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For Ellicott brothers, Patapsco Valley was a natural partner

Ned Tillman, a local naturalist and author, will be giving a talk on Nov. 15 titled "The True Nature of Ellicott City: A Walking Tour."
Ned Tillman, a local naturalist and author, will be giving a talk on Nov. 15 titled "The True Nature of Ellicott City: A Walking Tour." (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Nearly 500 million years ago, the center of the Appalachian Mountains was located where the Patapsco River Valley now lies.

Local naturalist and author Ned Tillman will compress the timeline between then and now to explain why the area's geography attracted the Ellicott brothers to the valley — and what challenges now face Ellicott City — when he leads a 90-minute walking tour Nov. 15 along Main Street.

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The tour is part of Patapsco Heritage Greenway's History Days, an eight-day, eight-event celebration of the Patapsco Valley that kicked off Saturday.

The free series was designed "to showcase the uniqueness and heritage of the valley," said John Slater, PHG president and a Columbia landscape architect.

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"It's such an interesting story, yet the average citizen doesn't have a clue," Slater said.

"This was the Silicon Valley of the 1700s and 1800s," he said. "The rapids of the valley gave power to the mills with an elaborate gear system that was a phenomenal physics exercise."

For those interested in preserving the Patapsco Valley, Slater said, a state-sponsored public hearing is planned for December to accept residents' testimony on certifying the valley as a Heritage Area, making it eligible for up to $100,000 a year. The tentative date is Dec. 8, but an announcement will be made when the time and location are made final.

"For the last 15 years, the state has been handing out money, and we've been missing the boat," Slater said.

Patapsco Heritage Greenway's draft management plan for the area, which includes Patapsco Valley State Park, has already been approved by the Howard and Baltimore county council, he said.

Getting the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an agency of the Maryland Historical Trust, to sign off on it is the last step to certification. Maryland has 12 other Heritage Areas, each with a distinct focus.

The Patapsco Valley was the first in the state to be designated a Heritage Area in 1999. Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a nonprofit then operating under a different name, got three-quarters of the way through the certification process a year later before abandoning the effort amid local opposition, Slater said. That effort was renewed this year.

Tillman, author of the book "Saving the Places We Love: Paths to Environmental Stewardship," will take tour participants to places that were integral to the development of Ellicott City.

He will focus on the environmental lessons that can be learned from the historic town, which he called "a microcosm of our society, with all these people squeezed into a tight little box."

"This is a beautiful place to talk about because it's been paved over and rain flushes everything into the Patapsco River, which was a good thing 200 years ago, or so people thought," he said.

"Now we know that stormwater runoff comes from upstream to contaminate the river."

He cited as a recent example the heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, which caused a torrent of polluted water to flow rapidly down Main Street to the Patapsco River.

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"What we do about that is a dominant environmental challenge today," he said.

Tillman says the Appalachians, once as high as the Himalayas, eroded over millions of years. What the process left behind in Howard and Baltimore counties was a wooded, steep valley. Rich in geology but difficult to farm, the area's rocky slopes made its acreage undesirable to many — and therefore easy to acquire for the Ellicott brothers, four Quakers who came from Pennsylvania in 1771 to establish a flour mill.

"It was such a narrow river valley with granite outcroppings," said Tillman, a Columbia resident. Ellicott City granite, as it was known, was mined and shipped to Baltimore for use in such construction projects as the Basilica, he said.

The walking tour will start at the county's Welcome Center on Main Street, located in the granite building that used to be a post office. Depending on weather and the size of the tour group, a number of stops will be made off the main drag, since Saturdays in historic Ellicott City are usually bustling with vehicle and foot traffic.

Tillman will explain how the Tiber River, a tributary of the Patapsco, flows under the parking lot located behind the visitors center.

There is talk of "daylighting" that area, or removing pavement to expose more of the river as a tourism attraction, he said.

He may take participants through an 8-foot-high culvert that runs under LaPalapa Grill & Cantina, continues beneath Main Street and comes out near the Wine Bin on the other side of the road. Stops at the granite outcroppings on Main Street, in the parking lot behind Tersiguel's restaurant and on the bridge over the Patapsco at the base of Main Street are also likely, he said.

"Hundreds of thousands of people upstream own properties that drain into the Patapsco," he said, and too much polluted runoff is finding its way into local waterways that eventually drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

"To fix this problem we have to understand it and work together," he said. "We can't leave it up to the government."

Tillman will offer suggestions during the tour on ways people can take care of the environment, an idea he promotes in "Saving the Places We Love," his second book, published by the Chesapeake Book Company. He is also asking people to share their stories about places they love at savingtheplaces.com to start a dialogue on ways to restore and preserve them.

"If every one of us would adopt a creek, for instance, maybe we can save Howard County," he said.

Slater hopes there will be a good turnout for Tillman's walking tour and for the other History Days events.

"The Patapsco Valley brings pride of ownership and lifts our quality of life," Slater said. "We like to let it shine."

If you go

The True Nature of Ellicott City: A Walking Tour will start at the Howard County Welcome Center, 8267 Main Street, at 2 p.m. Nov. 15. Participants should dress for the weather and wear comfortable shoes. If it rains, the talk will be held inside the center.

Other events in Howard County planned as part of Patapsco Heritage Greenway's History Days include:

• "The National Road: From Indian Trail to Interstate" is the title of a talk to be given by David Shackelford, chief curator of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, at the Miller Library, 9421 Frederick Road, from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Nov. 9.

• "Daniels: A Town Remembered" will be the subject of a video shown by Nancy Pickard, a community planner and historic preservationist, on Nov. 14, time and location to be announced.

For more information on History Days and a full list of events, go to patapscoheritagegreenway.org.

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