. That Lander is one of the restored homes is thanks to the Lander Community Association.

My sister docents at Lander House, and can be found there at least one Saturday a month. Two weeks ago, all the volunteer docents showed up to prepare the house for what I call the "day trip season," i.e., April through October. I went with her to give back in a small way to the C&O Canal, which has provided so many blog topics and lovely days for me.

Along with the other volunteers, we swept, dusted, and wiped almost every surface. As in many old buildings, there was plenty of evidence of mice, wasps, stink bugs, and other minute wildlife. Ugh. It was our job to remove that evidence and ready the house for the season's visitors, so they can learn about life on the C&O Canal. While we were cleaning the house, folks stopped by, excited to see the inside of the house. One man, who traveled to the area from Toronto, Canada, and was unable to come back, was allowed to look through the dusty rooms.

The house was dusty, cobwebby, and as noted, there was evidence of "critters." I joked that my house probably would have fainted if it could have seen me clean house like that. Still, I counted myself lucky to get to explore the house at will, and get to know some of its secrets. No, it's not haunted, my sister assured me. Working alone upstairs, I also sensed nothing but peace, although I experienced some distress at the inadequate cleaning supplies -- the dirt needed more than a broom and a dustpan! I wondered what the former lockkeepers' wives would have thought about the state of the house now, and was thankful they were at rest and could not see the dirt and dust.

Lander House will be participating in Frederick County's annual Bell and History Day on Saturday, 9 April. Frederick County Bell & History Day is held each spring as the opening of museum season in the county. Participating museums and historic sites offer free admission along with special events, tours, music, living history programs, and various activities. Although a bit out of the way from other museums in Frederick, it's definitely worth a visit! The C&O Canal is always worth a visit!

I almost named this post "Discovering Connections" but that would have made the blog more about me than the places we visit, and I try to keep focused on the destinations. However, in reaching out to interview other volunteers, I ended up receiving this kind note from Pepper Scott, one of the other volunteers at Lander Lockhouse; her note was extremely touching. The background to this is that my father had passed away, at age 83, a couple days before we showed up to help clean.

"I realized in the last day or so, that your father had passed very recently. My deepest condolences to you and your sister Karyn," she wrote. "I understand that your father was a colleague of Dr. Lewis, who was responsible for the restoration of the Lockhouse and the Catoctin Aqueduct.[Having the lockhouse open] would never have happened if it weren't for him, and only him. You are making a nice connection and it feels like a small part of the universe comes together with this Lockhouse. Thank you and your family. Bless your Dad, I understand he was quite a fellow also, and will be greatly missed."

Getting there: Lander Lockhouse can be reached from Frederick via U.S. 340 west. Take the U.S. 15 south exit toward Leesburg, Va. After six miles, turn right on Md. 464. Go one mile and turn left onto Lander Road. Turn left to cross the railroad tracks and proceed to parking area. If  you're hiking or biking the C&O Canal towpath, Lander House is located at the 51 mile post C&O Canal Lander Rd., Jefferson, MD 21755.

Hours: You can see the inside on Saturdays during summer (11 am–2 pm).


For other parts of the C&O Canal, check out the below articles:
Brunswick to Dargan Bend
Canal Pride Days 
Edwards Ferry
Fort Frederick to Hancock
Great Falls
Locks 33 and 34
Maryland Heights (Harpers Ferry)
Monocacy & Catoctin Aqueducts
Paw Paw Tunnel to Lock 56
Swain's Lock to Seneca Aqueduct
Kayaking at Swain's Lock

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Updated June 2020

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Visit to Hell House in Howard County, MD

This morning my husband surprised me with an adventure I probably wouldn't have gone on alone.

A view over the Patapsco River valley to St Mary's hill.

Many mornings we grab our beagles and go walking along the Grist Mill Trail in Patapsco Valley State Park -- we usually access it from the swinging bridge adjacent Ilchester Road in Ellicott City. Parking isn't great there -- just a few spots along the road, and you have to be careful because despite the twisty, small lanes, vehicles travel through at high speeds. The morning was a chilly one, even by early April standards. Ours was just about the only car parked there. Other, wiser folks were sleeping in or going to the gym.

Hidden in that mess are some mysterious stairs leading up to no-where.
Instead of turning left to go over the bridge and walk along the Patapsco River, we instead turned right, and headed for mysterious stairs leading up to who knew what. I've always wondered where those stairs led to.

Recently, a blog reader had tipped me off to the site, just a couple miles from my home: the ruins of St Mary's Seminary. Judging from the graffiti and broken bottles, this place is a favorite of local kids (yeah, that and I recognized the location in a FB photo of my eldest son). Ghost stories and urban legends have spread throughout the area about the location and the nefarious religious practices that are supposed to have taken place there. Over time, locals began to refer to it as "Hell House," but I suspect that's because of the nuisance and hell-raising by the local kids.

