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Ellicott City B&O museum on track for holidays despite area's ongoing flood recovery

It seems logical to assume that the Ellicott City Station of the B&O Railroad Museum must have been among the hardest hit structures during the deadly flash flooding that nearly destroyed the historic mill town.

After all, the oldest surviving train station in America is situated by the Patapsco River at the base of Main Street, where swiftly moving floodwaters and floating vehicles descended with a fury on July 30. And the town clock that stood for years in the plaza in front of the 1830 granite building was washed away, though it was later recovered.

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But happily, logic doesn't always mirror reality.

Incredibly, the museum remained intact after the catastrophe, officials say – unless you count the landscape shrubs that were uprooted and swept away by the powerful deluge that overwhelmed the historic district.

And now, four months after the museum was shuttered when Main Street was closed to traffic, it is open on most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – just in time for the annual Holiday Festival of Trains, and in a show of solidarity with neighboring businesses.

"We were very, very lucky," said Travis Harry, director of museum operations in Baltimore.

"The way the station sits up on a little hill — that's what let us escape unscathed. It was 100 percent luck," he said. "So, we decided it was time to reopen and give something back to the town. We want people to know they can start coming back again."

Civil War Santa, also known as Kevin Rawlings of Washington, was on hand in patriotic apparel to greet 1,000 visitors over the three-day period that included Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, when Ellicott City marked its grand reopening with fanfare.

Santa's red-white-and-blue attire is based on a Thomas Nast drawing on the cover of an 1862 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly.

But the biggest holiday drawing card – the four operating train layouts – will remain available through Jan. 29, with closings for the holidays. The museum will also be open Dec. 26 to Dec. 29 to accommodate holiday sightseers.

Floodwaters rose to the bottom of the first-floor doors, Harry said, causing only a negligible amount to seep into a crawl space below.

"Most of the historic floods in Ellicott City have come from the river up" into town, and not vice-versa, he said. "Now, there are more impervious surfaces in the area, like roads and parking lots, and it finally got to the point where the water had nowhere to go."

Even the marker by the railroad overpass – on which nearly 150 years' worth of major floodwater levels had been recorded – floated down the river, and only a couple pieces of it were recovered, he said.

Those sections are on loan to the Museum of Howard County History for an exhibit titled, "A River Runs Through It: The Floods of Ellicott City." The exhibit opened Nov. 12 and was in the works prior to the July 30 flood, the history museum's website states.

"The oldest flood marked on that pole took place in 1868, when about 25 feet of water rose up to the middle of the train station's second floor," Harry said.

Though the museum building wasn't harmed, the town resembled a scene out of a World War II documentary when business owners were allowed back in for the first time, he said.

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"It looked like wartime, and I saw that Ed Lilley — our assistant site manager and unofficial mayor of Ellicott City, as I like to call him — was visibly shaken," Harry recalled of the pair's first glimpse of the flood's aftermath.

Lilley, whose ties to Main Street date back to 1969, formerly managed the Howard County Welcome Center in the old post office and has served on the board of the Ellicott City Partnership, which is organizing recovery efforts.

"Businesses that have opened are still scattered around town," Lilley said of the historic district's gradual reanimation. "We were happy with our re-launch of the museum, but it's going to be interesting around here for a while."

Due to the prolonged lack of access to the building, the extremely popular train garden made of plastic bricks won't be displayed this holiday season, Lilley said, but that didn't stop people from coming out in a show of support.

The museum sold 18 of its newly-available brass ornaments that are detailed replicas of the Ellicott City Station over the Thanksgiving weekend. The other available brass ornaments in the B&O series are the Roundhouse in Baltimore and the John T. Collinson Office Car.

The Ellicott City ornament costs $21.99, and a percentage of each sale through 2016 will be donated to flood recovery efforts.

During the museum's closure, former employee Amelia Youhn returned to take over as site manager and she's excited that the museum is open once again.

"The Festival of Trains and the Christmas holiday have always been big celebrations here, so it's very fitting that we are open again in time for those events," said Youhn, who is the daughter of two historians.

"No one wanted to be the only ones with their doors open, and we are still striving for normalcy on Main Street," she said of the decision to delay the museum's reopening.

"Residents know all the different businesses here, but we [managers] know the people behind the businesses as our neighbors," she said.

"There's still a sense of sadness and nostalgia" in the air about changes wrought by the tragedy – some temporary, some permanent.

"But we always come together as a community and support one another," Youhn said, "so we are cautiously optimistic about the future."

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