The Washington Post

Md. flood un­cov­ers a cave and a mys­tery

- JA­COB BOGAGE

el­li­cott city, md. — Kelli My­ers slowly re­al­ized that there was noth­ing left to save at Junk Girl, one of her two bou­tiques on his­toric Main Street in El­li­cott City. Wa­ter had gushed into the base­ment of the store July 30, 2016, dur­ing a dev­as­tat­ing flood. That was where My­ers had her of­fice.

Her com­put­ers, busi­ness records, tax in­for­ma­tion, pur­chase or­ders, fur­ni­ture and nearly ev­ery­thing else — de­stroyed. She threw dam­aged in­ven­tory in a pile in her back yard as she pon­dered what to do. Two months had passed when she called an old friend, a land­lord who had a store­front open down the street in a his­toric build­ing. It, too, had been dam­aged by the flood, but not as badly as her store. She wanted to talk to her friend about rent­ing 8120 Main St. Her tim­ing was un­canny. “Come over now,” he told her. “We just found a cave.”

It was huge — about 12 feet wide and 8 feet tall at its cen­ter. It was carved into bedrock be­hind the build­ing’s foun­da­tion but re­in­forced with crude ma­sonry along the sides.

And no­body had any idea why it was there.

“It was jaw-drop­ping,” said My­ers, who re­opened Junk Girl in the open store­front ear­lier this year. “It was like, ‘What is this?’ I was run­ning up and down the street telling peo­ple about this.”

El­li­cott City, lo­cal boost­ers like to say, is a town of mys­tery. Flood af­ter flood has meant the town has re­built more times than folks can re­mem­ber. There’s a thriv­ing ghost tour in­dus­try. A tem­per­ance-era preacher once

called the town a “boot­leg­ger’s par­adise,” ac­cord­ing to Shawn Glad­den, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Howard County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. The city also had a sig­nif­i­cant Quaker pop­u­la­tion in the mid-1800s that be­lieved in abo­li­tion and was known for aid­ing run­away slaves.

And the cave was a wel­come dis­trac­tion from the back­break­ing work of re­build­ing the mill town’s com­mer­cial core, which had suf­fered tens of mil­lions of dol­lars of dam­age.

This city is used to floods — 1868, 1901, 1917, 1923, 1942, 1952, 1972 — but not like the one that hit last year.

The rush­ing wa­ters of the Tiber Creek and the Hudson River, en­gorged by six inches of rain­fall in 30 min­utes, killed two mo­torists in an in­ci­dent so ex­tra­or­di­nary that the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice said it qual­i­fied as a thou­sand-year flood. Main Street be­came a rag­ing river as peo­ple scram­bled to the sec­ond floors of restau­rants, busi­nesses and homes. Cars piled on top of cars. Chunks of side­walk van­ished. Streets cratered, and 200 build­ings were dam­aged. Howard County Ex­ec­u­tive Al­lan Kit­tle­man de­scribed the wreck­age as a “war zone.”

The cave was dis­cov­ered as crews did restora­tion work on the build­ing, which was con­structed in 1840.

Given El­li­cott City’s his­tory, two the­o­ries emerged about its pur­pose, Glad­den said. The first was that it was used to stash boot­legged whiskey dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion. Main Street used to be lined with phar­ma­cies, Glad­den said, that “pre­scribed” al­co­hol if “pa­tients” had a “cough.” Phar­ma­cists needed a place to hide their ex­tra sup­plies of the good stuff.

The sec­ond was that it was used as a stop on the Un­der­ground Rail­road. The cave is large enough to fit quite a few peo­ple, and given the town’s Quaker ties, it seemed plau­si­ble, Glad­den said. Quak­ers played an out­size role in the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, and the three El­li­cott broth­ers who pur­chased the land for the town were Penn­syl­va­nia Quak­ers. His­to­ri­ans, and un­sus­pect­ing home­own­ers, have found tun­nels and trap­doors in houses around town that have re­vealed what are be­lieved to be Un­der­ground Rail­road safe houses.

“Ev­ery­thing you’re go­ing to hear at this point is all spec­u­la­tion be­cause it’s so new,” Glad­den said. “No­body knew it was there.”

Then, ear­lier this week, Glad­den and some re­search vol­un­teers at the his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety set out to solve the mys­tery as the first an­niver­sary of the flood ap­proached.

And they found at least part of the an­swer.

Re­searchers lo­cated the prop­erty records for what was orig­i­nally called the Sa­muel Pow­ell House at the Mary­land His­tor­i­cal Trust. Pow­ell sold the build­ing to Ge­orge Smith in 1856 for $300. Smith sold it to Wil­liam and Su­san Bro­sius, who then sold it to Martin Rodey in 1868 for $800.

“Mr. Rodey ran a sa­loon here and a Ger­man beer gar­den in back. A deep cave, sixty to seventy feet from the top of the ground is in the back of the ground floor of this build­ing in which they kept the beer,” the prop­erty record states. “A spring is also lo­cated here.”

Glad­den cau­tions not to draw too much from these records. All that’s known is the cave ex­isted in 1868 and was used to store beer. But it could have been dug out ear­lier and used for other pur­poses.

Rodey sold the Pow­ell House in 1891. It changed hands again in 1915. Who knows what those own­ers — a Mr. and Mrs. Isaac H. Tay­lor — did with the cave?

No one does, Glad­den said. And no one would have known about it with­out a thou­sand-year flood.

 ?? JA­COB BOGAGE/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? Kelli My­ers of El­li­cott City, Md., looks at the cave be­neath a Main Street prop­erty.
JA­COB BOGAGE/THE WASH­ING­TON POST Kelli My­ers of El­li­cott City, Md., looks at the cave be­neath a Main Street prop­erty.
 ?? JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? In Au­gust 2016, work­ers as­sessed the dam­age along Main Street in El­li­cott City, Md., af­ter the se­vere flood­ing. Two mo­torists died.
JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST In Au­gust 2016, work­ers as­sessed the dam­age along Main Street in El­li­cott City, Md., af­ter the se­vere flood­ing. Two mo­torists died.

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