An industrial boom gone bust

Book: A researcher rediscovers the Patapsco River Valley's forgotten factories.

March 21, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Tracing the history of the Patapsco River Valley was somewhat like trying to solve a mystery for Henry K. Sharp.

Searching for clues of vanished communities scattered along the 10-mile stretch of river between Elkridge and Union Dam, he drove all the roads in the area and hiked the trails to find ruins from the 1800s.

Then he delved into 19th-century property and deed records, tracing lines of ownership and relying on newspaper clippings, diaries and journals to fill in the gaps.

"I walked up and down both sides of the river, stumbling across the remains of a community which was founded when the [Baltimore and Ohio] railroad came through ... and now no longer exists," said Sharp, a doctoral student in architectural history at University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

His findings are chronicled in his recently released book, The Patapsco River Valley: Cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Maryland, which details how the area became a major player in the Industrial Revolution, benefiting from its proximity to the port of Baltimore and to the river that powered the mills that lined the waterfront.

"In this part of the Atlantic, the Patapsco River Valley was an important part of industry that was largely forgotten," Sharp said. "Industry wasn't contained only to New England."

Published by the Maryland Historical Society, the book contains more than 200 prints and drawings that accompany Sharp's work, which the historical society claims is the first to fully account for that period of the area's history.

Sharp followed the timeline of the valley's industrial development, from its rising economy - growing from products including tobacco products, flour, iron and textiles that were produced in the mills and factories along the river - to the flood of July 1868 that nearly destroyed the valley's economy.

The project originated with the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Committee, as part of the group's goal to preserve, enhance and interpret the historical and cultural resources of the Patapsco River Valley.

The group hired Sharp, who was an intern at the Maryland Historical Trust in the summer of 1996 and had studied the domestic architecture in regions of the Chesapeake Bay during the Colonial and early Republic periods.

In January 1997, Sharp began the project - funded by the Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Howard and Baltimore counties - and wrapped up his writing by last year, between his doctoral studies and other projects.

Charles Wagandt, president of Oella Co. and past chairman of the Greenway Committee, said Sharp uncovered not widely known ma- terial that will be a significant contribution to public knowledge. The book details how the Ellicott brothers constructed a mill on the river and built a city as well as William Patterson's idealistic visions while establishing Union Manufacturing Co., the first incorporated factory in the state.

"It's intriguing to look back at Patterson's statement on the founding of the Union Manufacturing Co.," Wagandt said. "It was altruistic, in addition to [being] practical."

The book's final chapter describes the many floods that have hammered communities along the river. High waters converged on the area in 1837, 1847, 1866 and 1868, and the last two floods were so severe that the communities could not fully recover, according to the book.

Sharp learned that rising water was not uncommon in the valley, and that residents were forced to develop a relationship with the river, as they depended on it to power the mills.

"The people who lived there every day had to accommodate themselves to the mood of the river - it would be up, it would be down," he said. "It was their livelihood. ... But in a sense it could also be a great enemy, it would rise and cause great damage."

Sharp used newspaper accounts for most of his research into the floods, providing the primary source of first-person accounts. One witness described the flood of 1868 as, "It did not rain - it poured in a solid volume, as if a lake had fallen, in mass, upon us," according to the book.

The newspaper stories "give you a sense of immediacy that is sometimes lacking in historical work," Sharp said. "Here you could understand how it happened, and how it affected the valley, both economically and personally."

Sharp said he might use his book as part of his doctoral dissertation, and he anticipates his research will raise people's awareness of the area's important history.

"I hope ... they recognize that there are still pieces of evidence that are out on the landscape that are worthy of study," he said.

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