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June 21, 2004 -- As your car hurtles down Route 40 or I-70 west of Baltimore, you might notice signs saying you're in Ellicott City. Technically, you're in the ZIP code. But you have to escape the highway, head down into the Patapsco Valley until you've reached an old mill town still bustling with activity after 230 years.

The town was built first to support the Ellicott brothers' mill, which became the largest flour-milling center in the colonies. In 1831, American's first railroad terminal was built here and still stands today. Besides that distinction, here is where Peter Cooper's steam engine "The Tom Thumb" raced and beat a horse drawn vehicle.

All kinds of traffic came through Ellicott City. Many celebrities stopped here, including President Andrew Johnson, Annie Oakley and Charles Dickens. Besides the railroad, the country's first National Road ran through Ellicott City and gave farmers near and far a route to the Atlantic.

Step back and look at the solid stone buildings still lining Main Street. The inns built in the 1800s are still there-even the Colonial Inn and Opera House where John Wilkes Booth, it is said, got his start as an actor. The opera house level is, however, closed to the public.

Through the years, the town has endured a changing economy, fires, floods and hurricanes. It has survived, adapted and found new ways to keep people coming to visit.

Getting There

From Route 70, take Route 29 South to Route 40 East. Turn right onto Rogers Avenue and right onto Courthouse Drive which ends at Main Street (Route 144). Turn left into the historic district. From the Beltway (Route 695), either take Route 70 West and follow the above directions or take Route 40 West and turn left onto Rogers Avenue to Courthouse Drive and turn left onto Main Street.

Parking

-- First things first: Ellicott City is a small town but the 870 nearby parking spaces make it easier to visit. Some lots are trickier to find than others so pay attention for those Blue "P" signs.

Warning: On street parking has a one- or two-hour limit 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and there are parking enforcement officers with high-tech gadgets to keep track of who's overstaying their allotted parking even without meters.

Metered lots are off Main Street near the old Post Office and Visitor Center, down a driveway under the railroad bridge and down Maryland Avenue, which runs next to the B&O Railroad Museum. You can get change for the meters at the Visitor Center and Railroad Museum. If you see yellow parking spaces, you have to pay to park. It's free if the spaces are painted with white lines.Free lots are within a short walk from the main shopping district. The Oella lot is a short walk across the bridge near the Trolley Stop restaurant. Another free lot is down a driveway on Ellicott Mills Drive. Finally, the two lots at the Court House, two blocks up a hill from the historic district, have 200 free spaces. Occasionally on summer weekends, a shuttle bus runs between these lots and the historic district. But the walk is short (though uphill on the way back). There's a good brochure explaining where and how to park at the Visitor's Center.

Sightseeing

A couple of museums stand out from the long line of antique and gift shops and galleries.

The Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station (Main St. and Maryland Ave., 410/461-1944, www.ecbo.org) is the oldest railroad station in America. The museum houses artifacts and model trains to tell the history of America's first railroad. Climb aboard the bright red 1927 caboose or sea the seasonal exhibits. In December, there's a holiday model train exhibit - kids can even get a special telegram from Santa. Thomas Isaac's Log Cabin 410/313-1413 is a couple blocks down Main Street at the junction with Ellicott Mills Drive. The town's oldest residence, this settler's cabin was built about 1780 and is usually open weekend afternoons.A pretty yellow building topped with a big bell sits at the end of Church Road. Built in 1889, the Ellicott City Firehouse Museum (410/313-1413) houses firefighting memorabilia. It's open Sunday afternoons and on Heritage Weekends in September.Baseball legend Babe Ruth, a Baltimore native, married his first wife in Ellicott City. Stop at St. Paul's Church to see where the blessed event occurred. St. Paul's sits on a hill at 3755 St. Paul's Street. Turn up Maryland and then right on College Avenue to get there.The Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, www.patapscofemaleinstitute.org 3691 Sarah's Lane, 410-465-8500) preserves the ruins of a 19th century school for young ladies. Besides the pretty surroundings, there are interpretive tours on selected Sundays. Call ahead for schedule and reservations.

Just down Frederick Road (known as Main Street in the historic district) is Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, 300 Oella Ave., (410/887-1081, www.thefriendsofbanneker.org). Dedicated to the first African-American "man of science," the museum is has a small exhibit about this man who surveyed the land that would become Washington D.C., who published 26 editions of his almanac over six years and was a self-taught astronomer and clockmaker. The museum hosts a birthday celebration in early November for Banneker (1731-1806), marks the July anniversary of the opening of the museum each year and schedules special events during Black History Month. The park-located on the original Banneker homestead-provides lots of green space to enjoy, as well as nature trails. Plans are underway in 2004 to reconstruct Banneker's farmstead and improve the exhibition space. It is open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 4pm. A $3 per person donation is requested. Take Frederick Road east across Patapsco River Bridge. Turn left at Oella Ave.

Ghost Tours

In the fall, it seems there's always a ghost tour going on here-the town is haunted, they say. The Historic Ellicott City Ghost Tours are offered every Friday and Saturday mid-April through November at 8:30pm. More tours are added according to demand. Call the Howard County Tourism Council at 800/288-8747 or 410/313-1900, or on the web www.visithowardcounty.com for information and reservations.

Shopping

Ellicott City is a favorite among those who favor antiques and for everybody who just likes to shop.
Main Street has plenty of antique shops. Cottage Antiques, 8181 Main Street (410/465-1412), Ellicott's Country Store, 8180 Main Street, (410/465-4482), and the huge Taylor's Antique Mall, 8197 Antique Mall, (410/465-4444) are among the wide variety.
Some other fun stops are Su Casa at 8098 Main Street (410/465-4100), El Porton at 8227 Main Street (410/750-3737, www.el-porton.com) and Rugs to Riches at 8307 Main Street (410/750-8767) for home d?r and The Forget-Me-Not Factory at 8044 Main Street,(410/465-7355, www.forgetmenotfactory.com) and Discoveries at 8055 Main Street (410/461-9600) for fanciful things. Ellicott City is filled with much more: plenty of art galleries, toys, collectibles, clothes and even comics. Take your time and explore all the nooks and crannies.

A word of advice: Wear comfortable shoes. Many of these shops require climbing a stone step to the front door and quite a few display their wares on two or more floors reached by narrow stairs. Enjoy the adventure. And don't forget to eat-the restaurants make up a big part of Ellicott City's charm.

Dining

Ellicott City has 17 restaurants-from pizza shops to an elegant French restaurant-crammed in its narrow streets. Here are a couple of good choices. For fine dining, it's got to be Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant, 8293 Main Street, (410/465-4004 fax 410/461-1429 www.tersiguels.com). Across the street is a much more casual brewpub, The Ellicott Mills Brewing Company, 8308 Main Street, (410/313-8141, fax 410/313-9987 www.ellicottmillsbrewing.com.) For pizza, ice cream or a fast sandwich, try Sorrento's Main Street Station 8167 Main Street, (410/465-1001).

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