Hidden in Plain Sight

Strolling Through the Streets That Connect Ellicott City’s Past and Present

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.27.13 – Destinations, Travel

It’s easy to get lost in the bright lights of a big city. So sometimes, it’s the subtle glow of a little city that helps us find our way. Ellicott City is that kind of place. It rests just outside the Baltimore Beltway and a straight-shot up U.S. 29 from Washington D.C., but Ellicott City’s surrounding hills are the perfect buffer between its cozy, Colonial-style core and the rev of the modern mainstream.

­­The rocky Patapsco River enabled early settlers to thrive. Quaker brothers, John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott, arrived here from Pennsylvania in 1772 and established a mill along the waterway. They are credited with revolutionizing farming in the area by championing wheat over tobacco and plaster as fertilizer. They built a road that expanded into the National Road, America’s first interstate highway. Aside from giving the town its name, the industrious Ellicotts erected a furnace, iron works, schools, a meeting house, shops and enduring granite houses.

Quaker ethics shaped the growth of Ellicott City, especially the belief in racial and gender equality. Rachelina Bonacci, chief executive officer for Howard County Tourism & Promotion, nods to the Patapsco Female Institute as a prime example of that egalitarian spirit. “From day one, women were educated. They could be entrepreneurs.” Chartered in 1834, the institute became a premier finishing school for girls ages 12 to 18, with students from most states. “The institute went beyond teaching girls about homemaking, sewing and manners. Classes included serious academics, like science, Latin and botany.” says Bonacci.

The rocky Patapsco River enabled early settlers to thrive. Quaker brothers, John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott, arrived here from Pennsylvania in 1772 and established a mill along the waterway.

The school closed in 1891, hit by after-effects of the Civil War and the start of public education in Maryland. Today, the stabilized ruins are a historic park and an active archaeological site. In addition to tours, visitors can enjoy seasonal outdoor shows performed by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Taming of the Shrew runs through Aug. 4. Next on tap is Dracula.

The company is known for clever staging both in and around the ruins. Patrons physically follow the action. Tickets start at $15, but performances are free for anyone under 19 who attends with a paying adult. Guests can dress casually, bring a picnic and blanket, and enjoy theater plays under the stars. “It’s an amazing way to keep using this historic structure,” says Bonacci.

Living History

The school is one of nearly 30 historic sites in the city, including the Ellicott City Colored School—now a genealogical resource center and museum—the First County Fire Station, several Ellicott family homes and the original mill site. The Thomas Isaac Log Cabin, the city’s oldest surviving residential structure, dating back to 1780, was relocated to Main Street and now serves as a living history site featuring Colonial life.

Just off Main Street is Tonge Row, a collection of shops and eateries. The area is named for the property’s first owner, Ann Tonge (pronounced “tongue”), who rented the stone houses to mill workers in the mid-1800s. Ten years ago the buildings were empty and in disrepair, worthy of being the starting point for the city’s ongoing ghost tour. Then entrepreneur/real estate agent Kimberly Kepnes saw a “for rent” sign on the place. Her piqued interest led to the effort that brought new life to the old houses, continuing the legacy of women business leaders as part of the town’s past and present.

With more than 50 shops and restaurants packed into a five-block historic district, Ellicott City is a great place to stroll and browse. Beautifully restored Tonge Row is home to a handful of specialty shops, including La Boutique de Mon Amie, the Little French Market Café, Scoop Ahh Dee Doo and the Ghost Lounge Hookah Bar. Behind the row, rimming a large, free parking lot are several more funky businesses. La Palapa Grill & Cantina is known for Mexican fare, music, and salsa dancing. The Linwood Center Boutique is stocked with original art as well as “gently used” furniture and apparel. The Matcha Time Café, which just opened in June, offers tea and sushi, as well as having an attached gift shop featuring an array of Japanese teas, décor and collectibles. Main Street is lined with shopping opportunities ranging from funky to fashionista and posh to purposeful. Antique lovers can spend hours trolling through treasures at Ellicott’s Country Store, Taylor’s Antiques Mall, A Journey from Junk or Maxine’s Antiques & Collectables. Buy, sell or trade at Gramp’s Attic Books. And you can leave a “wish list” with Out of Our Past Antiques. The Antique Depot host a monthly flea market on the third Sundays of August and September.

With more than 50 shops and restaurants packed into a five-block historic district, Ellicott City is a great place to stroll and browse. Main Street is lined with shopping opportunities ranging from funky to fashionista and posh to purposeful.

For a pop of style, stop in Love & Glitter. The store offers goodies hand-made by local artisans. Hutcraft stocks international fair-trade pieces, American-made women’s wear rules at GoGo Guru Yoga Studio & Store, while Zebop harkens back to hippie roots. Sweet Elizabeth Jane’s fashion and home accessories are “downtown chic.” And Randy & Steve’s: The New General Store serves up deli fare plus sundried foods, gourmet goods, kitchen items and fresh ingredients.

Dog Days

Even the dogs have their day at Work.Play.Bark!, the proprietor of pet-friendly toys, grooming and supplies, down to treats and bakery items for canine pals. Well-behaved doggies are welcome at The Wine Bin’s “yappy hour,” which are held the first Friday of the month through November and benefiting animal charities. Humans will appreciate The Wine Bin’s “200 wines under $20” and dedication to fermented perfection. October brings the Blessing of the Animals at the Shrine of St. Anthony.

Ellicott City is a feast for the eyes, but tummies get equal time. The Diamondback Tavern, named in honor of its owners’ alma mater, serves up Maryland-style comfort food. Portalli’s is all about Italian food. Pure Wine Café focuses on fine food without pretension. Its back walls are built into the exposed granite of the mountain. Ellicott Mills Brewing Company whets the whistles with flights of local, meticulously crafted beer and a loaded food menu. For fine dining, Chef Michel Tersiguel continues the tradition of impeccable French-country food at his family’s self-named restaurant, Tersiguel’s.

Perhaps the biggest draw for visitors is the B&O Railroad Museum. Its site is the first railroad station in America, built in 1831, and showcases the interwoven history of trains and the nation by using interactive displays, maps, models and memorabilia. Active military personnel, along with up to five family members, get free admission until Sept. 1. And mark the calendar now for the annual holiday celebration of toy trains and model railroading, complete with Lego displays, starting on Dec. 1 and ending Jan. 26, 2014.

The world around the town has grown up a bit in 200-plus years, but Ellicott City’s allure remains. Bonacci shares that common sentiment. “I never get tired of this view. It always makes me smile.” There’s a fine line between uncovering this hidden gem and preserving its cozy atmosphere. So, let’s just keep this to ourselves.