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History hound: A longtime Ellicott City buff offers new views of the past

Edward Lilley is a human treasure trove of historical knowledge — especially when it comes to Ellicott City.

The 70-year-old, whose own history in Ellicott City runs deep — he grew up here, operated a Main Street shop and served on the boards of several community groups over the years — can name any famous figure who so much as passed through town.

“Historic preservation is my main interest,” says Lilley, who graduated from Loyola College in 1969 with a degree in history.

Now, after more than a decade of leading popular ghost tours and other historical larks, Lilley has partnered with the Howard County Historical Society to offer visitors new views of local history. Launched last year, Maryland History Tours will offer 10 distinct tours in 2018. Four new tours will delve into notable women who made their mark on the region, “colorful characters” who visited, innovators with ties to the area and Ellicott City’s position in the Civil War.

Though he doesn’t lead every tour himself, Lilley is the sole researcher digging up better-than-fiction stories from his hometown. He combs through books, newspaper clippings and other archives, often stumbling upon inspiration for one tour while researching another.

That was the case with a story about the eccentric R. Lyman Potter, who makes an appearance in Lilley’s new Colorful Characters tour. While examining a newspaper clipping containing a family member’s obituary, Lilley spotted another story on the page about the “wheelbarrow lunatic” who rolled through Ellicott City in November 1880 during his cross-country trip from Albany, N.Y., to San Francisco — pushing the device the entire way.

That story and others — including President Andrew Jackson and folk hero Davy Crockett’s passage through town — inspired the collection of tales that became a tour.

“A lot of things happened in Ellicott City that were interesting and important,” Lilley says. “I think we’re in good standing as far as small towns.”

Caitlin Chamberlain, director of heritage programs and facilities for Howard County Recreation and Parks, said the tours have been a huge draw to the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum, which partnered with Lilley to host them.

“They regularly sell out,” she says.

Tours at the museum cost $15 and run about 90 minutes with a limit of 25 people. A monthly Literary Pub Crawl lasts about 2½ hours and includes four stops at various bars and restaurants. That tour, which is capped at 15 people, also costs $15. Any other tours held outside of the museum cost $12 and are limited to about 25 people.

Catonsville resident Victoria Goodman took Lilley’s PS I Love You tour — which returns in February — and got a glimpse of the correspondences between famous couples with connections to the region.

“The stories that they told personalized history for everyone that was there,” she says. “It was like you were meeting them.”

Goodman is excited to attend more tours this year — especially the Literary Pub Crawl and the Colorful Characters tour.

“I’m particularly interested in history where I am — things that I can touch every day,” she says.

For Ellicott City resident Bill Withers, the tours hit all the right marks.

“It is a small community group sort of thing at a small community museum. You don’t always expect a lot when you go to those,” he says. “But the humor was there. The presentation was there. The research was there. …I came away saying, ‘I never knew that’ about Ellicott City.”

Withers, who took the PS I Love You tour with his wife last February, particularly enjoyed stories about H.L. Mencken, the influential writer and Baltimore Sun editor in the early 20th century.

“There were some slightly bawdy comments,” Withers recalls.

He also appreciated the performance value. (Guides generally wear period garb during the tours, according to Lilley.)

“We like good performances and good theater. We would absolutely go again,” Withers says.

Returning customers like Withers will have plenty of new choices. Among them is the Ladies About Town tour, which follows the dynamic women who have lived in Ellicott City.

“The town has always been home to entrepreneurs and women who were ahead of their time,” Lilley says.

That includes Martha Ellicott Tyson (1795-1893), who was one of the founders of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

“She was a Quaker and a very strong women’s rights advocate who wrote the biography of Benjamin Banneker,” the Maryland-born almanac author and surveyor, Lilley says.

The region’s Quaker ties may have helped to encourage an abundance of dynamic women.

“They were progressive. They were very generous. There was a tolerance and acceptance of people being able to do anything. I think it stuck with us,” Lilley says.

As the tours grow in popularity, Lilley hopes to bring them to new audiences.

“We’re going to be looking at possibilities of doing this at other locations: senior centers, community organizations, businesses and private homes…anyone who is interested,” he said.

Maryland History Tours is offering four new Ellicott City-based tours in 2018.

Ladies About Town

March 8 and May 10

7 p.m. at the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum, 3711 Maryland Ave.


Colorful Characters of Ellicott City

April 12 and July 12

7 p.m. at the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum, 3711 Maryland Ave.


Innovators of the Patapsco River Valley

Aug. 9

7 p.m. at the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum, 3711 Maryland Ave.


Ellicott City During the Civil War — A Town Torn?

Sept. 8

7 p.m. at the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum, 3711 Maryland Ave.


For more tour dates, including a monthly Literary Pub Crawl, visit

Maryland History Tours track a number of historical figures through their time in Ellicott City. Among them:

Davy Crockett (1786-1836)

While running away from home, the eventual folk hero and politician traveled through Ellicott City at the age of 13 in the spring of 1800. “He hitched a ride with someone from Tennessee on his way to Baltimore to get a boat to Europe,” Lilley said. “They came through Ellicott City. He mentioned it” in his autobiography.

President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)

The country’s seventh president swept through Ellicott City by train on his way to Baltimore in 1833.

Mary Virginia Merrick (1866-1955)

Even though she was paralyzed as a child, Merrick dedicated her life to others through programs like the Christ Child Society, which she founded.

“She’s in the canonization process,” Lilley said of the Washington, D.C., resident whose family had a summer home in Ellicott City.

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884)

The headmistress of the Patapsco Female Institute believed in teaching science and math to girls who attended the Ellicott City boarding school.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

The poet visited the home of politician and author John Pendleton Kennedy in the mid-1830s. Kennedy had a house on the Patapsco just outside Ellicott City, according to Lilley.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

The famed writer rode through Ellicott City in 1909 on his way to Catonsville, where he spoke at the St. Timothy’s School graduation.

“It was his last appearance before he passed,” Lilley said.

Lewis Wallace (1827-1905)

The Union general in the Civil War came through Ellicott City on July 10, 1864 while retreating from the Battle of Monocacy on his way back to protect Baltimore from Confederate soldiers. Wallace eventually went on to write the classic book “Ben-Hur.”

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