Mills, railroad fostered growth of Ellicott City

History: The community has thrived since the Ellicott brothers set up a mill on the bank of the Patapsco in 1772.

March 21, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad terminus at the bottom of Main Street to Patapsco Female Institute near the top, Ellicott City's varied past is evident throughout the historic downtown, a draw for locals and tourists alike.

The B&O Railroad Station, at 2711 Maryland Ave. near the Patapsco River, is the oldest railroad station in the country. The station, which opened in 1830, has not served passengers since 1949.

Today it is a museum that highlights the history of Ellicott City while offering insight into what railroading was like in the past. It also contains a train layout showing the route between Ellicott City and Baltimore.

When the station opened, horses pulled cars along the rails. But on Aug. 30, 1830, the station was the site of one of the most famous races in history, between a horse-drawn car and a steam-powered engine called the Tom Thumb. The steam engine lost the race, but it became evident that steam engines were the wave of the future.

The railroad station brought increased vigor to a community that was already bustling. "That transportation really brought a boost to the town," said resident Joetta Cramm, who has studied the history of the town for decades and has published several books on the topic.

Most histories of Ellicott City begin in 1772, when brothers John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott moved to Maryland from Bucks County, Pa., and set up a mill.

"The grist mill was built on the banks of the Patapsco, and everything kind of followed," said Deborah Ing, visitor information center manager and group tour marketing manager for the Howard County Tourism Council.

The Ellicotts and their offspring had an enormous impact. "The Ellicotts were industrious, inventive and practical," notes Cramm in her book Historic Ellicott City: A Walking Tour, published in 1996. "They developed new methods for milling flour, constructed machine shops and experimented in farming and technology."

The Ellicotts also built roads, including one that connected the mill to Doughoregan Manor, home of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll. The road was used to transport the wheat that Carroll grew to the mill.

The road later was extended to what is now Frederick, and became part of the National Road that stretched to Cumberland in Western Maryland.

The railroad and the National Road both brought commerce to Ellicott City, especially during the Civil War, when they were put to use delivering goods - for both the North and the South. The residents of Ellicott City, like many Marylanders, were divided in their sympathies.

The history of Ellicott City is a story of fires and floods. Next to the Patapsco River, signs mark the heights of floods that have damaged the downtown over the years.

The highest one, at the top of the bridge, marks the flood of 1868, which took the lives of 36 people. Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 also brought considerable damage to the downtown.

Fires, including blazes in 1915 and 1984, also were devastating. The most recent was in 1999, destroying a section of buildings along the south side of the street near Tiber Alley. Construction recently was completed on replacement buildings.

The Firehouse Museum, a short walk or drive up the very steep Church Road on the north side of Main Street, houses exhibits and equipment that tell of the fires that changed the Ellicott City landscape. The museum, in the 1889 building that was the community's first fire station, is open by appointment; call 410-313-2762.

A steep ascent from Church Street takes visitors to Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. Built in 1837, it is now a romantic ruin and the site of such events as Victorian teas in the spring and ghost tours in the fall.

The school closed in 1890, and the site, over the years, was a convalescent home, a summer outdoor theater and a hotel, among other things.

The park, off Courthouse Drive, provides stunning views of the Patapsco River Valley. The park is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays from April through October.

The buildings on what is known as Tonge Row on Columbia Pike were built in the 1840s and are considered the oldest structures in town. The small stone structures were built by Ann Tonge and now house retail shops.

The community officially became a city in 1867, but lost its charter in 1935. These days, Ellicott City is unincorporated, like all the communities in Howard County.

Before the 1950s, the downtown was a local shopping destination, where residents purchased the items they needed for everyday life. But once U.S. 40 developed as an automotive artery with supermarkets and retail stores, the downtown - built for horses and buggies, not cars - suffered.

The slump began to turn around after 1973, when the downtown became an official historic district. In the years since, downtown Ellicott City has become a destination for visitors in the mood for browsing in unusual stores and eating in nice restaurants.

"In the '80s, the economy boomed, and that's when things seemed to really take hold," said Cramm.

The historic buildings on Main Street now house renowned restaurants such as Tersiguel's and Cacao Lane, as well as antiques shops and boutiques selling everything from toys to jewelry to home decor.

But there is more to Ellicott City than history. "We have great shopping, a lot of specialty stores that you won't find anywhere else," Ing said.

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