From 1770 to 1900 The Patapsco River provided a large portion of the power that fueled Maryland’s and the Nation’s Industrial Revolution. In the early 1770s the Ellicotts, three Quaker Brothers brothers, were the first to harness the power of the mighty river to establish a grist-mill in the vicinity of the town that now bears their name. Their pioneering spirit and enterprising nature set in motion what would become a large industrial empire within the Patapsco watershed.
In 1772, Joseph, John, and Andrew Ellicott purchased land in two separate areas of the Patapsco Valley. The three brothers from Bucks County, Pennsylvania floated mill equipment down the Chesapeake Bay to Elk Ridge Landing. From that point they cut a new wilderness road six miles upstream on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River to a point where they established a saw mill, a granite quarry, a grist mill, various farms and a small community. The community became known as the “lower” Ellicott Mills.
The Ellicott brothers were impressive with their foresight. They introduced the idea of using fertilizers to replace nutrients lost to the soil from growing tobacco. They encouraged grain production. They established roads, warehouses, mills, churches and schools. They also established a mill further upstream on the Patapsco where another major road from the west crossed the Patapsco River on its way to the port of Baltimore. This site, which is near where Johnny Cake Road used to cross the Patapsco, was called the “upper” Ellicott Mills
Also Of Note…
The Patapsco Female Institute, a ”select11 finishing school for well-bred young ladies, was officially open January 1, 1837. Designed by the well known Maryland architect, Robert Cary Long, Jr., in the Greek Revival style of the period, the Institute was built high above Ellicott City of rare yellow tinted granite donated by the Ellicott brothers. The land upon which it stands was also donated by the Ellicotts. (more)
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station at Ellicott City, erected in 1830-31, is the oldest railroad station in the United States. It served as the original terminus of the railroad’s original 13-miles section- of track. Over this line, in August, 1830, the locomotive Torn Thumb raced a horse drawn car and l:-t, because of mechanical failure. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first railroad to be chartered as a common carrier of both freight and passengers and its supporters, moreover, looked beyond purely local needs to envisage a line all the way to the Ohio River that would channel the growing western trade through the port of Baltimore.(more)
The original Thomas’ Patapsco Hotel (which has been replaced by the twelve bay wide building at the east end of Main Street) is claimed by some historians to have been a stagecoach center for traffic going west on the National Pike. (more)
Other Mills in the Valley
The great flood of 1868 wreaked devastation throughout the river valley. Lower Ellicott Mills was rebuilt and became known as Ellicott City. Upper Ellicott Mills however was not rebuilt.
The Ellicott brothers, who established the early mills, are widely recognized as being the catalyst for turning farmers from growing tobacco to grains. Their introduction of fertilizers and flour mills into the Valley during the 1770s created an entirely new export product. From the 1770s to the present, a variety of flour mills operated in the Patapsco River Valley.
- In 1809, the Ellicott family sold a 458 acre tract of land just north of “lower ” Ellicott Mills (present day Oella) to the Union Company. The Union Company planned a mill complex that was extraordinary in its day. The basic concept was to create a dam with an exceptionally long mill race, which could provide water power to a whole series of mill operations. Various factories were built. The first, a five story brick factory, began operation in May of 1810.
- In 1813, the Patapsco Manufacturing Company began producing cotton yarn. It was located about one mile downstream from the “lower” Ellicott Mills. This mill was the first that provided a heated work environment for its workers. On January 21, 1820, it caught fire and was declared a total loss. It was rebuilt in 1824. In 1844, Edward Gray acquired a purchase option and renamed the complex the Gray Manufacturing Company. The Company was severely damaged by the July 1, 1868 flood, but it remained in business until 1888. There are a few stone homes along River Road and Frederick Road which remain after the flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
- Thistle Manufacturing Company, a textile manufacturer, opened in 1834 along the river at Ilchester.
- Orange Grove Mill opened in 1856. It produced “Patapsco Superlative Patent Flour” which was popular in both Europe and the US. In the late 1800s, the Orange Grove Mill was one of the largest mills in the mid-Atlantic states. The Mill burned on May 1, 1905 and flooding from Hurricane Agnes eliminated most remaining evidence of the Mill’s existence.
- Wilkins Rogers, located across the river from present day Ellicott City’s historic district, carried on the Valley’s flour milling tradition until 2020.
The Patapsco River has a long history of flooding. Nine Continental soldiers perished as they tried to cross the flooded Patapsco during the Revolutionary War. Numerous other floods are recorded. However, by far the most destructive flood in the Valley’s history occurred on July 1, 1868. On that day virtually, all of the mills and houses in the Valley were washed away. Of the nine major mill sites in the ten-mile section of the River around Ellicott City, four completely vanished, three were heavily damaged, and two would never again operate. A flood in 1972, resulting from Hurricane Agnes, removed almost all of the remaining evidence that the Valley had ever been a major industrial center.
The Patapsco Valley has a wide assortment of architectural styles. Examples of various period styles can be found from early period log homes to stately mansions. Forward thinking organizations like the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation and Historic Ellicott City have helped to preserve the unique architecture within Ellicott City. The Catonsville Historical Society has helped identify unique homes within that community. Other historical societies are doing the same in their respective communities. In several cases, historic districts have been established because of the uniqueness of a group of properties. In other cases, a ship Captain or wealthy traveler has built a unique home patterned after a style observed in Europe or the Orient. Overall, the remaining communities within the Patapsco Valley have made an unusual effort to take on and preserve the character of their past.
Preserve. Protect. Interpret. Restore
Patapsco Heritage Greenway, the non-profit managing organization of the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area, is dedicated to preserving, protecting, interpreting, and restoring the environment, history, and culture of Maryland’s most dramatic river valley for the enjoyment of all.