It began the morning of the 24th of July, 1868 as a typical heavy summer thunderstorm in the city of Baltimore. It was no more unusual than any other thunderstorm the citizens of Baltimore had experienced before, but one thing made this one different. The wind!
A south wind began pushing unusually high tides from the inner harbor of the Patapsco River in the direction of the Jones Falls, and thus, the formation of a raging “freshet” began its path of destruction.
At this point, I will let noted author David Healey describe what happened next.
The following chapter comes from Great Storms of the Chesapeake and describes the Ellicott City flood of 1868.
“One of the most devastating floods ever to strike the Chesapeake Bay region took place on the morning of July 24, 1868. Before the day was over, downtown Baltimore and Ellicott’s Mills (today known as Ellicott City) would be badly damaged, with bridges and houses swept away. As many as fifty lives would be lost. And yet not a drop of rain fell before the flood struck.
The cause of the flood remains something of a mystery today, though there is little doubt that a tremendous storm was taking place to the west of the city. Residents of the mill town of Ellicott City on the Patapsco River described how a strange darkness seemed to fall across the Patapsco Valley. Flashes of lightning punctuated the darkness, though the storm was so far off that thunder couldn’t be heard. So the people of Ellicott’s Mills and Baltimore went about their business, keeping an eye on the weather.
Baltimore at that time was a major city, while Ellicott’s Mills was a busy up-and-coming industrial center located fifteen miles upriver. The Patapsco was only navigable to Elkridge just a few miles downstream, so Ellicott’s Mills was not a port town. Instead, Ellicott’s Mills had become an important railroad town for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The tracks followed the Patapsco River west through the narrow river valley toward Frederick and then the Appalachian Mountains beyond, linking east to west. In fact, the town had been the setting for the famous race in 1830 between the original Tom Thumb steam engine and a horse-drawn rail car. (The horse won the race.)
Vessels could not navigate the river at that point because it was too shallow, but the town did rely heavily on the river to power several flour and cotton mills. The mills employed hundreds of workers, many of whom lived in cottages and row houses within a stone’s throw of the river.
According to an account in The River of History: “At approximately 9:15 a.m., the westbound mail train steamed slowly from the railroad station and disappeared into an almost eerie darkness which had crept almost unnoticed eastward through the River Valley. The darkness intensified, interrupted by brilliant flashes of lightning illuminating the stone mills and houses lining the river’s edge.” According to witnesses, it became so dark that the millworkers had to stop work. Birds stopped singing.
The strange gloom and silence was like a warning. By 9:30 a.m., the Patapsco River had silently risen nearly ten feet. And then a terrible roaring sound. Villagers described a “wall of water” sweeping down the Patapsco. It was unlike anything they had ever seen. The normally quiet river continued to rise at the rate of one foot every two minutes. Soon, the river rose sixteen feet higher than ever before. The river that could normally be waded across with ease during a dry summer spell was now forty-five feet deep. It was described how spray and waves shot twenty feet into the air by the rushing flood. Trees and railroad ties bobbed like corks in the rushing water but struck with the force of battering rams.
The waves struck the mills along the shoreline and carried them away like matchsticks. Workers who had been too slow to get out disappeared in the current. Some of the mills were quite substantial, reaching several stories high and with stone walls reported to be as much as twenty feet thick, but they could not withstand the surge of the flood.
A group of thirteen millworkers’ houses near the Frederick Turnpike bridge was soon the scene of a terrible drama. Trapped by the flood, the families living there climbed to the rooftops. Their older children had been off at school; now these children watched helplessly from higher ground with the other villagers as one by one the houses crumbled in the flood. As the houses gave way, the survivors managed to cling to the roof of the next intact house. Finally, just one house stood with as many as thirty-six people—mostly women and very young children—shouting for help from the roof. But they were beyond rescue, separated from the shore by too great a distance. And then the last house washed away. Bodies would turn up downstream for days.”
To read the entirety of the excerpt, you can visit this link on David Healey’s website.
This is an illustration from Harper’s Weekly showing the flood on July 24, 1868:
I can only imagine what it must have been like, not only for my ancestors, but for all that lived through this terrifying event. With practically no warning, the power of the water heading through Baltimore and Ellicott City unleashed a destructiveness that is unimaginable. My wife and I went through Hurricane Gloria on September 27, 1986 while living in Connecticut and I know we didn’t experience anywhere near the level of devastation that this flood left in its wake.
Due to the flood, my 3x great-grandfather, Joseph Earp and his family left for Harrisburg, PA (where I was born). Joseph was a nailer working in the iron forges, which were destroyed by the flood. Joseph had a younger brother, James who stayed in Baltimore, but James had two sons that appeared to follow Joseph to Harrisburg. Their names were James and Joseph. This is why my Earp family ended up in Harrisburg and began putting down new roots.
After this event, word had spread across the world through all the newspapers. Below is a short list of the one I found;
The Baltimore Sun, July 25, 1868 – Newspapers.com
Vermont Journal, Aug. 15, 1868 – Newspapers.com
The New York Times, July 26, 1868 – Newspapers.com
The Philadelphia Enquirer, July 31, 1868 – Newspapers.com
The Bury & Norwhich Post, Aug. 18, 1868 (Suffolk, England) – Newspapers.com
Here is an actual photo from the aftermath of this event:
Taken July 28, 1868 at the Gay Street Bridge – Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives.
The first picture (above left) is an illustration from the Harper’s Weekly on Aug. 8, 1868 of the Larabee Iron Foundry and the second (above right) is a photograph of Jones Falls River after the flood – Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society. You can see the similarities between the building featured in the first picture and the one in the upper middle of the second photograph. More than likely the same building.
This is a photograph taken of the most historic flood levels – 7 ft. (1952) – 9 ft. (1923 & 1975) – 14.5 ft. (1972) and 21.5 ft. (1868). Courtesy of the website Preservation Maryland.
Remember, if your ancestor moved away from a place where they had deep roots and it seems odd as to why they would move away, dig deep into historical events that occurred in that place where they lived, and you just might find out the reason.
Featured image from Harper’s Weekly
Special thanks to the following people and organizations:
Author David Healey – Healey Ink
Shawn Gladden, Executive Director of the Howard County Historical Society, Maryland
The State of Maryland Archives
The City of Baltimore Historical Society
The Maryland Historical Society
The Baltimore Genealogical Society
And Cheryl, my beautiful wife whose love and support is all I will ever need. Love you Sweetie!