Why We Rebuild – Ellicott City’s History of Floods

I wrote a piece on Ellicott City shortly after the 2018 flood, so I could stop responding to the same inane comments I repeatedly saw. After some were panicking with recent thunderstorms this Summer of 2020, I wondered if I should reshare that post.

Instead, because of some dated commentary, I want to discuss Ellicott City and its history. Namely, I want to explain why the town exists, why people keep rebuilding it, and how blaming the floods on those living and working there is ignorant (at best).

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The first thing to understand is that Ellicott City is located where it is for excellent reasons. It began as a gristmill in 1766, where the road between Baltimore and Frederick crossed the Patapsco River.

The flooding happened even then, and the owner’s son had to rebuild the mill a mere two years later, in 1768. Still, the location was perfect for industry, and it was sold to Joseph Ellicott and his brothers in 1774, at which point it was renamed Ellicott’s Mills.

Ellicott’s Mills became one of the largest manufacturers on the East Coast, and thus a town built around it. They didn’t face their first devastating flood until 1817, which destroyed several buildings, but it didn’t deter life and business.

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By the mid-19th century, Ellicott’s Mills had achieved such importance the B&O had built the first commercial railroad station there. Howard County had become a separate jurisdiction, and the county courthouse was built.

The Ellicott brothers sold all interests by 1840, and the town was a center of manufacturing and farming by the 1860s. During the Civil War, it saw action from both sides, and it was officially incorporated as Ellicott City in 1867.

Then the Great Flood of Maryland happened in 1868.

18″ of rain in 30 minutes created a wall of water that washed down the Patapsco River, destroying everything in its wake. Not just buildings and bridges in Ellicott City, but everything along the Patapsco Valley into Baltimore was devastated, and 43 lives were lost.

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The Great Flood of 1868 mostly destroyed structures along the Patapsco, not those along the Tiber or Frederick Road. Much of what we know as Ellicott City, Historic Ellicott, Main Street, OEC, etc. today was built after that flood.

Ellicott City experienced some flooding along the Patapsco but nothing of significance until the early-20th century. By that time, it was the primary seat of commerce and politics in Howard County; it was also heavily involved in the turn-of-the-century social movements (for better or worse).

In 1933, however, the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane created flooding all along the watershed. Once more, the Patapsco overflowed its banks, and the lower portion of the town was damaged.

Nevertheless, Ellicott City moved on – flooding was nothing new, as the town had experienced a dozen floods by then, although only a few were devastating. “Main Street” and the surrounding area was still the heart of Howard County, pumping the blood of industrial and commercial interests.

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The first time Ellicott City faced a devastating top-down flood, like the ones that happened recently, was in 1952. A “thousand-year” storm created a wall of water 8 feet high rushing down the street, reaching 12 feet at the bottom, and destroyed thirty businesses and multiple vehicles.

Photos from the era look eerily similar to recent events, but this was the first time in 186 years, that the town had experienced flooding of that nature. Even the Great Flood of 1868 was along the Patapsco (rather than the Tiber), so nobody expected this.

The next major flood occurred in 1972 and was once more caused by regional weather. Hurricane Agnes devastated the entire East Coast, not just Ellicott City, and created walls of water that destroyed businesses, homes, and lives.

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By the 21st century, Ellicott City had faced fifteen significant floods in over two centuries. Almost all were fluvial floods along the Patapsco when it would overflow its banks.

Only five floods (at the time) required the area to rebuild, two of which happened before the OEC as we know it had been built up. Since 1868, the businesses and residents of Main Street had only experienced three devastating floods: the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933, the “thousand-year” flood of 1952, and Hurricane Agnes (which affected the entire East Coast) in 1972.

These points in history are essential to remember because they highlight that what’s happened in the past few years is not normal for the town.

When the flood of 2016 occurred, nobody was prepared because something like that was rare. A non-Hurricane related, “thousand-year” flood along the Tiber had only happened once in nearly 250 years of history, and it had been 60 years since it occurred!

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The destruction of 2016 was terrible, and it made people wonder how it happened. Many armchair experts were quick to mention, “Ellicott City has always flooded!” without looking at the history of the town and types of floods.

Often this was used to dismiss rebuilding the town as a waste of resources, completely ignoring its historical, cultural, and economic worth. I could only imagine if they’d be as willing to get rid of Harper’s Ferry or Annapolis, both equally historic (and significant) towns who’ve faced floods before.

Cooler heads began to look at the facts and science and realize a more valid (and less dismissive) explanation: over-development.

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Since the 20th century, Ellicott City has boomed along with the rest of America. While the historic town remained relatively static, the areas around it did not.

Howard County and developers have added buildings to the already crowded street (or replaced those lost) and paved over whole areas for parking lots. Outside Frederick Road, developers have continued to tear up trees and bedrock to build everything from single-family homes to townhouses to apartments to strip malls.

Overdevelopment has devastated the permeable land that would once allow waters to flow in and through it. With nowhere to go once it strikes pavement and buildings, the rains pour directly into the Tiber, overflowing its banks and leaving the flood with one route: Main Street.

The second “thousand-year” storm in 2018 only served to confirm our worst fears. Ellicott City isn’t flooding because of its location or history – it’s flooding because the county and developers didn’t give its location or history any consideration.

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Blaming Ellicott City for rebuilding after each flood is like blaming a long-time resident for being hit by a car after the county widens and increases the speed limit on their road. They’ve lived there for decades without any problem (even if there were occasional accidents), but it wasn’t that dangerous until changes happened without consideration for the locals.

Ellicott City may be in a flood plain, but history shows us consistent flooding usually came from one direction and at much less frequency. The county and developers have changed the topography of the area, leading to severe consequences and tragedy.

Ellicott City wasn’t asking for this because of its location; it’s been right where it was supposed to be all along. Leadership and greed caused this because they didn’t care about the precarious nature of the town.

As a historical and cultural jewel of Maryland and America, Main Street should be rebuilt every time. They may have to adapt, as they have before, but it’s worth it.

Ellicott City shouldn’t have to pay for it, though – those responsible, the county, and (most importantly) the developers should.

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