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After train derailment, supporters flock to Ellicott City

When Ellicott City's Main Street re-opened to traffic Friday night, Mark Hemmis was watching the cars line up and drive by his restaurant.

He said he couldn't remember the last time he had seen so many cars on the street; he certainly hadn't seen that much traffic in the few days after the CSX train derailment early Tuesday, Aug. 21, which shut down a portion of Main Street and took the lives of two local teenagers.

"It looked like the start of a race," said Hemmis, the owner of the Phoenix Emporium on the corner of Main and Maryland Avenue. His restaurant served as the headquarters for CSX crews cleaning up after the derailment, the cause of which is still unknown.

On the following Saturday, there were no CSX crews in the Phoenix, but the restaurant was still filled with patrons who turned out to support Hemmis and other local businesses as part of Main Street Appreciation Weekend.

The grass roots effort, spearheaded by local blogger Tom Coale and spurred on by social media, was a mass outpouring of support from the community for Ellicott City businesses. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, it drew many to the Main Street shops.

"We heard that some stores here were suffering," said Arianna Berkowitz, of Columbia, who was on Main Street with her husband and two children Saturday afternoon. "We're here to help support downtown. ... This is a part of our history. It's a great place, and there's nothing else like it around."

It was a welcome sight for the businesses who have been hurt — not just by the train derailment, but by other events during the past year, including a devastating flood and a powerful storm.

"This means people in the area still care," said Brandon Hayden, manager at Cacao Lane Restaurant, across the street from the Phoenix. "It means people still believe in the town they live in."

After several days of clean up and investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, life on Main Street was finally getting back to normal, said Sally Tennant, owner of the clothing boutique Discoveries.

"There was foot traffic all the way down here, but it felt weird," Tennant said. "This town was still so quiet. It was even weirder when it opened back up, to welcome everyone back."

Outside of Discoveries, Rhona Rosenberg and Larry Coleman were remembering the Ellicott City of the 1940s. They hadn't been downtown in years, Coleman said, and when they heard on the radio that Main Street was again open, they knew they had to come.

"This brings back memories," Coleman said.

"We just couldn't resist," Rosenberg said. "After everything the town's been through, too. What a monumental pain it must have been, and so sad."

Hemmis said Ellicott City holds a lot of special memories for people, and causes many to wax nostalgic. After serving mostly first responders and CSX crews all week, he said it was nice to have normal customers again.

"There are the regulars, and there are people here saying, 'I haven't been here in years,'" Hemmis said. "(Ellicott City) is a place people know, a place they feel tied to."

Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives, was one of the people perusing Main Street, drawn to the town by the weekend push for support.

"This has been such a tragedy, and it feels good to rally around the people affected by it," Kellner said as she and her sister-and-law, Linda Kellner, ate at the Bean Hollow.

For business owners like Hemmis, the support was another indication of the true measure of the community.

"Ellicott City always seems to bounce back," he said. "We've had great support from the community over the years, but it's nice to see the Facebook posts, the people coming in and thanking us."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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