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Historical Perspectives

  • Native Americans
    The Patapsco River provided a virtual smorgasbord for the Susquehannock and the Piscataway tribes. The forests contained black bear, panthers, elk, buffalo, beaver, bobcat, turkey, rabbit, squirrels, and deer. The River had schools of herring, shad, and rockfish. The tidal areas provided clams, oysters, shrimp, and crabs. Although both tribes fought for hunting rights to the land, neither tribe built permanent homes in the area. The name Patapsco is from the Algonquin tongue meaning "backwater" or "tide covered with froth".
  • First Settlers
    The earliest European settlers of the Patapsco Valley obtained land patents in the late 1600s and began opening the new territory to extensive tobacco cultivation. Settlers also mined iron ore from the River banks and cut timber from the steep Valley slopes to make the charcoal needed to produce iron. Several iron furnaces and forges were built along the River. The settlers gradually moved up river from the initial commerce center in Elk Ridge Landing (present day Elkridge) toward Ellicott Mills (present day Ellicott City). By the 1750s, the cultivation of grains was beginning to replace both tobacco and iron as the primary export from the region. For the next two decades the stage was being set for the coming industrial revolution.
  • Early Industry
    The Patapsco River provided a large portion of the power for the Industrial Revolution - which we can date from about 1770 to 1900--in Maryland. In the early 1770s the Ellicott brothers established their first grist-mill, in the town that bears their name, and set in motion a large industrial empire within the Patapsco watershed.
  • Elk Ridge Landing
    In 1743, Caleb and Edward Dorsey were granted patents to the land known as Elk Ridge Landing. Today the area is known as Elkridge, Maryland. The Dorsey's obtained the land to establish a commerce center at the point where the "Patapsco River's rocky cascade empties into a deep and slow moving navigable channel ". The venture was initially successful with shipments of hogsheads of tobacco, pig iron and grain. Erosion from the iron strip mining along the River and the logging of the steep Valley slopes silted in the harbor at Elk Ridge Landing and the shipping point moved further downstream to the present day Baltimore harbor.
  • Ellicott Mills
    In 1772, Joseph, John, and Andrew Ellicott purchased land in two separate areas of the Patapsco Valley. They were all brothers from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They 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. After the great flood of 1868, lower Ellicott Mills was rebuilt and it became known as Ellicott City. 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. It was destroyed by the 1868 flood and not rebuilt.
  • Union Manufacturing Company
    In 1809, the Ellicott family sold a 458 acre tract of land just north of the " lower " Ellicott Mills 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 five story high brick factory began operation in May of 1810. Other factories were built. On December 15, 1815, the first cotton mill of the Union Manufacturing Company burned to the ground. Six months later the Company's warehouse on Baltimore harbor, filled with raw cotton, also burned. A decade would pass before the mill could be rebuilt. The technological advance of water-driven looms helped save the Company. Despite damage from floods in 1866 and the major flood of 1868, the mills continued to prosper. Additional factories were added along with a railroad siding. In 1882 an enormous weaving mill (two and one half times the size of the original five story building) was built. Shortly after its completion, the textile industry went into a depression. The Company closed in 1887. Later in 1887, William J. Dickey purchased the enormous mill complex. Dickey Mill was operational until the flood resulting from Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Today the imposing Dickey Mill in Oella is all that is left of this once massive complex.
  • Granite Manufacturing Company
    The Granite Manufacturing Company was the most modern textile company in the Valley because it was built after considerable legal delays. The benefit of the late construction was the inclusion of a wide variety of innovations to help fight the danger of fire. The factory had a metal roof, a "modern" fire suppression system, a water storage tank on its roof with fire hoses to each floor of the structure. The factory began manufacturing cotton products in 1850. Unfortunately, the factory still suffered major fire damage in spite of all the innovations. It was under reconstruction when the 1866 flood hit and did additional damage. The July 1, 1868 flood completely destroyed the mill and its associated dam. In 1875, the property was leased to the adjacent upstream Union Manufacturing Company. A few of the surviving homes associated with Granite Manufacturing Company are presently being renovated along Oella Avenue (just upstream from the Ellicott City Bridge over the Patapsco River).
