Tag Archives: setting

Clarksville, Maryland: A Wealthy Crossroads

The unincorporated community of Clarksville, Maryland figures in my Howard County Mysteries largely as a crossroads through which characters pass and once or twice meet for lunch.  This mirrors my own experience of it. I’ve occasionally stopped at the McDonald’s on Clarksville Pike (state route 108), and my bonsai club has sometimes held meetings at the River Hill Garden Center.

Those establishments are north of state route 32, much of which is now part of Columbia. Clarksville proper is largely south of route 32 and harbors some of the most expensive homes on the east coast. It’s among the wealthier parts of Howard County, which is itself the second wealthiest county in the United States.

According to the Trulia real estate heat map I sometimes consult when researching story elements, the highest concentration of high-priced homes in Maryland border Washington, D.C.: Bethesda, Potomac, and nearby areas. But Howard County has its share of pricey homes, too. The same heat map shows Clarksville in the midst of a great swath of fairly expensive real estate that arcs from West Friendship near Interstate 70 all the way down to the banks of the Patuxent River. If you browse satellite photos of the area or check real estate listings, you will readily spot multi-million dollar houses.

Yet this rolling land is something of a contradiction. In the midst of expensive housing developments, you’ll find undeveloped stands of woodland and fields actively being farmed. In fact, upscale housing mixes rather freely with nature. In 2004, a local resident even captured a coyote on camera!

All this hearkens back to Clarksville’s beginnings. Today a community of over 50,000, it is named for farmer William Clark, who originally owned much of the land here. His ancestor John R. Clark had immigrated from Ireland in 1790 and purchased John Howard’s blacksmith shop which had been one of the few African American operated blacksmith businesses in the country.

In 1869 the town was connected to Ellicott City by a ten mile privately owned turnpike, which later became part of route 108. Yet by the 1930’s, the population of Clarksville was still only 65, with its key industries being agriculture and limestone mining.

With the creation of Columbia and swelling population in the Interstate 95 corridor, things have changed markedly. Today, retail businesses sprawl near the junction of routes 108 and 32 and considerable farmland has fallen to development, making Clarksville a busy place in spite of its semi-rural setting. You will still find long roads meandering through hills and valleys, flanked by agricultural land and woods, but come around a bend and suddenly you’ll be passing great houses that most of us can’t afford.

And if you happen to stop for a bite at a fast food joint on the north side of route 32, you just might catch a glimpse of Rick Peller and Eric Dumas discussing a case over lunch.

Columbia, Maryland: A Man, a Plan, and Detectives

One might say that the heart of modern-day Howard County is the city of Columbia. Before the late 1960’s, it wasn’t. Now it’s the second largest city in Maryland after Baltimore, but then it was wooded country and farmland dotted with a few small crossroad communities. Then came Jim Rouse and his ideas for a planned city based not just on economic factors but on human values.

An unincorporated city and home to my characters Detective Sergeants Corina Montufar and Eric Dumas, Columbia consists of ten “villages” intended to provide a small-town atmosphere. Each village in turn consists of several neighborhoods built around a shopping center (the “village center”). Recreational facilities, a community center, and hiking and biking trails are also found in each.  Many street and place names are taken from art and literature, so when you run across the moniker “Hobbit’s Glen,” yes, that is indeed a tip of the hat to J. R. R. Tolkien.

The central village is the Town Center area, which includes the Columbia Mall and significant business presence. Next door to the mall, the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheater plays host to a wide variety of concerts by big-name performers. Three manmade lakes and a variety of parks offer recreational opportunities. The Columbia Association, a citywide homeowners’ association, manages common-use facilities. It also dictates certain details of construction and the overall look and feel of the place. As a former colleagues who lived there once told me, “Yeah, it’s the taste police.”

A curious aspect of Columbia is how hidden many commercial venues are. The idea was to avoid the unsightly clutter of businesses that so often overtakes main thoroughfares in other cities. You can sometimes pass right by a store or restaurant without knowing it’s there. The Chinese restaurant frequented by Montufar and Dumas in my Howard County mysteries is loosely based on a real Chinese restaurant I once visited with some coworkers. The real place was larger and more elegant than the fictional one, which is basically a little storefront eatery, but they were both tucked away out of view.

