Besty McMillion’s first memory of Patapsco Valley State Park was when she was a teenager on a group date visiting the swinging bridge in the Avalon section.
“It was kind of swingy and a little scarier than now,” said McMillion, 62, who grew up in Dundalk, as she stood on the bridge on a warm Thursday afternoon.
“About 90 percent of the people, when I ask what they remember, say the ‘swinging bridge.”
For McMillion, her experience with the swinging bridge started a lifelong passion for Patapsco Valley State Park, which encompasses almost 20,000 acres, straddles four counties — Carroll, Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel — and attracts a million visitors a year.
“I fell in love with it,”said McMillion, who raised her family in nearby Elkridge and Ellicott City, visiting the park regularly.
Since 2006, she has volunteered with Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, where she has organized and participated in numerous stream cleanups, tree plantings and invasive species removals. She is also an adjunct professor at Community College of Baltimore County and Howard Community College where she teaches classes on environmental issues and Patapsco Valley history.
“Tromping around the woods and picking up trash and cleaning streams, you start noticing things,” McMillion said. “I know a lot of little things about the park.”
When Arcadia Publishing, which enlists local experts to produce community and regional histories, asked her to write a book about the park for its Images of America series, it was a no-brainer.
“I know the park like the back of my hand,” except for one aspect, McMillion said. “I realized how much history I did not know.”
Enter Edward Johnson, a former teacher and principal, who has been volunteering at the park for 21 years in various roles, from conducting history and nature painting programs to being a volunteer ranger. McMillion has worked with Johnson at various events and knew of his dedication to the park.
“It was a perfect fit,” McMillion said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect co-author.”
Released on April 29, “Patapsco Valley Park” offers an overview of the park’s history, from its beginnings to its rebuilding after natural disasters such as Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and the most recent Ellicott City flood in 2018.
“It was the longest volunteer project I ever had in my life,” McMillion said, of the three-and-a-half years it took for her and Johnson to collect photos, conduct research and write the book. “Writing a book is not as easy as I thought it was going to be.”
After finding conflicting information, the two did extensive research and worked with several historical societies to check their facts.
“We really tried to make sure it was factual,” said Johnson, 76, a long-time Catonsville resident who moved to Ellicott City a few years ago. “We think everything we have is totally accurate.”
“I am so thrilled they wrote this book,” said Jamie Petrucci, a park ranger. “There are many books about the Patapsco, but this one encompasses everything. They did an incredible job.”
McMillion and Johnson see the book as a guide to the park, providing information and answering questions,
“It is connecting things people normally see but don’t know the background of it,” Johnson said. ‘To see the excitement people have when they learn things. I’m still an educator.”
For example, the swinging bridge that McMillion was standing on is not the same one she encountered those many years ago. That bridge, according to Johnson, was destroyed by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
“That is the seventh swinging bridge at this spot,” Johnson said, adding that the bridge was built so workers who lived in cabins on one side of the river could travel to the cotton mill across the river without having to hike for miles.
“This was the hub of the Industrial Revolution in Maryland,” Johnson said, gazing around the quiet, tree-filled scenery by the swinging bridge.
A flood in 1868, however, washed away the houses and in 1905, a fire closed the mill.
“[The book] really represents what the area used to be and how it turned into a park,” Petrucci, said. “It’s incredible and good foresight of people at the time.”
All employees of the park received copies of the book courtesy of Friends of the Patapsco. Proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to the park.
“It is a good piece of work,” McMillion said. “We do know quite a bit.”
For all their work, both on the book and in the parks, Petrucci could not say enough about McMillion and Johnson.
“Those two should get an award from the governor for all they do for the parks,” Petrucci said. “Both are very good advocates for the park.”
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McMillion and Johnson will be at Barnes & Noble, 4300 Montgomery Road, Ellicott City, for a book signing at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 11.