  • Patapsco (later Gray) Manufacturing Company
    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
    In 1820, the Thistle Manufacturing Company became operational. Unlike the other textile manufacturers, the Company wove a cotton fabric. The cotton duck was perfect for making sails needed in the Baltimore shipyards. In the 1920s, the Company shifted production to weaving treads for automobile tires. In 1928, the facility was acquired by a paper manufacturer. Simkins Mill took over the facility in 1957. A fire in 2003 severely damaged the mill and it has been vacant since that time. It is very visible along the banks of the Patapsco River on the Baltimore County side of the bridge at Ilchester.
  • Illchester Flour Mill
    George Ellicott's Ilchester Flour Mill was located on the Howard County side of the present day bridge at Ilchester. The mill was flooded in 1866, burned in 1867, and was finally completely destroyed by the disastrous July 1, 1868 flood.
  • Orange Grove
    Orange Grove was a flour mill established in 1856 on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River. It was one of the mills which did return to operation after the extensive damage from the 1868 flood. A community of 23 adults and 20 children lived in 12 mill homes on the Howard County side of the River. A "swinging bridge" connected the two sides of the mill community. Orange Grove flour was marketed as "Patapsco Superlative Patent Flour" and was widely popular in Europe and the United States. The Mill was built on high ground between the B&O Railroad tracks and the Patapsco River. It was one of the largest flour mills in the mid-Atlantic states. The mill burned on May 1, 1905. The flooding from Hurricane Agnes destroyed almost all evidence of the mill's existence. The rebuilt swinging bridge and the Orange Grove picnic area is all that remains of this once vibrant community.
  • Avalon
    In 1822, the Ellicott family's establishment of the Avalon Iron Works solidified their position as a major iron producer in our new nation. The site they selected for the Iron Works was the site of the earlier Dorsey's Forge which was established in 1762. When combined with the other furnaces and forges that the family already owned they were competitive when a major new need for iron arose. With the B&O Railroad demonstrating the advantage they had over other forms of transportation, the demand for iron rails skyrocketed. It wasn't until 1848, that the Avalon Iron Works had grown large enough to produce the iron needed for this rapid railroad expansion. A fire in 1845 destroyed the nail manufacturing capability of the facility. The flood of 1866 and again the disastrous flood of 1868 destroyed the entire complex. It was never rebuilt. In 1910, Victor C. Bloede acquired the site to build a water filtration facility to supply water needs to Baltimore City and County. The floods associated with Hurricane Agnes in 1972, removed all evidence of that facility. Today there is only one surviving structure, a small stone house, which is left to tell the story of Avalon. The Avalon Visitor Center for the Patapsco Valley State Park is in that remaining building.
  • Daniels
    The Alberton Cotton Factory was located upstream of the "upper" Ellicott Mills at Elysville ( later called Alberton and still later called Daniels ). In 1866, the dam for the Alberton Cotton factory failed. The debris from this dam contributed to the loss of the Frederick Turnpike bridge at the "lower" Ellicott Mills. The combined debris from these two failures then struck the Patterson Viaduct and brought down the two main stone arches spanning the Patapsco and severed one of the main railroad connections from the eastern United States to the west. The name of the community was changed to Daniels in 1940 when C. R. Daniels purchased the Mill. The Mill remained operational until 1972, when flooding from Hurricane Agnes destroyed the Mill. A small church community still worships at Gary Memorial United Methodist Church.
  • Oella
    The community of Oella was so named in honor of the first woman "who applied herself to the spinning of cotton on the continent". The community grew to provide homes for the Union Manufacturing Company mill workers. It celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2008.
  • Ellicott City
    Ellicott City was the name given to the " lower " Ellicott Mills when it was rebuilt after the devastating Patapsco Valley flood in July 1868. The Ellicott's were instrumental in rebuilding many of the mills which provided the livelihood for the town. Most of the other mill communities up and down the River were never rebuilt.
  • Elkridge
    Elkridge is the name of the community which was called Elk Ridge Landing during the initial settling of the Patapsco Valley.
