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Ellicott City's long history of devastating floods

Posted: 8:24 PM, May 30, 2018
Updated: 2018-05-30 20:27:26-04

Residents of Ellicott City saw their towns Main Street corridor ravaged by flooding caused by heavy rains Sunday, marking the second time in three years such catastrophic flooding swept away cars and inundated buildings.

TAKE A LOOK: The Timeline: Ellicott City historical flooding

But while water gave life to the mill town, founded on the banks of the Patapsco River by the Ellicott brothers in 1772, it has long been a force residents have had to manage, as the town has seen 17 significant floods through its nearly 250-year history. Major floods occurred in 1786, 1817, 1868, 1894, 1901, 1917, 1923, 1933, 1952, 1972, 1975, 1998, 2006, 2011, 2016, and 2018. 

The two most recent floods come from down the hill as drainage ponds overflowed, rather than the more familiar danger of the Patapsco swelling from its banks and engulfing the town. 

In August 1817, a bridge near the Upper Mills was washed away and significant damage was sustained by the Union Manufacturing Company in the first flood to have a direct economic impact on the mill town. 

The "Great Flood of Maryland," caused by 18 inches of rain falling in 30 minutes, damaged or destroyed mills, bridges, railroads and buildings all along the Patapsco River Valley on July 24, 1868. Ellicott City was swallowed by 21.5 feet of water, destroying 32 buildings, damaging the Patterson Bridge and Viaduct, and killing 43 people. 

The Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane ushered in the "Flood of 1933" on August 23. The category four storm was part of a busy storm season, with the hurricane affecting towns throughout the Chesapeake Watershed, including Ellicott City.

Due to a suspected "logjam" on the Tiber River, one of the tributaries that leads to the Patapsco River, a flash flood hit the town on Sept. 1, 1952. During "The Great Flood of the Tiber," water reportedly reached eight-foot depths on Main Street, and 12-14 feet under the bridge. Between $250,000 and $500,000 in damage occurred as thirty Main Street business was damaged. 

Another hurricane took its toll in 1972, as Hurricane Agnes became the costliest storm in U.S. history. Beginning June 21, the hurricane caused the Patapsco to overflow its banks, resulting in a 10-foot wall of water that crippled the town, leaving seven people dead and 704 homeless, with 103 homes and 50 businesses suffering significant damage. 

Prior to Sunday, the most recent flooding event came on July 30, 2016, as more than eight inches of water fell in three hours that night, resulting in a "wall of water," that sunk Main Street under eight feet of water, damaging 200 buildings and businesses, and costing two people's lives. 

With the town still reconciling with the vast damage caused by Sunday's deluge, it seems flooding will remain a familiar occurrence for those who chose to make their homes in this quaint historic town along the banks of a life-giving, yet occasionally life-threatening, river.