The following chapter comes from Great Storms of the Chesapeake and describes the Ellicott City flood of 1868.
One of the most devastating floods ever to strike the Chesapeake Bay region took place on the morning of July 24, 1868. Before the day was over, downtown Baltimore and Ellicott’s Mills (today known as Ellicott City) would be badly damaged, with bridges and houses swept away. As many as fifty lives would be lost. And yet not a drop of rain fell before the flood struck.
The cause of the flood remains something of a mystery today, though there is little doubt that a tremendous storm was taking place to the west of the city. Residents of the mill town of Ellicott City on the Patapsco River described how a strange darkness seemed to fall across the Patapsco Valley. Flashes of lightning punctuated the darkness, though the storm was so far off that thunder couldn’t be heard. So the people of Ellicott’s Mills and Baltimore went about their business, keeping an eye on the weather.
Baltimore at that time was a major city, while Ellicott’s Mills was a busy up-and-coming industrial center located fifteen miles upriver. The Patapsco was only navigable to Elkridge just a few miles downstream, so Ellicott’s Mills was not a port town. Instead, Ellicott’s Mills had become an important railroad town for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The tracks followed the Patapsco River west through the narrow river valley toward Frederick and then the Appalachian Mountains beyond, linking east to west. In fact, the town had been the setting for the famous race in 1830 between the original Tom Thumb steam engine and a horse-drawn rail car. (The horse won the race.)
Vessels could not navigate the river at that point because it was too shallow, but the town did rely heavily on the river to power several flour and cotton mills. The mills employed hundreds of workers, many of whom lived in cottages and row houses within a stone’s throw of the river.
According to an account in The River of History: “At approximately 9:15 a.m., the westbound mail train steamed slowly from the railroad station and disappeared into an almost eerie darkness which had crept almost unnoticed eastward through the River Valley. The darkness intensified, interrupted by brilliant flashes of lightning illuminating the stone mills and houses lining the river’s edge.” According to witnesses, it became so dark that the millworkers had to stop work. Birds stopped singing.
The strange gloom and silence was like a warning. By 9:30 a.m., the Patapsco River had silently risen nearly ten feet. And then a terrible roaring sound. Villagers described a “wall of water” sweeping down the Patapsco. It was unlike anything they had ever seen. The normally quiet river continued to rise at the rate of one foot every two minutes. Soon, the river rose sixteen feet higher than ever before. The river that could normally be waded across with ease during a dry summer spell was now forty-five feet deep. It was described how spray and waves shot twenty feet into the air by the rushing flood. Trees and railroad ties bobbed like corks in the rushing water but struck with the force of battering rams.
The waves struck the mills along the shoreline and carried them away like matchsticks. Workers who had been too slow to get out disappeared in the current. Some of the mills were quite substantial, reaching several stories high and with stone walls reported to be as much as twenty feet thick, but they could not withstand the surge of the flood.
A group of thirteen millworkers’ houses near the Frederick Turnpike bridge was soon the scene of a terrible drama. Trapped by the flood, the families living there climbed to the rooftops. Their older children had been off at school; now these children watched helplessly from higher ground with the other villagers as one by one the houses crumbled in the flood. As the houses gave way, the survivors managed to cling to the roof of the next intact house. Finally, just one house stood with as many as thirty-six people—mostly women and very young children—shouting for help from the roof. But they were beyond rescue, separated from the shore by too great a distance. And then the last house washed away. Bodies would turn up downstream for days.
“Every tree and street, the conservatory, the fences and out-buildings are swept away,” wrote John F. Kennedy, supervisor at Gray’s Cotton Mill, in describing the aftermath of the flood.
A great part of the dwelling house is in ruins, a deposit of three or four feet of white sand spread over the grass plots; quantities of stone brought down the river from the mills destroyed above, strew over this deposit, porches carried away, my library entirely taken off, leaving no vestige of books, prints, busts or other articles with which it was furnished. Mr. Bowen’s house is lifted from its foundation and borne bodily away upon the flood. The devastation has so completely altered the aspect of the place that I should not know it.
Other, smaller villages along the Patapsco were caught by surprise, with more houses and mills destroyed. In the years that followed, many such homes and businesses were never rebuilt.
A small steam tugboat that plied the upper reaches of the river found itself nearly shipwrecked by the normally placid Patapsco but managed to ride out the swells. The flood swept on toward Baltimore, where it wrecked bridges and filled the streets and then the harbor with debris such as trees, stones and lumber.
In her 1972 book Ellicott City: Maryland’s 18th Century Mill Town, Celia M. Holland estimates the damage at more than $1 million by the time the floodwaters had ebbed. Accounts vary as to the number of lives lost, but most sources state that between thirty-six and fifty people died in the flood, making it one of the deadliest weather events in Maryland history.
Even now, it’s hard to say why the flood took place under such odd circumstances, considering that no storm of any consequence struck Ellicott City or Baltimore. The only flood of similar proportions took place in 1972 as a result of Tropical Storm Agnes, which was understandable, considering that the entire Chesapeake region was affected by heavy rainfall. Unfortunately, the flood of July 30, 2016, was another one for the record books.