The flood waters of the Patapsco River rushed into this old mill town so swiftly during tropical storm Agnes in 1972 that many people fled their Main Street apartments and shops with only the clothes they wore.
The flood prone stream, which powered the first grist mills and led to the founding of the 200-year-old town, had periodically threatened the community's survival. Once again, the river was testing Ellicott City's will to regenerate itself.
The town did. Today, the Howard County seat, with its soot-grap granite buildings, blends the rugged pluck of its former mill and railroads days with a shopping district that borders on the trendy.
"Ellicott City will always survive, even after the floods," said Cate Olson, a shopkeeper. "It's something as basic as the granite here."
Even before the 1972 flood, Ellicott City, a community of 2,800 residents, was decaying caught in a ravine between the suburbs of Baltimore and the county's booming new town of Columbia.
Its heyday had passed long before. The beginning of the decline came with disastrous flood of 1868 that wiped out many iron and grist works, the backbone of the once prosperous manufacturing center. Then the decline was ensured eighty years later when passenger rail service shut down in 1949 and when bus service to Baltimore ended some time later. Ellicott City, with its slums, brothels and saloons and the constant threat of flooding, became just another small town isolated between two flourishing metropolitan areas.
But after the 1972 flood, enough of the town's original spirit persisted - some call it its "Wild West" willy-nilly spirit - that courthouse gentry, Main Street merchants, history enthusiasts and disaffected former city dwellers who had come looking for utopia were able to team up to revive their community.
A citizens group, Historic Ellicott City was formed after the town's bicentennial celebration which, in spite of the flood, was held as scheduled four months later. Soon, the county formally declared Ellicott City a historical district and the county administration initiated redevelopment and restoration efforts.
Meanwhile, young entrepreneurs were moving in, intrigued with the challenge of creating something new in the old stone structures. For the sake of the challenge, they were willing to risk the floods.
Cate Olson, who first came to Ellicott City to serve as a social worker shortly before the flood, opened the Owl and the Pussycat pottery and crafts shop, which occasionally suffers minifloods as a result of an exposed spring at its rear wall. Down Main Street, John Beck, an former GI, turned a former news stand into a "progressive news agency" filled with everything from esoteric arts and intellectual journals to out-of-print comics and daily newspapers.
"People told us we were crazy," said Albert Clark, owner of Victoria and Albert hairstyling salon up the hill. He converted a 150-year-old granite slum house into a salon in Victorian decor. Within six months after the opening, his business was so heavy he had to expand next door.
Part of the secret, said Olson, the chairman of the town's business association, is that "a lot of people who have settled here have at some point in time become dissatisfied with other aspects of society. This is not the beginning of a journey for them. This is the end."
As you approach it from the west, a steep descent into town shows all aspects of Ellicott City at a glance: the granite-hewn commercial district, the flimsy frame shacks lacking indoor plumbing only a block away, and decorative gingerbread-fronted Victorian homes on the bluffs at least 100 feet above.
Coming in from the east, along the disheveled river banks, the way is lined with the six silos of the remaining Washington flour mill and the newly restored 1831 train museum located in the nation's first railroad terminus.
The challenge, as civic leader Roger Marino sees it, is to prevent Ellicott City from becoming "so historical it'll choke us to death or too dollar-minded it'll get bulldozed down" to be replaced by a slick new tourist town.
Along narrow Main Street, the only through route, several dozen shops with wares ranging from antique clothing to silver jewelry are interspersed among a bakery, a delicates-sen a French restaurant and a 1950s-style lunch counter. Here and there stand vacant buildings. Two markets sell fresh produce, but the last "five-and-dime store" left years ago.
At lunchtime, lawyers in pinstriped suits walk past the half dozen town drunks. Fashionably clad suburban Washington homemakers shop beside craggy Appalachian women.
"There are so many eccentric people in Ellicott City," said Olson, "that people here are respected for their idiosyncracies."
In the rooms above the Main Street stores reside both the new residents who work at professional jobs and live in redecorated lofts, and the laborers who are disappearing from the scene.
At nights they all head toward their preferred amusements: streets for cruising day-glo vans with blaring country music or rowdy bars for some, and more sophisticated dining spots for others.
"We want it to be a living, working town, not just a tourist mecca with shops selling railroad souvenir coins," said Marino, owner of Marino Gallery and Olins Art Shop. Ten years ago, he and his wife invested their savings into these businesses in their new found community.
Marino also chairs the citizens advisory committee assisting with the county's master plan. This plan is designed to preserve Ellicott City's historical character, enhance the natural beauty of its surroundings, develop and manage the economic potential of the commercial district and eliminate growing problems of vagrancy, parking and traffic congestion.
Sally Bright, who heads Historical Ellicott City, explained that this new effort at self-preservation has been undertaken because residents realize that, with shopping centers and large metropolitan areas close by, "a small town can't exist any more just by providing services to its people."