In Case of Flooding: Wandering Iron Ruins and Imagining Climate Reparations in a Maryland State Park

Sophie Hess
Picture of a white sign with a red arrow and red letters that read

High Water Exit sign at Patapsco Valley State Park. Courtesy of the author.

It is sometimes hard to imagine that the Patapsco River could ever flood. On a clear day in early fall, the stream is shallow, up to one’s knees at its deepest. As I walk the “Grist Mill Trail,” one of many paths that make up the expansive Patapsco Valley State Park in Maryland, I pass a pair of teenagers racing each other on too-small bikes, trail runners huffing through their miles, and a father and son watching birds. It’s a perfect scene of parks and recreation. These days, though, after years of researching and writing about the Patapsco, I can’t walk the park without seeing its ghosts. A pile of rocks—once the base of a mill? A thicket of porcelain berries—descendants of ornamental plantings? And above all, the signs, marking the trail with their clear and bureaucratic statements of warning. Make no mistake. This place could sweep you away.

At the entrance to the trail, there is a sign that reads IN CASE OF FLOODING, USE MARKED EXITS. Less than a mile later, there’s another: HIGH WATER EXIT. EMERGENCY—CALL 911. The signs continue, some with maps of distance to the nearest “safe site.” The signs intervene in the solace of the space, and beg questions. How often these floods happen? How soon would the water rise? Would I know if it was coming?

The Patapsco River holds a long and challenging history of floods. As with any river, flooding is a part of the water’s natural ecology. Both seasonal floods and larger, more destructive surges are within the river’s realm of normal. Since the seventeenth century, however, when settlers began to seize the landscape for profit, the river has changed. The valley, the ancestral lands of Susquehannock people as well as Piscataway and Nanticoke people, saw the arrival of English settlers in 1608.[1] To them, the river was a perfect site for iron production, its steep hills teeming with timber and red-clay soil. Back then, it was wide and deep enough to serve as a path to the Atlantic.[2] By the early eighteenth century, both tobacco farming and iron production had proliferated in the valley. Geopolitical developments in Europe particularly encouraged the growth of the iron industry.[3]

Both farming and iron production caused deforestation. Farms needed to clear land for crops, while the iron industry needed wood as fuel to power its furnaces and forges.[4] Along with iron, grist mills, which turned wheat into flour, became a major industry in the valley beginning in the 1770s. Mill proprietors used the river’s hydrology, powering cutting-edge waterwheels, which were, as Seth Rockman has noted, “not neighborhood gristmills, but capitalized commercial enterprises.”[5] To meet the demand for these mills, many farms switched from tobacco to wheat.

Many industrialists and planters exploited enslaved people and convict laborers to power their operations. At Elk Ridge Furnace, one of the powerful iron furnaces in the region, at least seven people were documented in newspapers attempting to self-emancipate from bondage.[6] Factory owners and their families also enslaved people as domestics in their homes. Simultaneously, a strong community of free Black farmers lived in the region. There is evidence of Black property ownership as early as 1690, and the prominent abolitionist and astronomer Benjamin Banneker was a part of this community. My research has also investigated the ways that expansions of extractive activity infringed these farmers’ lands, and their resistance to these threats.[7]

A greyscale lithograph of a wooded valley with factories, smoking smokestacks, and small houses, with a bridge in the distance.

“Avalon Iron and Nail Works, Baltimore County, Maryland,” lithograph, 1865. Courtesy of Digital Maryland.

As industry proliferated in the valley, so too did flooding. Flood reports made it into papers in 1786, 1817, 1837, and 1842, each causing damage to industries and property. These instances of increased flooding were likely related to deforestation, which increased erosion, filling the river with silt and making it shallower. Industrial proprietors also dammed and straightened the river in attempts to control it and maximize its hydrological power.[8] Then, in 1868, the threat of catastrophe came to pass. An ordinary summer thunderstorm ballooned into a catastrophic flood, destroying homes, factories, and farmland, and killing between thirty and sixty people. The 1868 flood is known in the valley’s history as a turning point, wiping out many of the most profitable industrial operations, including the iron industry.

In 1907, the State of Maryland began efforts to transform much of the Patapsco Valley into a public park. As one meticulous study of the park’s development explains, “Baltimore’s progressive elite class teamed with the Maryland State Board of Forestry to establish the reserve.” Much of the land was provided through donation, while some of it was sold to the state, and included multigenerational holdings that can be linked to the plantations and industries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[9]

The Patapsco Valley State Park has become one of Maryland’s most popular recreational sites. But the river has continued to flood. A particularly destructive surge from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 killed seven people, a flood in 2016 caused two deaths, and another in 2018 killed one person. Each flood also caused massive property damage in surrounding towns.

Back on the Grist Mill trail, in a patch of shade, there is an interpretative panel that reads, “The Destructive Power of the River.” The sign hints at the relationships between industry and ecology, explaining that “while flooding is a part of the river’s ecology, humans have accelerated the natural process by clearing trees and paving land.” The sign is old, though. It mentions 1972, but not 2016, or 2018. It doesn’t explain that because of climate change, there will be more storms, more often, and that the floods could get worse.