  • Catonsville
    Catonsville was established during the 1830s-1840s on the high ridge between Baltimore and Ellicott City. The land belonged to Charles Carroll of Carrollton who commissioned his son-in-law, Richard Caton, to develop a plot of land along the Frederick Turnpike just east of the colonial period "rolling road". The main portion of the town faced the Turnpike and became a convenient stopping point for teamster's wagons and stagecoaches after making the long uphill climb out of the Patapsco Valley from Ellicott City on their way to Baltimore. By the 1860s the community had a well developed business district along the Turnpike. The Turnpike became Frederick Road which in turn became a part of the National Road. At the same time, the high ridge provided cool breezes during the summer which was a large attraction to wealthy Baltimoreans. Large country estates soon surrounded the business district. Many of these mansions can still be seen today although housing developments are now common on the old estate grounds. In 1884, the Catonsville Short Line Railroad was completed to carry passengers from the City to their summer homes. Just a few years later, in 1895, the Frederick Road Horse Car Line (Number 8), was electrified and the new trolley transportation system put the Catonsville Short Line out of passenger service. The Railroad stayed operational hauling freight until Hurricane Agnes wiped out parts of its trackbed in 1972. The Catonsville Rails-To-Trails (CRRT) is currently creating a hiking/biking path system along the old Numbers 8 and 9 Trolley lines and the Catonsville Short Line Railroad right of way. Further information on Catonsville can be found in Joseph Arnold and Ed Orser's book called Catonsville 1880 to 1940, From Village to Suburb. Another good photo book is Catonsville - Images of America by Marsha Wight Wise
  • Relay
    The town of Relay has always been closely linked to the B&O Railroad. The name was derived from the changing of teams of horses that pulled a wooden wagon/carriage on rails between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills. In the early 1830s, horses were replaced by the first steam engines. By the Civil War, Relay had become a key railroad location for east - west train passengers to transfer to north - south trains. Sabotage of the nearby Thomas Viaduct was a very real concern. Relay was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War to help protect the Viaduct which was a vital link between our nation's capital and the rest of the Union. In 1873, the Viaduct Hotel Station was built by the B&O Railroad for the comfort and convenience of its passengers. The Hotel was demolished in the late 1950s. Relay was a popular railroad excursion destination for day trips to the Patapsco Valley State Park in the early 1900s. Heavily laden freight trains still pass through picturesque Relay on a daily basis.
  • Great Falls of the Patapsco
    The Great Falls of the Patapsco was just up river from Elk Ridge Landing ( present day Elkridge ). The falls prevented further navigation up the Patapsco River when the Valley was first settled. Soil erosion from cultivation, mining and logging operations upstream buried the falls. A sign at the intersection of the Park entrance road and Gun Road in the Avalon/Orange Grove section of the Patapsco Valley State Park gives an approximate location to where the falls are believed to be buried.
  • First Commercial Railroad
    In 1830 America's first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, completed its first 13 miles of track, along the Patapsco River from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills. The railroad line also ran parallel to the Patapsco from Ellicott's Mills upstream to its headwaters, fostering industrialization and new settlements in an age of expansion to the Ohio River Valley and beyond by rail. Much of the impact of that expansion is still evident today.
  • Patterson Viaduct
    The Patterson Viaduct was one of the three original bridges needed to travel from Baltimore to Ellicott City on the first commercial railroad in the United States. The Viaduct was completed in 1829. Click link above for further information.
  • Thomas Viaduct
    The Thomas Viaduct was the largest bridge in the Nation when it was completed in 1835. Today it is still the world's oldest multi-arched stone railroad bridge. Construction on it began on July 4th, 1833 and was completed two years later (to the day). It has been in continuous operation ever since then. The bridge crosses the Patapsco River near Elkridge, Maryland, and is a major link in today's CSX Railroad freight system. The bridge was built from granite quarried further upstream in the Patapsco Valley. Originally designed to carry relatively lightweight steam engines and a few cars, the bridge now carries the much heavier modern day diesel engines with long lines of heavily loaded freight cars. The Thomas Viaduct is one of the few structures which survived the devastating flood of 1868, which virtually destroyed all of the mills and dams in the Patapsco Valley, and the 1972 flood from Hurricane Agnes, which again ravaged the few remaining towns in the Valley. See the Civil War section for the role that the Thomas Viaduct played in our Nation's struggle during that conflict. See National Historic Landmark listing. See Recent and historic photographs as well as the history of the Thomas Viaduct railroad bridge and the surrounding area of Relay, Maryland.
