Elk Ridge in 1700s was a busy port

Elk Ridge Landing in the early 1700s became a busy tobacco shipping port. The Patapsco River was about 15 feet deep, readily accommodating the sailing ships of the day. Along with tobacco, iron became an important export product at the Landing.

The era of the iron industry began with a 1743 patent (a document proving ownership) for a 6 1/2 -acre property called "Caleb and Edward's Friendship." The land, patented by a Caleb Dorsey, would become an iron furnace.


At the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis are "journals," or ledgers, from Caleb Dorsey Jr.'s store, dated 1758-1772. It appears that the store and iron furnace were both owned by Dorsey, although the location of the store is unclear.

The furnace, near the present-day Elkridge Furnace Inn, began its operations in the 1750s.


Baltimore County historian John McGrain sent me a copy of a letter addressed to the Maryland Historical Society that documents the operation of the furnace. In 1988, the letter reads, the wreck of the Griffin was excavated in the Sula Sea, South Philippines. The Griffin, built about 1747, carried a crew of 99 and was armed with 26 cannons.

Its last trip to China left England in 1759. Stopping at Madagascar on Aug. 24, it reached Bombay on Oct. 3, 1759, and sailed on to China in April 1760. From September to December 1760, the Griffin was loaded with tea, silk, chinaware and other items. The ship left Canton on Dec. 31, 1760, and sank in 1761.

In the wreckage were found iron "pigs," or bars, stamped "ELK RIDGE 1758." The heavy iron bars as they came out of the mold resembled suckling piglets and a sow.

The iron pigs served as ballast on sailing ships carrying light-weight freight such as tea, silk and china, and were shipped to England from the colonies to be made into tools, nails and other hardware.

Ships arriving at Elk Ridge Landing emptied their fine wares and reloaded with iron and tobacco. It is not known when the Griffin was loaded with the 1758 iron pigs.

This was not the only finding of Elk Ridge iron pigs. The Ellicott City Times reported on June 8, 1895, that James Bates of Baltimore had found three iron pigs on his property, 100 pounds each, dated 1755 and 1769.

The early iron industry was a labor intensive business. According to a 1979 publication by Ronald Lewis, "Coal, Iron, and Slaves," cords of wood had to be chopped to keep the furnace in operation 24 hours a day for months at a time. Ore had to be dug, transported and dumped into the stone chimney. The laborers were convicts, indentured servants and black slaves.

If a slave chose, he could earn extra money by chopping wood at 2 shillings per cord, Lewis wrote. Many slaves did this but earned little because, as slaves, they were required to work long hours. Records show, Lewis wrote, that in June 1764 Thomas Dorsey's slave Joe earned 7 pounds and 12 shillings for cutting 76 cords.


According to Lewis, skilled slaves were best able to earn extra pay. Boy Jack, a "founder," earned a large amount of money in the 1760s and '70s for work beyond his regular assignments.

On July 9, 1770, he earned 4 pounds, 12 shillings, 9 pence on his own time making castings at the furnace.

Ironmasters such as Dorsey distributed large quantities of rum and whiskey to their workers. Lewis pointed out that considerable quantities of liquor were available at ironworks to whites and blacks. Dorsey's store, for example, purchased cider, whiskey and rum by the hundreds of gallons each year during the 1750s and '60s.

When Caleb Dorsey Jr. died in 1772, his sons inherited the furnace and continued to run it, but for how long is not known. Records are unclear about its operation during the remainder of the 18th century. Martha Ellicott Tyson's pamphlet "Settlement of Ellicott's Mills" mentions major flooding along the Patapsco River in the 1780s.

The 1798 Tax Assessment - the first federal tax assessment - does not record a furnace. On the property of "Caleb and Edward's Friendship," the document lists only one old brick house, 30-by-21 feet, two story, valuation $150. The furnace was likely out of business then.

Purchased by members of the Ellicott family, the furnace went back into business in the early 1800s.


Joetta M. Cramm, a local historian who teaches a Howard County history class for Howard Community College, has researched documents in the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. This is the first of two installments about 18th-century Elkridge. The excerpts are from her unpublished manuscript.