Looking for Hell in all the wrong places: Part I – Satan’s Alma Mater. My search for Ellicott City’s Hell House doesn’t go as planned
By David Chiodaroli
Hell. Most people try to avoid it, others think that they’re already there. We even tell others to go there when they cut us off on the interstate without using their blinker. As a teenager, I was once told I was going to Hell while on a mission trip (Southern Baptists are such nice people). But no matter how you see Hell, whether it’s a real place of torment or a metaphor for working retail on Black Friday, one thing’s for certain: Hell is somewhere you never want to go.
I beg to differ.
It’s common for people to brand certain places as ‘Hell on earth,’ due to their undesirable nature, and you don’t have to look far to find them. In fact, Maryland has its own portal to Hell, located in the crumbling remains of St. Mary’s College, located on the outskirts of Ellicott City, on the border between Howard and Baltimore Counties. I first learned of St. Mary’s in the book Weird Maryland by Matt Lake, and read of its status as a hotspot for Satanic rites and demonic rituals. According to the book, and scores of other sources online, the legends surrounding St. Mary’s usually talk about a crazed priest, who murdered several young girls in an apparent sacrifice to Beelzebub, before killing himself to seal the deal. As a result, the college was abandoned, and today the crumbling halls echo with the sounds of tormented souls, while fork-tailed demons dance in the moonlight near the formerly sacred and dilapidated altar.
And thus, St. Mary’s will forever be known as the Hell House.
Yet, the real reason why St. Mary’s closed is not nearly as creepy as the legends claim. In reality, the college closed in the early 70’s due to lack of enrollment. This came after a century of operation, during which young men were trained to take up their call and become men of God. But somehow or another, students stopped coming, and after sitting vacant for almost twenty years, a fire ate through the former dormitories and classrooms. By 2006, the school was no more, just the crumbling remains of old foundations and a creepy alter, left to the mercy of vandals, graffiti artists, and the cruel hand of mother nature.
Sounds like a great place to spend a sunny afternoon!
At least, that’s what I thought when I proposed visiting the Hell House during a staff meeting. Yet, despite my enthusiasm at the prospect of going to an abandoned house of horror, I still couldn’t help but feel anxious about the whole thing. The Hell House is on private property, next to a railroad, and the closest parking spot is a small sliver of gravel on the outskirts of Patapsco River State Park. I told our photographer, Hailey, to meet me under the railroad tracks on Ilchester Road, which is exactly what a killer would say to his victim at the beginning of an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Hoping that I hadn’t scared Hailey away, I headed off towards the Hell House, not knowing what the hell (no pun) I was getting myself into. I had never visited an abandoned location before, and my mind was swarming with all the worse case scenarios that my overactive imagination could think of. What if I was arrested? What if I was towed? What if Detective Benson and Stabler were there when I arrived with a list of questions about why I asked someone to come with me to visit a creepy abandoned school?
These doubts only intensified as I got closer to my destination. After driving pass the campus of CCBC, I started down a long, narrow road, bordered on both sides by thick foliage and the remains of an abandoned paper mill. In fact, the Hell House seems to be just one of many vacant structures that dot this side of the Patapsco river. Thankfully, I managed to find the strip of land where parking was permitted, and found that Hailey had arrived ahead of time.
Making our way towards the train tracks, we found that we were not the only ones working in the Hell House’s shadow. Turns out, we chose to conduct this expedition on the same day that CSX was performing maintenance on the tracks. This meant that workers were all around, making it harder for us to sneak in undetected. Thankfully, the construction workers didn’t seem to care as we made our way up to the tracks that sat at the bottom of a steep hill where the college once stood. Despite the many ‘No Trespassing’ signs that were scattered about the place, it seemed that the laws here were rarely enforced. As we made our way along the tracks, we passed a hiker and his dog coming in the opposite direction. However, this did little to stave Hailey’s anxiety about the situation, and for good reason. A year ago, while covering a story about the deadly floods in Ellicott City, Hailey wandered into a restricted area and was caught by police. While nothing came of it, the incident did leave her hesitant about venturing into off limit areas.
Even I was having my doubts about the situation. While researching the Hell House, I read a form on Reddit that mentioned a set of old stairs near the train tracks that led up to the school. However, as someone mentioned on the forum, the stairs were demolished years ago. Still, I assumed that there would at least be some sign of the stair of steps, one that would take us up to the creepy site. But alas, the further we walked along the tracks, the more futile our search became. At this point, I began wondering if we ought to throw caution to the wind and scale the steep hill that stood before us. There were a few areas where the ground dipped, enough for any able bodied person to scale with marginal difficulties. Yet, Hailey, who came wearing tie dye moccasins, didn’t feel as though she was properly dressed for such an adventure. I admit that I should have told her to bring hiking shoes, or at least something rugged and comfortable that wouldn’t come off so easily. Annoyed at myself for not properly explaining the situation to Hailey, we started back off towards the parking lot, and called it a day.
But I wasn’t giving up that easily. After Hailey departed back towards campus, I went in the opposite direction, to the main entrance of Patapsco Valley State Park, with the hope of hiking down through the park and getting to the Hell House from the north. In hindsight, this wasn’t the smartest move. But the adventure bug was already in me, causing my judgment to cloud with foolish optimism. And so, I parked my car near the picnic area and ventured down into the bowels of the park. It was after I was forced to walk down a steep, narrow path, over jagged, head-splitting rocks, only to pause at the roughly ninety-degree incline ahead of me that I realized I had screwed up. I may not be in the worst of shape, but truth be told my sedentary lifestyle of writing at a desk all day hasn’t giving me the best hiking body. Looking at the valley below, I knew that if I attempted to go further, I would never be able to make it back safely. Thus, with my senses fully restored, I turned, using my hands and feet to climb up the craggily trail, until I finally reached level ground and civilization.
Will I ever go back to the Hell House? Maybe, but if so, I would come more prepared than before. Perhaps it was good that I failed to reach St. Mary’s School, considering how ill prepared both my photographer and I were. Perhaps this was a learning experience, meant to teach me that Hell is not as easily accessible as they say it is. The Bible says that the road to Hell is wide and full of people, but in my experience, it’s narrow, treacherous, challenging, and if you were to go there, I’d definitely recommend wearing your best hiking shoes.
Photos by Hailey Chaudron