New book celebrates the 250th anniversary of Ellicott City

Crew members work outside of Jaxon Edwin on Main Street during Gordon Ramsay's production in historic downtown Ellicott City Thursday, Feb 27, 2020.
Crew members work outside of Jaxon Edwin on Main Street during Gordon Ramsay's production in historic downtown Ellicott City Thursday, Feb 27, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

A recently published book celebrates the 250th anniversary of the founding of Ellicott City.

Once known as Ellicott’s Mills, this Howard County city has been defined for more than two centuries by its major industry, milling, and for its proximity to the Patapsco River, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and the Baltimore and Frederick Turnpike, as it was then called, which later became a link in the National Road, which is today’s. Route 40.


The tome is really two books in one: “The Founders of Ellicott’sMills,” by John S. Tyson, and “Mill Town’s 250th Anniversary,” edited by noted Baltimore County historian, author and photographer, John W. McGrain, who retired after three decades as the sole historic sites planner for the Baltimore County Office of Planning.

Co-author Jack L. Shagena Jr., is a retired aerospace electronics executive, who has written a dozen books on Harford County mills, and with Henry C. Peden Jr., co-authored “Harford County’s Rural Heritage,” an 18-volume series which stands in for a modern history of the state’s 11th largest county.


On May 15, 1847, John S. Tyson, a lawyer who had served in the House of Delegates, published his first article “The Founders of Ellicott’s Mills,” in the Howard District Press newspaper, with the 17th concluding article published Sept. 4, 1847.

McGrain and Shagena write that Tyson’s series was the “first significant documented description of the establishment of their mills at Ellicott City.” Years ago, McGrain located Tyson’s articles, made copies, and published them in a limited printing in 1992. Earlier this year, he and Shagena agreed to republish them and form the core of this book.

Ellicott City traces its origins to 1771 when three Quaker brothers, John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, purchased land on the west side of the Patapsco River where they established a flour mill, that was turned by the river’s strong currents.

Originally known as Ellicott’s Mills, its official date is given as 1772, and it retained that name until 1867 when an incorporation charter allowed for the creation of a local government with a mayor and council and renamed Ellicott City.

Commercially ambitious, the Ellicotts weren’t content just to plant and mill wheat. They grew their industrial empire to include sawmills, smithies, a grain distillery and grain mills, while earning the reputation as being one of the finest mill towns in the East and a sort of local version of Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

Their reach went beyond Ellicott’s Mills, as the three brothers constructed at Pratt and Light streets in downtown Baltimore, a large wharf from which they could export their flour that was loaded aboard waiting ships.

“Prosperity and adversity are the tests of intellectual strength and moral virtue. A spirit which is not too much elevated by the one, or depressed by the other, is the true spirit of a man,” wrote Tyson.

“We shall find in the course of this brief history, that the Messers. Ellicotts partook largely of prosperity, and that they had their intervals of adversity; and that as the former could not raise them above themselves, so the later could never damp their ardor or sink them to despair.”

Ellicott’s Mills became the first terminus of the B & O whose rails reached the community in 1830, and became its first terminus, as the Old Main Line built westward to the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia.

The coming of the railroad played a major role in the commercial development of the city whose various products could now be sent across country by train rather than by slow-moving wagons traveling the rutted and often mud-clogged National Road.

Sadly, the very product that gave it economic life came to an end earlier this year when Wilkins-Rogers Inc., the inheritor of the milling tradition started by the Ellicott brothers, closed their Ellicott City facility. It was also Maryland’s last commercial grain mill which was to be relocated somewhere in the Midwest.

Included is a fascinating essay written by McGrain in 2003 about the search for the actual location in Oella where African American astronomer Benjamin Banneker’s farm and cabin had stood. He died in 1806 and the cabin burned the day of his funeral. His burial site still remains unknown.


An added bonus is a 67-page “Picture Portfolio” that is comprised of an excellent selection of photographs, period maps, paintings, advertising broadsides, B & O trains, streetcars and a fabulous selection of vintage postcards, many from the William Hollifield Collection.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun