History of Ellicott City, Maryland

Old Ellicott City

Main Street, Ellicott City

Historic Ellicott City – 1771

In 1850 Ellicott Mills was a growing, bustling community.  Baltimore County had early mills and homes.  Anne Arundel County (Howard County Today) had its courthouse, schools, churches dwellings, and businesses. During this time there was discussion of renaming Ellicott Mills “Patapsco.”

Settlement at Ellicott Mills – 1771

Joseph, Andrew and John Ellicott were Quakers who had grown up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania , the sons of Andrew Ellicott, an Englishman who came to the Pennsylvania colony in 1730. Andrew married, had five sons, and died young, leaving his widow to raise the young family. As the boys grew they were apprenticed to learn the trades that led to their later success in Maryland.

Lush vegetation and the swiftly flowing Patapsco River must have captivated the three Ellicott brothers when they searched for land in the late 1760’s. The brothers had searched throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania for a site where they could grow wheat and harness water power for a mill. In 1771 the Ellicott brothers purchased many acres east of the river in the valley known as the “Hollow.” Although the valley was uninhabitable, they were not alone; other settlers lived along the bluffs overlooking the river.

Some of the tracts of land the Ellicotts bought later spanned both sides of the Patapsco; the west bank was part of Anne Arundel County (now Howard County), and the east bank was in Baltimore County.

Early Farming

The Quakers cleared and plowed fields and cut timber for the first buildings. Slowly the beginnings of a village rose from the landscape – a sawmill, a flour mill, a large log dwelling, a store, and John’s home.

Although the Ellicotts grew wheat, earlier settlers in that area had planted tobacco for export to England. However, tobacco exhausted the soil, and after several successive plantings, the land became unproductive. As a result of this, many Marylanders moved west into Ohio and Kentucky to find new farmland. However, the Ellicotts learned that through the use of ground plaster of Paris to fertilize the depleted soils, the land could be made suitable for growing grain. Thus, the idea for a mill to produce plaster of Paris was born.

Early Mills

By 1774 the Ellicotts were milling wheat and other grains at their new mill on the east side of the river in Baltimore County. Other farmers in the area also began growing grain and sent their harvests to the Ellicotts for milling.

As farmers prospered, the wheat supply increased; and with the end of the Revolutionary War, the Ellicotts were ready to export their flour. They purchased a waterfront lot in Baltimore and built their first wharf at the comer of Pratt and Light streets.

Locally, the brothers spread their milling operations along the banks of the Patapsco. Joseph, the eldest, lived up the river about two miles and operated the Upper Mills. Andrew and John settled at the Lower Mills, now Ellicott City. Andrew and his sons were responsible for the milling operation. Brother John managed a large store that offered fine goods and furnishings.

By the early 1800s the mills had developed a respected reputation. “Here is one of the largest and most elegant merchant mills in the United States,” wrote Joseph Scott in 1807. “It is 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, with four water wheels, which turn three pair of seven feet stones and one of five feet. She is capable of manufacturing 150 barrels of flour in a day.

The Ellicotts

The Ellicotts were industrious, inventive, and practical. They developed new methods for milling flour, constructed machine shops, and experimented in farming and technology. This large Quaker family also stressed the importance of education. They brought the best teachers to the community to operate a school for all local children. The Ellicotts attended Meeting (the Quaker religious service) and eventually were instrumental in building a new Quaker meeting house near the mills. After construction of the first mills and workmen’s houses in the 1780s, two sons of founder Andrew Ellicott built large stone houses. Jonathan and George chose the east bank of the river, which was near the flour mill, for their large and imposing houses. The homes overlooked the mill race, a man-made canal that provided the water power to operate the mill.

Extensive granite quarries lining the Patapsco River provided the building material for many of the buildings, and in later years, the curbings and walls walls throughout the old town, and the blocks for the laying of the original railroad tracks. Some of these quarries are still discernible today; one can be seen along Frederick Road where a gas station is located today.

Jonathan Ellicott (1756-1826)

As a young man, Jonathan was caught up in the Revolutionary War. Although Quakers are known for their stand against war, Jonathan became a captain in a militia company but saw no action. He also had manufactured the long swords used by officers of the Maryland Line and the dragoons under the command of Colonel Washington. At the same time, Jonathan was active in the mill operations and was responsible for planning and directing the construction of the road that eventually became the Baltimore-Frederick Turnpike (Route 144).

Standing on a grassy knoll by Frederick Road, Johnathan Ellicott’s 1780’s home is seen here as it was before Hurricane Agnes destroyed it in 1972. Ripped open by debris carried by the raging Patapsco River, the house was subsequently torn down.
George Ellicott (1760-1832)

George Ellicott, according to his daughter, was one of the best mathematicians and finest amateur astronomers of the time. In the publication Settlement of Ellicott’s Mills, Martha Ellicott Tyson wrote that her father was fond of “imparting instruction to every youthful enquirer after knowledge who came to his house. As early as the year 1782,” she wrote, “he was in the habit of giving gratuitous lessons on astronomy to any of the inhabitants of the village who wished to hear him. To many of these his celestial globe was an object of great interest and curiosity. He was perfectly at home on a map of the heavens as far as the telescopes and writers of his time had given revelations.” It may be that Benjamin Banneker’s interest in astronomy was stimulated by these early sessions. George Ellicott was also interested in bettering the lives of the American Indian. In 1799 he and other Quakers visited the principal village of the Wyandots in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Later George and his friend, Gerard Hopkins, made a second trip to instruct the Indians in farming. George was also concerned about the evil affects of alcohol on the American Indian. In 1801 George wrote a letter to Congress asking that the sale of “spiritous liquors” to the Indians be outlawed; such a law was eventually passed.

Jonathan and George Ellicott, sons of founder Andrew, built large granite housesin the 1780s. Cousin John’s home is to the left. These landmarks remained in place until recently. Jonathan’s house was so badly damaged by the 1972 flood that it was razed to the ground. Although George’sh ouses urvived that flood, it was damaged in the 1975 flood and stood abandoned until 1987, when it was relocated across Frederick Road.