Adventure U.S.

Old Ellicott City: More Than Just a Historic & Shopping District

Old Ellicott City (OEC) is an old mill town founded by Quaker brothers. It has survived countless floods (including Hurricane Agnes). If you’re visiting Washington D.C. or Baltimore, schedule a detour to “the town with a river and seven hills.”

It reminded me of the historic towns of Berkeley Spring, West Virginia and Beaufort, North Carolina.

“Discover 80+ shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, and salons.”

OEC wants you to know it is “more than just a historic and shopping district.”

Old Ellicott City Walking Tour

I booked the Old Ellicott Walking Tour to learn more about the town. My guide, Mike Radinsky, was a walking encyclopedia about OEC, including the town’s founders. The tour lasted two hours. Wear your sneakers because you will walk nearly a mile on the tour. The town is hilly! Capitoline Hill was nicknamed Mount Misery as laborers had to tote granite stones up the hill.

Town Founders

It turns out this 252-year-old town is older than America. Three Quaker brothers—John, Andrew, and Joseph Ellicott—moved to Maryland from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They bought land adjacent to the Patapsco River. The Ellicotts wanted to build and run grain mills. They named it Ellicott Mills.

“Ellicott’s Mills would become one of the largest milling and manufacturing towns in the East, and considered by some as the home of the Industrial Revolution.”

Visit Old Ellicott City

Originally known as “The Hollows,” Ellicott City now bears their family name. The city renamed the Historic District as Old Ellicott City to avoid confusion with the larger city.

Ellicott Mills

Charles Carroll lived at Doughoregan Manor. He was one of the 50 signers of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Ellicott brothers convinced Carroll to switch from growing tobacco to wheat. Tobacco was Howard County’s “main crop.”

This would be the pivotal moment in shaping the town’s identity. The Ellicott brothers and Carroll created the Baltimore and Frederick Turnpike Company. This resulted in a toll road being constructed from Doughoregan Manor to Ellicott’s Mills to transport the grain to the mill.

In 1867, Ellicott Mills was granted a city charter and renamed Ellicott City. Notably, George Ellicott, Jr. was named the first mayor. He was the grandson of Andrew Ellicott (one of the three founders).

Mt. Ida

You will definitely want to walk the grounds of Mt. Ida, a mansion in the historic district. William Ellicott commissioned the construction of this home, which Architect N. G. Starkweather designed. The rubble stone was painted yellow (known as “Maryland gold’). “George Washington did the same thing with Mount Vernon,” said Radinsky.

In the 1850s, Judge John Snowden later purchased the mansion. His surviving daughter Ida lived at the home until the 1920s. This is how it earned the name Mt. Ida. Howard County now owns the property.

Ellicott’s Second Quaker School

The Ellicott family donated funds to start multiple religious schools and other institutions, including Patapasco Female Institute and Rockland Academy. Walking the streets in the historic district near the Court House, you will see signs identifying these institutions.

Ellicott’s second Quaker School began operation circa 1790. The one-room schoolhouse operated as a Quaker school. Residents converted the school into a hospital during the War of 1812. The building was later turned into a hotel. It featured lacy ironwork on the stone porch.

“The Quaker school was founded by the Ellicotts in 1820. The house uses fieldstones in the front. There is a framed portion in the back. The second story of Quaker’s School House is a children’s museum. There is a mockup of a miller’s store. It is the most haunted building in Old Ellicott City!” said Radinsky.

Children’s Museum

Before my tour, I peeked in the window of the quaint Ellicott Mills Children’s Museum (EMCM) home on Saturday morning because it wasn’t open yet. I could see toys and other objects.

This museum is an interactive, hands-on educational center focusing on the history and culture of those who lived and worked in a 19th-century mill town.

“EMCM is divided into four themed rooms and a garden: Quaker School; Great Room; Ellicott General Store; Mill Display; 1804 Garden.”

Museum of Howard County

In the historic district, you’ll see an imposing church building. Old lawyers’ offices line the curving lane, and the Old Court House towers nearby. “It started out as the First Presbyterian Church. It was converted to a museum. It features original stained glass windows,” said Radinsky.

It now operates as the Museum of Howard County.

Learn about daily life in this 19th-century mill town and get a closer look at the lives of the county’s founding fathers. The museum has a permanent collection and periodic themed exhibitions of artifacts for a hands-on experience of Howard County history. The museum is at 8328 Court Avenue and is open on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.

Patapasco Female Institute

Further along our tour, we stood outside the tall fence that barred our entry to the Patapasco Female Institute. You might think we were looking at a prison for female prisoners from its name. But this was an elite college for young women. Many Southern families enrolled their teenage daughters.

The Patapsco Female Institute inaugurated its first class of female students on January 1, 1837. The Ellicotts donated funds to establish this academy. This was not a finishing school to produce a bride. This school constituted a full college to teach young women about chemistry, biology, foreign languages, and sociology.

“It was a boarding school to learn math, science, and foreign languages. When it first opened, the school had room for 100 students. Unfortunately, due to the recession, they only had six students enrolled. The school brought in Almira Lincoln Phelps and her sister Emma as teachers. They believed in educating women. They had 100 enrolled after Elmira took over,” said Radinsky. (The sisters opened Troy Seminary in New York. Phelps was a pioneer botanist and educator.)

The school had to educate eight lower-income students per year, and the state provided scholarships. My guide said many Cherokee students attended. Maryland permitted the school to sell state-approved lottery tickets to raise scholarship funds. We also saw a lottery ticket (circa 1855).