  • Dams
    From the 1770s to 1868 there were numerous dams built on the Patapsco River to provide water power for the many mills along the River. The deadly flood of 1868 ravaged the valley and many of its dams, destroying houses, bridges, and mills and drowning 36 people trapped in their homes. There are currently only four dams on the Patapsco River. Fish ladders were built on three of these dams, but sediment and debris has prevented them from functioning as designed; the ladders were intended to restore anadromous fish runs of American shad and river herring but these fish have not yet returned to the Patapsco River for unknown reasons. Bloede Dam in the Avalon/Orange Grove section of the Patapsco Valley State Park was the world's first dam built with an underwater hydroelectric plant. Union Dam was originally built to lessen the fledgling states; need for importing manufactured goods. The initial dam and its associated mill race was envisioned to power several mills which would allow the states to manufacture their own commodities. The rebuilt dam with the original mill race is still largely in place and its levee provides a scenic hiking-only trail. The original purpose for the dam was never fully realized although the completed mill race provided power to the Dickey Mill in Oella for some time. The remaining two dams are found along the River at Daniels and Ilchester.
  • National Road
    The Historic National Road is the name now given to one of America's most historically significant highways, constructed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and ultimately linking Baltimore, Maryland and Vandalia, Illinois. It was a system of private turnpikes and state built roads, complemented with a federally funded road between Cumberland, Maryland and Wheeling, West Virginia.
  • Tobacco
    Tobacco was the first major export commodity from the Patapsco Valley. In its time it was gold. Tobacco was pressed into one thousand pound barrels (called hogsheads) which were then pulled (rolled) by oxen or horses down "rolling roads" to Elk Ridge Landing for export. Rolling Road in Catonsville is one of those surviving roads. By the 1750s, much of the land under tobacco cultivation had been depleted. British agents, which controlled tobacco prices before the Revolutionary War, also were limiting grower's profits. The stage was being set for the introduction of grain products into the region's economy
  • Flour
    The Ellicott brothers, who established the Ellicott mills, are widely recognized as being the catalyst for turning farmers from tobacco to growing grains. Their introduction of fertilizers and flour mills into the Valley during the 1770s created the entirely new export product. From the 1770s to the present, a variety of flour mills have operated in the Patapsco Valley. One of the last ones, Orange Grove, produced "Patapsco Superlative Patent Flour" which was popular in Europe and the US. In the late 1800s, the Mill was one of the largest mills in the mid-Atlantic states. The Mill burned on 1 May 1905. The flooding from Hurricane Agnes eliminated most of the remaining evidence that the Mill ever existed. Today the Swinging Bridge stands in the vicinity of where that Mill used to be. Today, the Washington Flour Mill carries on the Valley's flour mill tradition.
  • Iron
    Captain John Smith observed "red soil" along the banks of the Patapsco in the early part of the seventeenth century. The abundance of forests for charcoal and oyster shells for lime made the Chesapeake Bay area a major producer of iron for Great Britain. Early furnaces in the Patapsco Valley were located in Elk Ridge Landing, Avalon and Ellicott Mills. Just prior to the Revolutionary War, forges began to refine the pig iron into iron suitable for manufacturing finished iron products. Still later, slitting mills produced nails and nail rods while rolling mills produced sheet metal. Iron was produced in the Patapsco Valley until the devastating floods that struck the Valley shortly after the Civil War. See Chapter 2 of The Patapsco River Valley - Cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Maryland, by Hal Sharp for specific details, maps and early furnace locations.
  • History of Floods
    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.
  • Major Fires
    In addition to the disasters caused by flooding, major fires were another factor in influencing the Valley's industrial history. A few of the fires in the mills were detected early and were successfully extinguished. The great majority of them, however, resulted in the destruction of major portions of the mill complexes and massive financial loss. Losses to the mill structures were almost always not insured. Raw materials used in manufacturing and some finished products were only infrequently insured. Major fires occurred in flour, textile, lumber, paper and linseed oil mills. A spectacular fire also occurred when flood waters struck an iron furnace causing it to explode and catch surrounding buildings on fire. A more detailed history of fires at specific mills may be found in Hal Sharp's book - The Patapsco River Valley - Cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Maryland.
