Two “once in a thousand years” floods have hit Ellicott City, Maryland since 2016. Business owners along its historic main street, the old National Road, had just rebuilt from the last flood when another one in May set them all the way back again. News reports showed the first story of all of these buildings under water.
When my sons and I visited in 2009, we explored this bridge a little and found markings on its piers showing the levels of many previous floods. This year’s flood was the 15th catastrophic flood recorded since the town’s founding in 1766. Ellicott City, being in a valley near a few rivers, is simply flood prone. Ten inches of rain fell in a few hours the day before last Memorial Day and there was nowhere else for it to go.
I want to drive Maryland’s section of the National Road again one day. I hope there’s something left of Ellicott City when I do.
Ellicott City, Maryland, was founded in 1772 around the Ellicott brothers’ flour mill. It later became a transportation hub as the National Road passed through it and the B&O Railroad laid the nation’s first miles of commercial track to it. Here’s where the two roads intersect:
A Berkeley professor named George Stewart spent a good chunk of 1949 and 1950 driving US 40 across the United States. The old US routes were the only way to move around the country then, and so a road trip meant taking in the towns and countryside along the way. Stewart wrote a book about his trips called US 40: A Cross Section of the United States of America. He shared 97 photos he took along the way, and one of them was in Ellicott City. Here’s his photo.
My sons and I passed through Ellicott City one crisp morning. Here’s my photo of the same spot.
It’s not that nothing has changed in Ellicott City in 60 years, but that the town is well aware of its history and has taken pains to maintain its historic downtown. It has done so despite several floods, the worst of which were in 1868 and 1972, and three fires that destroyed many downtown businesses. The town even thrived after US 40 was rerouted north of downtown sometime after Stewart’s book. You see, Ellicott City has changed from a solid working-class town to one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. Perhaps it has successfully leveraged its history.
I would have loved to linger, but we had to keep moving if we were to make Wheeling before dark. I did slow way down as we drove away to shoot this great neon sign. I wonder if it still lights up every night.
I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.