After the Civil War, demand for women’s education diminished. The Institute closed in 1889. Mrs. A. Marshall Elliott purchased the property and converted it into the Bern Alnwick Hotel.

The Firehouse

Old Ellicott City temporarily closed the Firehouse. But you can still tour the outside. The building sits on a wedge of land near that shopping district. It cost $500 to build.

The original building housed hand-drawn and horse-drawn fire equipment.

Ellicott City Railroad Terminus

This railroad station is famous. Ellicott City built the first railroad terminus in America, originally built to move supplies. “Built in the 1820s, it is the oldest surviving railroad station in the U.S.,” our guide declared.

“Charles Carroll came to the opening of the train station. He said it was the second biggest thing he ever did. It was a freight-only train. But you could buy tickets across the street at the hotel. They converted to a freight and passenger station (segregated by sex). It continued until 1949. Freight service was discontinued after Hurricane Agnes. Howard County purchased the property and turned it into a railroad museum,” said Radinsky.

Old Ellicott City Shopping District

You could easily spend a whole day wandering in and out of the independent shops established in the OEC Shopping District. Don’t come looking for corporate chains. These are mom-and-pop shops that sell unique items that you will want to buy.

The Main Street is famous as a backdrop for a Hollywood movie. In 1956, Ellicott City’s Main Street was the childhood home of the main character in The Goddess (1956). Kim Stanley, Lloyd Bridges, and Patty Duke starred in this movie. The movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

I particularly loved seeing the old department stores and appliance stores that thrived in Old Ellicott City in the 1940s through the 1960s. The town was home to Caplan’s Department Store and Taylor’s Furniture, Jewelry & Appliances Store!

Restaurant & Bar Scene

Old Ellicott City was bustling on the Saturday in June when I visited. Sadly, I could not bring my Golden Retriever (Parker). Dogs cannot come on the walking tour. I missed him immensely. Take your dog on a walk along Main Street. Just don’t forget his leash!

Old Ellicott City welcomes visitors. The National Register of Historic Places placed it on its list in 1978. After just one visit, this town will “register” as a special place.

Street Murals

Consider Old Ellicott City as an outdoor art museum. Wander the hilly streets. Stop for an al fresco lunch with your dog at a cafe. See the colorful murals on the sides of buildings. I loved the mural of a black family painted on a brick wall with a 1920s automobile. I’d love to see the historic district offer a street art walking tour!

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  • Reply
    June 22, 2024 at 10:17 am

    Love walking tours, such a fun way to see a new location, especially when the guide is great

    • Reply
      June 22, 2024 at 11:03 am

      I agree. I love walking tours organized by locals!

  • Reply
    Laureen Lund
    June 22, 2024 at 10:24 am

    I visited here many years ago. It looks like it hasn’t changed much which is nice in this day and age. Thanks for the reminders…maybe I can visit again next time I’m in the area.

    • Reply
      June 22, 2024 at 11:03 am

      The town is amazing considering it was flooded twice in the last decade. The walking tour was excellent.

  • Reply
    Linda (LD Holland)
    June 22, 2024 at 12:28 pm

    A detour to visit a town with a river and seven hills sounds perfect the next time we get to Washington DC. Lots of interesting history to discover walking the streets of Old Ellicott City. And I would definitely be on the lookout for the fun street murals.

    • Reply
      June 22, 2024 at 5:41 pm

      I hope you get to visit. I love the towns description of itself. The river runs right through the Main Street which is why so many stores were destroyed during the last two floods.

  • Reply
    June 22, 2024 at 1:44 pm

    Walking tours are so much fun and such a great way to learn about places. I love all the historic buildings, they look so charming!

    • Reply
      June 22, 2024 at 5:40 pm

      I loved walking down lawyers’ lane and imaging the clerks scurrying around over 200 years ago! The architecture is magnificent.

  • Reply
    June 22, 2024 at 1:51 pm

    A lovely detailed post! The historic details are great! Maryland wasn’t on my radar before.

    • Reply
      June 22, 2024 at 5:39 pm

      Maryland is one of the original 13 colonies. It is a lovely state to visit. We have the Chespeake Bay (home of the crab), the Atlantic Ocean, and the gorgeous mountains. You would also love Annapolis, the coloniL capital of Maryland!

  • Reply
    Goya Galeotta
    June 22, 2024 at 8:10 pm

    This was very interesting to read, especially after my recent trip to Philadelphia with its own Quaker connections. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      June 23, 2024 at 11:58 am

      Quaker William Penn shaped the colony of Pennsylvania and particularly Philadelphia. I was also excited to learn how the Ellicotts were Quakers.

  • Reply
    Jenn | By Land and Sea
    June 22, 2024 at 9:40 pm

    Very cool history here. Walking tours are such a great way to see and learn lots of things!

    • Reply
      June 23, 2024 at 11:57 am

      It is hard to believe the town is older than the U.S.A. I love places like this.

  • Reply
    June 23, 2024 at 9:28 am

    What a cool place to visit! I love the street art with the car in the brick wall. Very cool. The bar scene looks like my vibe – not crazy but chill! So cool.

    • Reply
      June 23, 2024 at 11:57 am

      OEC is really a family place – summer concerts in the park, folk music at the Sunday brunch, and cool holiday events. It is a great place.
      I loved the street murals!

  • Reply
    Patricia (Tish) Mikan
    June 29, 2024 at 2:06 pm

    I live Ellicott City. I will definitely take a tour again
    Thanks for all of the new information

    • Reply
      June 30, 2024 at 11:19 am

      It is a great historical walking tour!

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