Small wonder in Patapsco Park Camel's Den cave's a hidden delight

March 07, 1993|By Larry Sturgill | Larry Sturgill,Contributing Writer

A cave in Howard County? Yes, but only if you use a little imagination. It's called Camel's Den, and it's the county's only underground attraction.

Let's be clear, though -- there is absolutely no similarity between this tiny cave near Marriottsville and Woodstock and an attraction such as Virginia's majestic Luray Caverns.

In fact, Camel's Den is little more than a shallow rock shelter, 6 feet wide, 8 feet high and 15 feet long, carved from a highly crystallized sedimentary rock known as Cockeysville marble.

Although Camel's Den is a readily accessible part of Patapsco State Park, park manager Walt Brown says the Daniels section is still largely undeveloped.

"This is only a moderately visited section of the park," he says. "There are no facilities at all. But it is a favorite spot for fishermen during warm weather. On nice weekends, especially during the summer, parking can become a problem because there is very little parking space available."

Mr. Brown says that canoeists like the area, too.

"It's one of the few areas in Patapsco park where a road leads right down to the river's edge. And, because of a dam downstream, the water is deep for several miles up and down the river."

Though Camel's Den is a little-unknown attraction, kids seem to like the cave and enjoy playing around the entrance, Mr. Brown says.

"We built a footbridge across the stream near the entrance," he says. "Now people don't have to get their feet wet getting to the cave."

A sign inscribed "Trail of The Camel's Den" marks a trail leading from the Daniels parking area to a steep-sided ravine punctuated with jagged rock outcroppings. The path winds upward along the banks of a gently rushing stream to the entrance. Approaching from a distance, the mouth of the cave looks dark, cavernous and foreboding.

The origin of the name is a mystery. One historic reference suggests that early settlers came up with it because the arched entrance and the surrounding rocks appear to form the outline of a camel.

The cave also was used by Indians, most likely as an overnight shelter for hunting parties following the Patapsco River valley inland from villages near Chesapeake Bay.

A natural chimney at the rear of the cave makes Camel's Den a perfect shelter cave. The chimney is just a narrow fracture in the rock stretching up to a small opening in the hilltop above the cave. Smoke from fires burning beneath this fissure would be drawn upward, keeping the air in the cave smoke-free.

The region around Camel's Den is rich with history. Explored by early settlers, the Patapsco River valley quickly became popular with trappers. It remained remote and largely inaccessible until 1841, when Thomas Ely built a mill near a large horseshoe curve of the river.

The small town that sprang up around the mill was called Elyville. It became known as Alberton when Jacob Albert bought the mill in 1854. Keeping with tradition, the town changed its name to Daniels soon after the C. R. Daniels Company purchased the mill in 1940.

Artifacts discovered in the area indicate that the cave was well-known to Indians for centuries before white settlers arrived. In the 1920s and early 1930s, a local trapper named William Bridner found and collected numerous Indian artifacts while running a trap line for raccoons and opossums along the river near Daniels.

It was only when an aging amateur archeaologist named Samuel Evans heard of Bridner's discoveries that some systematic archaeological research of the region was initiated.

Later, entomologist and amateur archeaologist Martin H. Muma reported in the April 1946 issue of the Maryland Journal of Natural History that "two separate digs were made at Camel's Den, and large numbers of artifacts were uncovered and removed."

No one knows what happened to the artifacts and no written accounts of what was removed from Camel's Den can be found.

Tyler Bastian, an archeaologist with the Maryland Historical Trust, says that Camel's Den is an enigma. "There is ample written evidence supporting the fact that several thorough studies of the cave were done. But no physical evidence remains."

Mr. Bastian also said he is aware of no recent efforts to explore the site for additional archaeological evidence.

Samuel Evans also apparently found two similar caves he called Elyville 1 and Elyville 2, but no one knows their location.

Baltimore archeaologist Steve Israel, who is working on a project to identify rock shelters along the Gunpowder Falls in Baltimore County, says he is aware of a 1969 report about these sites.

"I recall that it was only a weekend exploration," he says. "Apparently, two small rock shelters were located and there was apparently some evidence that they may have been used by Indians."

Mr. Israel says that their exact locations were kept secret to preserve the pristine condition of the sites for proper study at a future date.

Interested in exploring caves? The Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation sponsors several trips to wild caves in western Maryland and West Virginia. This is an excellent way for novices to get their first taste of spelunking.

The fee is minimal, and transportation and equipment are provided.

Exploration trips are scheduled for March 27 and May 23.

Preregistration is required.

Information is available at 313-2762.

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