The park is, in the language of interpretation, a “forest buffer” to floods. Most of the trees in this forest are less than 100 years old. Many grow on the ruins of industrial destruction. Is the transfer of this forest from industry to the state the only way to protect the river? Imagine if the state transferred land ownership to the descendants of enslaved and Indigenous people, or to the descendants of free Black farmers who lost land to extraction. Or, what if the state relinquished their profits from these sites, and redistributed them as reparations? Would that change the way that people invested in this land? This park is not neutral space. It holds generations of claims, thefts, exploitations, and struggles for freedom, which demand accountability. If the present climate crisis indeed claims roots in early American history, then perhaps the evidence of this past can also offer solutions in the present.


[1] Robert J. Brugger, Maryland, A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980 (Baltimore, 1996); Vicki Hseuh, Hybrid Constitutions: Challenging Legacies of Law, Privilege, and Culture in Colonial America (Durham, NC, 2010), 25–54; Jane T. Merritt, At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700–1763 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011); Michael Leroy Oberg, Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism, Native America, and the First American Frontiers, 1585–1685 (Ithaca,NY, 2018); James D. Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (Baltimore, 2009).

[2] John Smith, the first colonist to write about the region, originally called the river the “Bolus,” naming it for the deposits of red clay, or boles, found along its shores. Today, the river is far too narrow and shallow to accommodate seafaring vessels. John Smith, The General Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles: Together with the True Travels, Adventures and Observations, and a Sea Grammar (Glasgow, 1907).

[3] Tensions between Britain and Sweden resulted in a 1717 trade embargo between the two countries, effectively eliminating Britain’s major source of iron. As a result, the British government incentivized iron production in the colonies, including iron-rich Maryland. By 1750, the state legislature had passed the Maryland Iron Act, which permitted ironworks proprietors to buy up to one hundred acres of land as absolute owners, a policy which encouraged the growth of the industry. Demand for domestic iron further increased during the American Revolution, when embargos against international trade led to more demand for domestic iron, especially to produce weapons. Ronald Fuchs, “‘At Elk Ridge Furneis as you see, William Williams he mad me’: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Maryland Iron Furnace,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 22 (Winter 1996), 40-43; Henry K. Sharp, America’s First Factory Town: The Industrial Revolution in Maryland’s Patapsco River Valley (Baltimore, 2017), 17–19.

[4] For more on deforestation and its relationship to the iron industry, see John Bezis-Selfa, Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution (Ithaca, NY, 2018); Keith Pluymers, No Wood, No Kingdom: The Political Ecology of Wood in the English Atlantic (Philadelphia, 2021); Thomas J. Straka, “Historic Charcoal Production in the US and Forest Depletion: Development of Production Parameters,” Advances in Historical Studies 3 (Mar. 2014), 104–14; Michael Williams. Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis  (Chicago, 2006).

[5] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2009),81.

[6] Because of this documentation, I worked with the Patapsco State Park to register the ruins of the Elkridge Furnace as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

[7] In 1737 Banneker’s father, a free man named Robert Bannaky, bought 100 acres of land in the valley called “Stout Farm.” Their property was one of at least ten black-owned farms in the area during this period. The area was also home to one of Maryland’s first A.M.E. churches, Mt. Gilboa, which has been in operation since at least 1799. Louis S. Diggs, Surviving in America: Histories of Seven Black Communities in Baltimore County, Maryland: Oakland Park Road, Relay, Oella, Halethorpe, Granite, Church Lane, Winands Road, (Baltimore, 2002). For more on the intricacies of slavery, freedom, and kinship in antebellum Maryland, also see Barbara Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (New Haven, CT, 1987); Jessica Millward, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland (Athens, GA, 2015); Tony C. Perry, “In Bondage When Cold Was King: The Frigid Terrain of Slavery in Antebellum Maryland.” Slavery & Abolition 381 (Jan. 2017), 23–36.

[8] While, to my knowledge, no specific studies have been conducted on this process in the Patapsco, similar impacts can be seen in this study of the Choptank River. Thomas R. Fisher, Jorge A. Benitez, Kuang‐Yao Lee, and Adrienne J. Sutton, “History of Land Cover Change and Biogeochemical Impacts in the Choptank River basin in the mid‐Atlantic Region of the US,” International Journal of Remote Sensing, 27 (Feb. 2007), 3683-3703.

[9] In a footnote, Buckley, Bailey, and Grove ask whether some of these land transfers suggest that “the State Board of Forestry was purchasing excess land from abandoned factory operations.” Geoffrey L. Buckley, Robert F. Bailey, and J. Morgan Grove, “The Patapsco Forest Reserve: Establishing a ‘City Park’ for Baltimore, 1907–1941,” Historical Geography 34 (2006), 87–108.

7 July 2023

About the Author

Sophie Hess is a PhD candidate in American history at the University of Maryland.

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