Over the course of a little more than a decade, Daniels, Maryland, a picturesque former mill town less than an hour from DC, was utterly destroyed – first by an economic paradigm shift, and then by a freak weather event. Today, the ghost town is a mildly popular destination for eccentric explorers, ruin porn aficionados, and people who want to see what the rest of America will look like fifty years from now. Oops, did I say that out loud?
Daniels was founded as a company town around 1850 by the Elysville Manufacturing Company. Company towns were common in the 19th century, though to varying degrees of success. The idea was that these towns were built around a single industry – usually a mine, mill, or factory – and all the housing and shops were built and operated by the owner of the company. If you worked at the factory, you got a free cottage (or one at reduced rent) and access to all the local parks, shops, and amenities. The potential problems with this arrangement are obvious: the same guy who pays you also sets your rent and decides how much to charge you for a gallon of milk. And if the boss decides that beer-drinking is bad for productivity, he can just not sell you beer, and since he owns the town, no outside party’s going to be allowed to set up shop unless they agree to not sell alcohol. This closed-loop monopoly was so airtight that in some company towns, they didn’t even pay workers in money – they paid them in company tokens or credit, good only at the company-owned stores. Economists called this economic model “welfare capitalism,” and it combined the worst qualities of both welfare and capitalism. The paternalism inherent in this setup is obvious in quotes like this, from a company owner who refused to raise worker wages but claimed the company town itself represented a form of profit sharing: “It would not do you much good if you send [the profits] down your throats in the form of bottles of whisky, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant—nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation.” With attitudes like that, it’s not surprising that, before long, workers were burning the towns to the ground.
One of the biggest company towns in the US was in Pullman, Illinois, home of a factory that built most of the nation’s railway cars. When George Pullman laid off some workers and cut the wages of others, but refused to lower the rents or shop prices in his company town, a strike broke out. The Pullman strike spread across most of the country and eventually turned violent; after the Army was called in to prevent sabotage and interference with mail cars, thirty people were killed. The Pullman strike discredited the idea of the company town, and it was put to rest by the New Deal; FDR’s push to make home ownership a low interest, low deposit arrangement (so it was accessible to the working class) was a direct response to the company town model of housing being owned by management.
But back to Daniels, MD. Home to a thriving mill, it was known as Elysville until 1853, when it was bought by businessman James Gary, who renamed the town Alberton, after his son Albert. (Imagine how irritating it would be if every time a new boss bought your town, he renamed it something stupid.) In 1940, the Daniels Company bought the Alberton mill and its 118 company-owned houses for $65,000, and renamed it Daniels. (Zero points for originality.) By the late sixties, the mill was still running, with 90 mill-employed families living in the town. But the economic shifts that are still being felt in America had already begun, and in 1968, the mill gave notice that it was closing all company housing. A few years later, the mill itself closed and Daniels became, overnight, a ghost town. The dozens of houses, two churches, railroad station, and school might have been salvaged or even repopulated eventually, except that in 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes tore through the area and decimated what was left of Daniels. Today, there’s nothing left but ruins. You could say that Daniels was left behind because of a run of bad luck and bad planning. But if you take the view that its decline was the natural product of economic disruption and aberrant weather – two factors very much on the rise in 2018 – then maybe it’s not behind. Maybe it was ahead of its time?