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Ellicott City has been the site of many disasters over the years

It seems like Ellicott City has come in for an inordinate amount of disasters from floods, fires and railroad wrecks since its founding in 1772.

The latest incident occurred this week when a CSX train bound for Baltimore derailed, spilling coal from 21 hopper cars and taking the lives of two Howard County college students, Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, both 19, who were sitting on a bridge at the time of the accident.

The town owes its origins to the Ellicott brothers — Joseph, Andrew and John — from Pennsylvania who purchased 20 acres and established a mill on the banks of the Patapsco River in 1722. The town was founded as Ellicott's Mills.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad laid its tracks, known as the Old Main Line, through the town in 1830 as the nation's first common carrier built westward.

The scene of a brief skirmish between Union forces and the 1st Maryland Confederate Cavalry during the Civil War, the Howard County river town flourished after the war.

War did not take a toll on the Patapsco Valley town, but natural and man-made calamities did.

The rain began falling in such torrents on July 24, 1868, that the Patapsco rose five feet in 10 minutes. By the time the rain stopped, 18 inches had fallen, and it would forever be remembered as the "Great Flood."

Floodwaters swept away anything in their path: houses, mills, stores and bridges. Fifty residents drowned.

Floods in 1901, 1917, 1938 and 1942 caused havoc. Then in 1972, the Patapsco was stirred into a frenzy by Tropical Storm Agnes. The river rose 12 feet above Ellicott City's Main Street as stunned residents looked on from the B&O bridge.

Ten miles of the Old Main Line were washed away, exposing some of the railroad's original stone stringers and marooning a 150-car freight train. Agnes had inflicted millions of dollars in damage on Ellicott City.

The city's first major fire in 1915 destroyed six buildings, including a branch of the U.S. Post Office, in about an hour.

On April 27, 1941, fire leveled the eight-story Doughnut Corp. of America, and eight months later, on New Year's Eve, another fire destroyed three large buildings on Main Street. Water was in such short supply that firefighters had to pump water from the Patapsco to extinguish it.

Perhaps the largest blaze in the town's history occurred in November 1984, when six buildings — many of them historic — were wrecked, including some that dated to 1855.

A six-alarm fire Nov. 9, 1999, raced through a block of Main Street. Before it was put out, five stores lay in ruin, with damage soaring above $1 million.

Railroad wrecks and fatalities also occurred near and in Ellicott City. An 1859 news account in The Baltimore Sun told of a German laborer who was lying on the tracks near a stone quarry when he was hit by a passing train.

"The cowcatcher or flange completely scalped him and inflicted a deep wound on his forehead," reported the newspaper. "The man was sensible but sinking last evening."

A 1925 wreck that took place where this week's derailment occurred sent seven cars of an eastbound freight off the rails and tore up more than 100 yards of track.

Fifteen passengers on the only regularly scheduled passenger train on the Old Main Line were injured in a 1941 crash after the train went through an open switch as it passed the Ellicott City station. After setting the brakes, the engineer jumped and tumbled down the embankment that led to the Patapsco.

After the 1984 fire, an editorial in The Sun described the community's collective resilience as "Tough Old Ellicott City."

A resident perhaps best described what life is like when he told the newspaper after the 1999 blaze that Ellicott City is about "constant rebirth."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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