Ellicott City park seeking volunteers for fall cleanup

Institute lures historians, ghost hunters to grounds

Outside: Sports/Activities/Events

September 30, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

The Patapsco Female Institute hosts Shakespeare performances in the summer. School children sift through layers of dirt in search of broken china, utensils and other artifacts at an active archaeological dig on the premises. It's been in Ellicott City for almost a decade -- but many hear the name and assume the park is a prison or an insane asylum.

"It's amazing how many people don't know we're here," said Jacquelyn Galke, executive director of the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute, a booster group.

This Saturday, partially out of need and partially in a community outreach effort, Galke has organized a Fall Clean Up. Starting at 8:45 a.m., she is asking volunteers to come with gloves, rakes and shovels to help clear fallen branches and weeds.

"It's just to keep the grounds looking good," Galke said as she walked up to the building. "We don't want trees growing up in the middle of the courtyard."

The 7-acre park is in the middle of Ellicott City's Patapsco Heights neighborhood and features the stabilized ruins of a 1834 building. The structure was originally a girls' school -- one that attracted wealthy young women from as far away as Spain, South America and California.

A gravel drive runs up to the stone front steps of the former school. "You have to imagine women stepping out of their carriages and walking up the stairs in hoop skirts," Galke said as she ascended the stairs.

Four Doric columns stand at the top of the staircase, and from this vantage point, visitors can look out to the Patapsco River Valley.

After the girls' school closed in 1878, the property passed through various hands, at different times being used as a hotel, a theater and -- during World War I -- a convalescence home. In the later half of the 20th century, it fell into disrepair but was purchased by Howard County in 1965 and opened as historic park 30 years later.

Visitors can stroll through the remains of the school's first floor. Interior walls have been torn down, and the first floor is essentially a large open deck.

The second and third floors have been completely gutted, the roof was removed, and the windows are open.

The wooden flooring contains architectural clues about the former structure. Outlines reveal former doorways, indicate where fireplaces warmed the rooms and where interior walls stood. The remaining structural walls contain exposed rock showing where staircases led to the second and third floors.

However, Galke said much of the information about the school has been lost. "What we have are insurance maps, and they don't tell us a lot," she said.

Letters and diaries from students provide some clues about where the dorms were located. One letter contains a reference to cold showers -- but Galke said staff at the Institute has had little luck discovering where they could have been.

Historians and archeologists aren't the only people interested in the site. Paranormal activity enthusiasts and researchers come to the park to sample the air and search for spirits on the grounds.

Galke walks these groups around facilities by appointment. "I do it to dispel some of the rumors that it is a haunted or evil place," she said.

Nevertheless, at night, groups of hopeful ghost watchers occasionally scale the chain link fence that surrounds the park hoping to catch a glimpse of Annie, a spirit they believe haunts the now nonexistent third floor of the structure. Galke said trespassers are regularly arrested.

The Visitor Center for the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park is at 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Call 410-465-8500. The Fall Clean Up will take place from 8:45 a.m.-noon on Saturday. Volunteers should meet at the Visitor's Center. It also is open 1 p.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays and by appointment on other days.

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