Dine at the Elkridge Furnace Inn and you share a meal with yesteryear. Have drinks in the 19th-century riverside tavern and you’ll hoist a few with the spirits there.
The historic restaurant is filled with antiques and artifacts. Some are in plain sight, like the weathered floorboards that likely creaked under the boots of Union troops protecting the town of Elkridge during the Civil War. Others were sealed off during restoration, like the old-time bakery hearth behind a plaster wall, mere feet from patrons today who enjoy the restaurant’s French-inspired cuisine.
Dine here, at what could be considered Howard County’s oldest restaurant, and you get a repast with a past. Just outside are two ramshackle outbuildings, thought to be onetime slave quarters; downstairs, in the restaurant’s wine cellar, is the entrance to a 50-yard tunnel that empties into the Patapsco River — purportedly an escape route for slaves and part of the Underground Railroad.
“We don’t hide history here, but we don’t sell ourselves like Williamsburg, with men walking around in knickers,” said Dan Wecker, the inn’s chef and proprietor. He and his brother, Steve, acquired the 12-acre site in 1988 as part of the Maryland Curatorship Program in which they agreed to lease the building for 55 years from the state while fixing it up as a restaurant. (Steve Wecker has since left the project.)
The tract’s roots run deep. Surveyed in 1744, it soon gave rise to a public tavern, or “ordinary,” as well as a company store for the nearly 100 workmen toiling in the fiery iron works nearby, according to written accounts of the furnace’s early owners now stored in the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.
Historians believe that those structures either burned or were demolished. The oldest part of the Elkridge Furnace Inn — another tavern — dates to around 1830, according to a 2009 Maryland Inventory of Historic Places study by Ken Short, architectural historian for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, and an earlier inspection by Peter Kurtze, head of the National Register program for the Maryland Historical Trust. An adjoining three-story manor house was built soon after, following the sale of the iron works and surrounding property to members of the Ellicott family, for whom Ellicott City is named.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that any part of today’s inn dates to the 18th century, Short said.
“The physical fabric of both sections — the brickwork, moldings and trim around the windows and doors — are all clues as to when the buildings were constructed," he said. "There is just no material there from the 1700s.”
That local folklore deems otherwise is not surprising, Short said:
“Records show the furnace was operating in the 18th century, so it’s not unusual for people to believe that the existing buildings must be original. Still, [the inn] is a very good example of its period, and one with a lot of historic integrity."
As for the tavern, what kind of cuisine would the ordinary have served? Very ordinary, said Joyce White, a food historian in Annapolis. Meals then were a far cry from the likes of the duck Bolognese and veal scaloppini that now the grace the inn’s bill of fare.
“No menu would have been offered; patrons were fed whatever was made that day,” said White. “Taverns would have served a breakfast of bread, fish and eggs; a mid-day dinner as simple as a hearty stew with bread and cheese; and supper, which was usually repurposed dinner leftovers.”
Plus plenty of spirits. The original cellarway had a ramp instead of stairs, said Wecker: “They just rolled in kegs and kegs of rum and ale.”
Today, the grounds of the inn are peppered with bits of iron slag, the byproduct of the process that gave the inn its name. In its time, the complex would have consisted of a blast furnace with a brick or stone chimney about 30 feet high which, fueled by charcoal made by local timber, melted the ore mined from the banks of the Patapsco into the pig iron that would beget the nails, tools and hinges of the day.
In 1873, the iron works were destroyed by a flood and subsequent explosion. The tavern closed, Wecker said, and the entire dwelling became a private residence. By 1988, however, it was a condemned property, owned by the state and in desperate need of repairs.
“It was recognizable, but a wreck inside,” said Ross Kimmel, then director of the state’s curatorship initiative. “It was a creepy place.”
Undaunted, Wecker plunged ahead.
“We were looking for a building nobody wanted, and this was it," he said. "The linen wallpaper was falling down, and there were three working light bulbs. My church youth group in Columbia used it for two years as a haunted house at Halloween. But we had a vision for it.”
Restoration took eight years, during which the inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Now, Kimmel said, the 19th-century Greek revival mansion shines as “one of the best of its type in Maryland. It’s a classic case of finding an adaptive re-use of a building worth saving."
The Ellicott Room, once a parlor, boasts two pre-Civil War marble mantels made in Italy. Iron firebacks, set in the rear of several fireplaces, are stamped “Ellicott Elkridge Furnace 1833.” Some of the inn’s window glass also dates to that era.
In the cellar, where swank whiskey, scotch and cordials are stored, is a bricked-up chute that leads to the river. The Ellicotts were Quakers and abolitionists. Was the tunnel a route to freedom for slaves back then?
“Could be,” said Doug Reed, a historic structures consultant in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, who has researched the inn. “I’ve worked on a lot of buildings like that.”
Skip DuPree, whose family once lived in the mansion, recalled playing in the tunnel as a child.
“My grandparents rented the place for about 30 years until the mid-1960s,” said DuPree, 65, a retired firefighter from Elkridge. “Us kids would go down in the cellar and dare each other to slide through the tunnel. We were scared to death. It was dark, narrow, home to snakes and as slick as snot; one push and you went like a rocket out to the river.”
DuPree and his kin also poked around the derelict outbuildings, two wooden dwellings believed to have housed slaves who might have served as domestics in the manor house.
“We found shackles and chains that were bolted to the wall,” he said.
Both structures originally had fireplaces and dirt floors and probably were slave quarters, Reed said. Built of used planks, they date to around 1830, said Short — the time at which the Ellicotts owned the iron works.
“But the Ellicotts had financial problems and may have leased the industrial complex to someone else who used slaves,” Short said. Which would make Wecker’s maxim ring true.