  • Revolutionary War
    During the period leading up to the Revolutionary War, Maryland was one of several mid-Atlantic states that were producing iron for Great Britain. Iron from the Patapsco Valley, as well as the other states, was diverted for use by our own fledgling nation. During the War, the Patapsco Valley provided a variety of commodities that were needed to feed and clothe our young army. The roads and fords within the Valley are mentioned several times in historical records. During the troop movements by Washington that led to the final battle at Yorktown in 1781, several references are made to the difficulty that the Continental Army, with their French allies, had in crossing the Patapsco River. In April, the Marquis de Lafayette lost nine men when a scow overturned in the flooded Patapsco as he was marching toward Virginia. Later in October as General Washington maneuvered his French allies to finally trap the British at Yorktown, the French General Rochambeau warned his troops of the danger they faced crossing the Patapsco. The crossing was successfully made. His soldiers sailed from Annapolis to join General Washington in the battle which ended the Revolutionary War.
  • Civil War
    During the Civil War, our Nation's capital was virtually on the line that separated the North from the South during that conflict. All of the railroad links to the south had been severed when the South seceded. There was no railroad link to the east. The railroad link to the west was very vulnerable with Harper's Ferry changing hands several times during the war. The only somewhat reliable railroad link from the Capital to the rest of the Union had to be to the north. The B&O Railroad with it's Thomas Viaduct crossing the Patapsco River provided that only railroad supply and troop transport link. Union commanders quickly realized how vital and how vulnerable the Thomas Viaduct was to direct attacks from Confederate forces as well as sabotage from southern sympathizers. They therefore stationed troops on the bridge and on the high ground above it to protect it at all cost. There are pictures of this period in our Nation's history, but little physical evidence of any of the fortifications remains on the ground today. See link to the National Register of Historic Places. See Recent and historic photographs as well as the history of the Thomas Viaduct railroad bridge and the surrounding area of Relay, Maryland.
  • Impact of Deforestation on the Valley
    The earliest forest clearing within the Patapsco Valley began when the first settlers started clearing land to plant tobacco and build their own homes. Later as the mills became more numerous, small communities began growing around the mills with their associated need for lumber to build homes and other buildings. The largest deforestation occurred, however, from the strip mining operations along the Patapsco River for iron ore and from logging operations on the steep Valley slopes for the wood needed to create charcoal for the iron furnaces. The wholesale removal of the forest cover caused extensive erosion and virtually silted in the Great Falls of the Patapsco. It also forced the move of the harbor downstream from Elk Ridge Landing to the deeper waters around Baltimore
  • Beginning of Maryland Park System
    The Patapsco Valley State Park is Maryland's first state park, extends 32 miles along the Patapsco River, and encompasses 15,000 acres. There are five recreational areas within the Park spread along the river. The Patapsco River and its watershed had a significant impact on the history and development of Central Maryland, and even to the entire region.
  • Civilian Conservation Corps
    The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established by the Federal government shortly after the "Great Depression" began in 1929 to put men back to work. The US Army built Camp Tydings (#356) in the Patapsco Valley State Park in 1933. The first tent encampment on the Howard County side of the Patapsco River in the Avalon area was destroyed by a flood shortly after it was completed. A semi-permanent Camp was then constructed on the Baltimore County side of the River. The new camp had five barracks, a recreation hall, a mess hall, headquarters building and a dispensary. The 200 men in the Camp built roads, trails and shelters to plan specifications provided by the National Park Service. The structures they built in the Patapsco Valley State Park were very similar to structures found throughout parks in our National Park system. Camp Tydings was closed in April 1938. A few of their picnic shelters have survived the floods in the Park.
  • Early Utilities
    The Patapsco Valley and the ingenuity of Victor C. Bloede combined to provide early utilities to portions of Baltimore City and County. Mr. Bloede built Bloede Dam in 1907 to provide electricity to homes and industries near the Dam. The Dam he designed was the first underwater hydroelectric plant in the Nation and operated until 1924. The Dam was heavily damaged by flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972, but was repaired and is still in place. The Dam is located in the Avalon/Orange Grove section of the Patapsco Valley State Park just upstream from the Swinging Bridge at Orange Grove. In 1910, when local governments failed to act to address a shortage of water, Mr. Bloede purchased the abandoned Avalon Iron Works. He then designed and built a water filtration plant to meet those water needs. The purified water was then pumped to various nearby communities. The water plant operated until 1928. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 totally obliterated the massive brick structures associated with the water plant. The Avalon Visitor Center for the Patapsco Valley State Park is in the only remaining building in what once was Avalon.
  • Architectural Preservation
    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.
  • Bibliography


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