St Mary's in its glory. Now all that remains is a pile of brick and stone rubble. Photo from Maryland State Archives.
The answer to my question is that these stairs lead to nowhere, making the ruins and the site all the more mysterious. Unfortunately, today there's not much to see, although the view through the trees is amazing. As the manmade structures deteriorate and disappear, nature slowly repossesses the land.

We were on the grounds of what had been called Mount Saint Clemens when it opened in 1868. In 1882 it was renamed Saint Mary's College. In 1893 the chapel was established as a parish church dedicated to "Our Lady of Perpetual Help," although the parish moved the church to a new facility in 1958. St Mary's served as a seminary from the 1880s until 1972, when it closed after struggling in its last years.

According to an article, St Mary's was once a five-story brick college building, replete with a portico and cupola. There also was a chapel here. Maryland State Historical Trust records noted that St. Mary’s College and Chapel were one of the most impressive architectural complexes in Howard County. And it's no wonder -- the site itself is impressive -- the top of a hill overlooking the Patapsco River and the now uninhabited town of Ilchester.

After closing in 1972, it was abandoned and became a place for urban explorers, teenagers looking for a scary place to party, vandals, and photographers and bloggers like me. In 1997, the many buildings of St Marys still standing were set ablaze by vandals. In 2006, the remaining ruins still standing were torn down.

Now what remains is a pile of rubble, pavement of the drive up to St Marys (off of Bonnie Branch Road), ruins of long sets of staircases going up to the old grounds, and up until circa 2013, a huge wrought iron cupola over an alter with a very large black cross. I hope that somewhere, this iron cupola is preserved!** Sometime over these years, the state of Maryland acquired it and added the acreage to the Patapsco Valley State Park.

It is: we went back the following year and found it here.

Pavement has collapsed in a structure opposite the driveway from the mound of rubble, revealing cellar space that is a little too scary to contemplate entering and exploring. I wondered -- was this the remains of the former caretaker's house?

A cemetery just up the hill along Ilchester Road is called the St Mary's Cemetery. I always wondered where St Mary's was. Now I know. Ironically -- interesting factoid alert -- at a different local cemetery (Meadowridge Cemetery, adjacent U.S. 1 and Meadowridge Road), St Mary's bells still sway and toll in the breeze.

Apparently what remains of the alter of St Mary's Chapel. The cast iron cupola is long gone. :(

While we were in the area, we turned onto Hilltop Road so I could peer into and photograph the two old stone cottages still lingering along the road. Empty and abandoned buildings filled with ghosts and shadows inspire a curiosity in me I cannot deny. Like St Mary's, over the years, fires and vandalism have taken their toll on these two structures, as well as several others that formed the small mill town of Ilchester, near the recently destroyed Thistle Manufacturing Company/Ilchester Paper Factory.

Ilchester started almost 300 years ago in 1761, when John Cornthwaite founded a wood grist mill called the Dismal Mill. Later, the Ellicott brothers acquired this property, incorporating it into Ellicott Mills (which later became Ellicott City). The site was too good to ignore, and another factory was proposed for the site. The Ellicott's stipulated that the new factory as well as the Dismal Mill downstream would not operate as a competing flour mill, and in turn, the Ellicott's could not sell liquor on their land.

The 100 employee mill building was built of local granite, along with at least five stone buildings to support laborers and a general store. The two remaining stone cottages are all that remain today of those buildings. There are several wooden houses still on the slopes above the two stone cottages -- all abandoned and collapsing upon themselves.

The interior structure, although collapsed, still remains in one of the two stone cottages.

Today, nearby Columbia, a planned community established in 1966, has overtaken Ellicott City's prominence in Howard County. Perhaps our modern-day fascination with St Mary's and the stone cottages of Ilchester serves as a fading reminder that the mark we place upon this great land are only temporary. Nature is an inevitable force, slowly removing the remnants of these historical structures.

Update: Later, we returned to the area to explore even further, and we found the "missing" cupola. Read about it here.

Know before you go: Park beneath the railroad tracks on Illchester Road to view the steps. To get a bird's eye view of the site, hike the Buzzard's Rock trail off of Hilltop Road.

Websites: For additional (and better) photos of the ruins in 2013, check out or

Hours: Patapsco Valley State Park is open dawn to dusk. Because of the rubble and debris, St Mary's is hazardous after dark.

Dogs: So yes, in the other parts of Patapsco Valley State Park. But... all the glass and metal detritus around the St Mary's site poses numerous hazards for their sensitive noses and paws.

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Interesting graffiti under the rail bridge, just below St Mary's, reminded me of the Hell House urban legends.

Updated October 2019