I don’t live in historic Ellicott City, but I’ve wanted to ever since I first drove through the winding hilly streets about 30 years ago. Instead we live across the Patapsco River about ten minutes away in Catonsville, and though our home and community bear some historic charm, they are quite bland in comparison with the picturesque, centuries-old shops clustered on the granite hillsides of Ellicott City.
Both communities were recently inundated with over ten inches of rain during a short, disastrous storm. Though flood damage is rampant in Catonsville, the destruction here, much like the charm, pales in comparison with that of our western neighbor.
I love the town of Ellicott City and used it for the setting for my Karen Maxwell mystery series. My daughter and I have been driving down Main Street after jump rope practice multiple times each week for years not because it’s the fastest way home, but simply because there’s a joy in watching life cascade through the streets of this classic town.
Unfortunately, though, water has cascaded through the town too, not once but twice in less than two years. Buildings that served as homes and shops for multiple generations have collapsed, and people who just recently rebuilt their lives now find the rug quite literally swept out from under their feet once again. Can Ellicott City survive?
In honor of this very special Maryland town, I wanted to offer a short, unofficial history of Ellicott City.
While the Pataspco River is usually a shallow meandering rocky stream these days, it was once a regular force to be reckoned with. When George Washington’s forces crossed the Patapsco a few miles away in 1781, troops overloaded a ferry boat so that it capsized, and nine men drowned. This is hard to imagine now, since even a canoe now usually scrapes the bottom of the river in this area.
But in the 18th and 19th Centuries, water from the river powered all types of mills. The Ellicott Brothers came to the area and convinced local farmers to switch from growing tobacco to producing wheat for their grist mills, and the town that developed was first known as Ellicott’s Mills. One family member, John Ellicott, used a millrace to conduct experiments with a steam powered boat in the 1780s and 1790s. Unfortunately, during one run, the boiler exploded and tore off Ellicott’s arm. The site would later become the site of a triumph of steam transportation of another sort.
The town prospered and became the county seat of the newly formed Howard County in 1851, renamed Ellicott City. As an industrial hub, Ellicott City had been chosen as the terminus of one of the nation’s first commercial railway lines. The thirteen miles of track from Baltimore were completed and open for business in 1830, with cars pulled by horses. Despite experiments with trains assisted by sails and horses walking on treadmills atop the railcars, horse transportation finally gave way to steam power later that year when the engine known as Tom Thumb succeeded in navigating the hills and curves of the tracks. Ellicott City then became the site of the country’s first train station in 1831 and that station still stands– for now.
The city was flooded in 1868, and then again in 1901, 1917, 1923, 1942, 1952 and 1972. The high water marks from each flood are visible on the railroad bridge that crosses Main Street. Or at least they used to be.
Despite floods and other ravages of time, Ellicott City survived, but gradually the mills shut down and the town lost its industrial importance. In 1935, the Maryland Legislature revoked the town charter, and the city slid into decline. With many homes in the area still lacking indoor plumbing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it was described as looking like an “Appalachian shanty town.” My sister and brother-in-law lived in an apartment in one of the old homes back in those days because it was economical, and instead of charm, what they remember most was the annoyance of flies coming through the unscreened windows.
But eventually Ellicott City leaders decided that the best way to prosper in the future was to take advange of the town’s past. They got the town’s boundaries reestablished and had Ellicott City designated as a historic preserve in 1973. So when residents finally got running water, many were told that they could not tear down the old outhouses on their property because the structures were historic.
(One day when I was walking my dog, we encountered a crew laden with heavy cameras who were clearly exhausted. “Is that a historic dog?” one of them jokingly asked with a tired wave of his camera. I admitted she was not historic, but told them they could find some historic outhouses just around the corner, and they picked up their tripods and set off with renewed vigor.)
By the time I first visited, Ellicott City had mastered the art of quaint, and real estate that was once cheap had a much higher price tag. But we often walked the streets or came down for dinner, and the steep, curving and extremely narrow roads provided excellent driving practice when my kids were learning how to handle a car. (I still remember my son screaming in terror as he insisted the road we were on could not possibly handle two way traffic.)
The roads are closed to all traffic now, and it’s hard to know when they will reopen and what things will look like when they do. After each of the disasters of the past, Ellicott City residents rebuilt and carried on, and I’m betting that they will do so again. But they’ve got a long and winding road ahead, both literally and figuratively. We will be cheering them on every step of the way.
Much of the information about the history of Ellicott City came from The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History by Paul J. Travers. To help with rebuilding, I am donating all the proceeds of the Karen Maxwell mysteries sold during the next month to Ellicott City recovery efforts. (The titles are George Washington Stepped Here, Worth its Weight in Old and Roped In.) For more information about the flood and clean-up, visit https://www.howardcountymd.gov/Departments/Ellicott-City-Flood-2018.