Ghosts of the Patapsco Ruins: A historian seeks the crumbling walls and foundations that mark the river's industrial past.


As he explores ruins along the Patapsco River, from Union Dam to Elkridge, Hal Sharp sometimes wishes he would meet a ghost, just so he could learn firsthand what life was like at the turn of the century, when mills and quarries and tiny railroad towns lined the river.

But Sharp doesn't believe in ghosts, just hard work. And he's done a lot of it the past two years, rooting through records scattered in libraries around the state and hiking through the woods looking for crumbling walls and foundations that might be buried under leaves and brambles.

Sharp, 39, a doctoral student in architectural history at the University of Virginia, is cataloging those ruins and writing about them in a booklet that will be available to the public sometime this winter. He is hoping his work -- he believes it is the most comprehensive study of this stretch of the river to date -- will benefit visitors to the proposed Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a project intended to link the natural, cultural and historical sites along the Patapsco in Baltimore and Howard counties.

Although the greenway plan has drawn criticism -- some residents of the river valley think it will attract too many tourists and destroy the charm of their neighborhoods -- Sharp said he supports the idea.

"I guess I think in this country we don't have much of an appreciation for history," he said. "Hopefully with the greenway, the history of the valley will be interpreted."

Charles Wagandt, head of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Committee, which has been working on the proposal for several years, said Sharp has done "an outstanding job."

"This is all primary source material, so this is great stuff," Wagandt said. "He has been great to work with, very conscientious and hard-working."

Sharp said his work is funded jointly by the Maryland Historical Trust and the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation. He said the booklet will have five chapters that focus on flour mills, the iron industry, paper, textiles and transportation -- all key to the Patapsco River culture during the Industrial Revolution.

Sharp spent many months wandering through the woods, looking at ruins well-known and long-forgotten. He prepared inventory forms for the Maryland Historical Trust on a dozen or so sites that were previously unrecorded and mostly unknown: a paper company, cotton mills, flour mills, saw mills, an iron forge, and watering stations for the railroad.

Some ruins, like those of the Mentzel Paper Co. -- built in the 1890s along the Sucker Branch -- are unimpressive to the nonhistorian: a few knee-high remains camouflaged in a plot of woods where few people ever venture. Others, like the Patapsco Quarry Co. ruins, are dramatic: high walls stretching up the hillside, reinforced concrete stairs connecting floors that have rotted away.

Sharp believes the building housed a steam engine used to cut blocks of stone and make gravel.

Sharp spent as much time in libraries as he did in the woods. His sources included not only contemporary newspaper accounts and memoirs but less obvious documents that he searched for nuggets of information that might provide insight: real estate transfers, patent boundaries, court papers, census records, wills, estate inventories, account books.

Weaving the data

Sharp's adviser at the University of Virginia, Camille Wells, said he has a talent for weaving data together.

"He takes the ideas and the information you give him and turns it into something fresh," she said. "You give him material to read, and he absorbs it all but then can take it further than you might have imagined."

Sharp tried to focus not only on famous people -- the Dorseys, Ellicotts, Pattersons and the like -- but also on, as he puts it in his introduction, "the countless unnamed: laborers, slave and free, adult and child; hands who primed tobacco, toted flour sacks, cut nails, pressed paper, sorted thread, and drove spikes; people who shouldered the community of industry and for better or worse made lives here with the constant, steadfast fall of water."

Sharp is a man in love with his work. If asked, he will talk at length about life in the 18th and 19th centuries, the villages that sprouted up along the train tracks, the Industrial Revolution, the War of Independence against England.

A favorite ruin

When asked his favorite ruin, Sharp is hesitant to answer.

"I can wimp out and say that each has its own particular value and interest," he said. But then, after another pause, he admits he does have a favorite: an abandoned house south of Ellicott City at the site of an old village that grew up around Gray's Water Station, which supplied water for the steam-powered trains.

"It was originally one room with an unfinished interior and a shed roof that dates to the 1860s," he said. "Later, it was much expanded, and so you have a house that evolved over time. It shows how houses changed, how they reflected the changing attitudes and wealth of the people involved."

Sharp said one of his historian friends likes to joke about going to play with her dead friends. Sometimes, he said, that's the way he feels, too: "It's easy to get swept up in it sometimes."

Hiking in the woods

A thin, wiry man, he likes to jog and go to the gym when he's not climbing over fences, scaling walls and hiking through the woods. He moves quickly through the crumbling buildings of a century ago, plunging through brambles, ducking under low branches, climbing up hills and stairs and walls.

He said he does not fear much, alone among the ruins: "I hope I never come across an open well," he said. "That's the big thing."

Sharp, the son and grandson of civil engineers, said he is used to exploring ruins and old houses: "It runs in the family," he said. His father is a retired mathematics professor, and Sharp said he hopes one day he might become a professor himself.

But full-time tenured positions are scarce, and Sharp knows his time tramping through the woods and exploring ruins might help him someday get another type of job, one with a public or private organization such as the Maryland Historical Trust or Monticello.

At the moment, job-hunting is far from Sharp's mind. He is racing to finish his work, which he says was originally due more than a year ago.

He takes responsibility for the delay but blames it on abiding love of musty books and forgotten ruins: "I probably spent too much time researching," he said. "It's one of the hazards of being a historian."

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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