Flood waters on Main Street in Ellicott City, 1972. Photo from the Howard County Historical Society.

Historic Context of the Ellicott City Flood

08/04/2016
By Preservation Maryland

European settlement of the area today known as Ellicott City began as early as 1766 when James Hood built a grist mill along the banks of the Patapsco River. One of the earliest recorded floods in 1768 destroyed the original mill, which his son Benjamin Hood subsequently rebuilt and then sold in 1774 to Joseph Ellicott.

Joseph Ellicott and his brothers John and Andrew, Quakers from Philadelphia, selected the area for the establishment of several mills, renaming the area “Ellicott’s Mills.” The Ellicott brother’s foresight and planning ultimately laid the foundation for what would soon become one of the largest milling and manufacturing towns in Maryland and beyond.

In 1830, the town became the first terminus of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad outside of Baltimore City. The junction of vital transportation and manufacturing resources also made the town a critical crossroads during the Civil War. The town enjoyed a post-Civil War economic resurgence, but gradually the large milling industry and importance of the railroad subsided in the 20th century, giving way to today’s service-industry and small boutique commercial makeup of the town. Tourism and day trips quickly replaced the gritty industrialism of the prior one hundred and fifty years. The town was designated a national historic district in 1976 with more than 200 extant buildings remaining from before 1900.

Due to its location in a valley and proximity to the confluence of two major creeks and the Patapsco River, Ellicott City experienced numerous floods throughout its history.

Past Floods
Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor, courtesy The Baltimore Sun.

Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor, courtesy The Baltimore Sun.

Photographs from the Baltimore Sun archives provide a history of flooding in Ellicott City. Perhaps the most historically poignant photo is of a support beam for the railroad adjacent to the Patapsco that lists the heights of floods from different years and stands as a monument to previous floods. The beam has signs of the years 1868, 1972, 1923, and 1952 – each years when flooding ravaged Ellicott City.

The first recorded flood occurred in 1868, when the river rose 21.5 ft and killed 43 people. The Saturday flooding reached 14 ft in under two hours and was just short of the 1972 flood of 14.5 ft caused by hurricane Agnes, which was the worst recorded flood since 1868. Residents interviewed by the Baltimore Sun said that the recent flood was even worse than the 1972 flood.

Flood Prevention

Defensive measures were taken after the 1972 flood to protect the city including a flood warning system, prevention of construction in areas prone to flooding, and grant funding for businesses to move utilities off the ground. After the 2011 flood caused by Tropical Storm Lee, further measures were taken to improve the flow of the Patapsco river and prevent debris accumulation. Today there have been discussions of constructing new stream walls, flood-proofing historic buildings, and even building parking garages with underground systems to manage excess storm water.

Recent Floods: An Abupt Change

Unlike many of the previous floods, both the 2016 and 2018 floods have descended from the top of Ellicott City and raced downward — not inundating the city from below, but instead cascading down through the city from the top. The change has resulted in more ferocious, damaging and life-threatening floods. The change has also prompted a serious and ongoing conversation about how best to mitigate the impacts and make Ellicott City more resilient. It’s a conversation that must be resolved soon as storms intensify.

Floods in Ellicott City
  • 1768
  • 1817
  • 1837
  • 1868 – Patapsco flooding, killed 43 people, destroyed 14 homes
  • 1901
  • 1917
  • 1923
  • 1942
  • 1952 – September 1
  • 1972 – July 12, Hurricane Agnes, 14.5 ft
  • 1975 – September 30, Hurricane Eloise, Hurricane Eloise
  • 1989 – September 22, flood
  • 2011 – September 7, Tropical Storm Lee
  • 2016 – July 30
  • 2018 – May 27
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