Columbia is not a cheap place to live. The closer you get to Washington, D.C., the higher the prices rise. That’s why, when we moved to the area in 1995, we didn’t buy a house there. We had five school-age children at the time and needed a house big enough to corral them all. Nevertheless, from the get-go the idea behind Columbia was to provide a community where people of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic stripes could live and work and play in close proximity. To some degree, it did achieve that. You’ll find areas of larger and smaller homes, townhouses, and apartments in close proximity to each other, and people of all backgrounds rubbing elbows in the same shopping areas.

I don’t think of Columbia as a city, though. It has the suburban feel of the areas in which I grew up and have lived all my life. Rouse may have wanted to reinvent the city, but in many ways I think he more reinvented the suburbs, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in more questionable ways. I suspect most of the people who live there like it. I’ve only encountered one person who didn’t. Shortly before I moved there someone told me in an online conversation that he hated the place. Its development, he said, destroyed some of the best hunting lands in central Maryland.

But given its proximity to both Baltimore and Washington, development was probably the area’s fate anyway.


Ellicott City: Home of Rick Peller

Ellicott City, Maryland is the seat of Howard County, the location of the HCPD’s Northern District Headquarters, where my detectives are based, and the home of Detective Lieutenant Rick Peller.

In all honesty, Peller’s neighborhood is entirely fictional. If it existed, it would have been built in the 1940’s, a neighborhood of moderately large two-story homes abutting commercial areas reminiscent of small-town main streets, featuring mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. In fact, Main Street in Ellicott City’s historic district could almost be next door to Peller’s house, except for a little problem with the geography, which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, some history.

Ellicott City grew up on the banks of the Patapsco River. It was born April 24, 1771 as Ellicott’s Mills, established by the Quaker brothers John, Andrew, and Joseph Ellicott. The Ellicotts chose the location in the wilderness a few miles upstream from Elk Ridge Landing (now Elkridge, Maryland) as the site for a flour mill. Over time, the brothers expanded their operations to sawmills, grain mills, an oil mill, smithies, stables, and a grain distillery. They also transformed agriculture in the area by encouraging local farmers to plant wheat instead of tobacco–after all, they couldn’t mill tobacco–and introducing Plaster of Paris fertilizer to rejuvenate the soil.

In 1830, Ellicott’s Mills was chosen as the first terminus of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad outside the city. (Want to talk like a local? Folks around here often call it “Baltimore City” or just “the city” to distinguish it from Baltimore County, which is an entirely separate entity.) Today, the Ellicott City Station together with the gray granite Oliver Viaduct has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It’s the oldest surviving railroad station in America.

Ellicott’s Mills became Ellicott City in 1867 with an incorporation charter, which was later lost in 1935. It remains unincorporated today, but is now the seat of the Howard County government. For more historical information, see this article.

Back to that geographical quirk I mentioned. The center of Ellicott City is its historic district, built in the Tiber River valley. The Tiber is a tributary of the Patapsco, which in turn is a key tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The Tiber cuts through the piedmont, slashing a deep gash through the hills. It’s a picturesque area. The oldest buildings in the city are found here, but the valley is narrow, so most residential areas are above in the surrounding high ground. That’s one reason the Peller residence isn’t just around the corner.

Another, more serious reason: huge amounts of water can course through the Tiber valley into the Patapsco. Significant rainfalls can raise the level of both rivers, backing the water up into the historic district. In more recent times, development has paved over natural drainage and channeled water down into the center of the city.  Devastating floods occurred in 1817, 1837, 1868, 1901, 1917, 1923, 1938, 1942, 1952, 1956, 1972 (Hurricane Agnes), 1975 (Hurricane Eloise), 1989, 2011, and 2016. Peller’s imaginary neighborhood isn’t in the path of these floods, although in my fourth Howard County novel he gets to experience one up close and personal.

Main Street becomes Frederick Road as it travels west. It does indeed connect to the city of Frederick at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. But today westward movement is better facilitated by U.S. Route 40 (Baltimore National Pike), and Interstate 70, both of which run by to the north of Ellicott City. Route 40 is a main commercial drag, particularly to the west of Baltimore. Consequently, it shows up with some frequency in my novels. So does the north-south U.S. Route 29, which connects I70 to Ellicott City, Columbia, and the northern D.C. suburb of Silver Spring. In spite of these and other major traffic arteries, getting around Howard County can take time. The hills force roads to twist and turn, unlike the straight shots in the midwestern areas where I grew up.

In any case, if you’re ever in the area, drop by for a visit. And if you happen to bump into Rick Peller, tell him I said hello.