Like the rest of Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., 60-year-old Howard House has seen its fortunes rise and fall, like the Tiber and Patapsco rivers that have inundated the old mill town west of Baltimore with disastrous regularity since its founding in 1772.
The sturdy granite hotel and restaurant was a popular stop for mid-19th-century travelers headed west on the National Road, and a day-trip destination for urban dwellers. The 20th century wasn’t as kind. In the 1940s, the decorative wrought iron on its second-floor porch was sold to the government for the war effort. Later, it devolved into down-at-the-heels digs. But new owners put some money into it, placing a photography studio and an art gallery at ground level, with renovated apartments above.
Howard House was one of an estimated 90 buildings damaged a week ago Saturday, when an astonishing 6.5 inches of rain fell in about two hours, turning the Main Street historic district into a murky torrent that swept two people to their deaths.
For a town where history is the financial lifeblood, the historic storm is a staggering blow. Main Street, with its mash-up of vintage clothing stores, antique shops and museums, lives on tourist dollars that are, for the moment, gone.
Howard County officials said they are committed to helping their county seat get back onto its feet. As structural engineers, insurance adjusters and anxious owners slogged through the stagnant water and humidity this week, trying to put a dollar figure on the damage, the future was uncertain.
“This is the worst ever, much worse than Agnes,” said Howard House owner Ron Peters, referring to flooding that followed the 1972 hurricane. Peters, who has rental homes just west of downtown that were hit hard, said the water “came down like the frigging Niagara River.”
Nearly all of the historic district buildings have long stories, many of them arcs of success, decline and renewal.
Two adjacent 1860s buildings in the 8100 block of Main have had incarnations as Holtman grocery store, Laumann barber shop — which at one point offered customers bloodletting with the help of leeches — and in the 1940s a library operated by the Howard County Women’s Club. But time took its toll.
“Both buildings withstood floods and fires, substantial neglect and makeshift renovation,” current co-owner Walter Johnson wrote in a 1989 application for historic preservation.
But the July 30 storm dealt a final blow, rendering the buildings so structurally unsound that they may face demolition, county officials said. That would orphan two shops and several tenants who lived above them.
Just up the street, the longtime home of Caplan’s department store looked more bombed out than flooded out. The water burst through all sides, taking out the front and back.
“The water just blew the place apart,” said Tamara Beideman, owner of Sweet Elizabeth Jane, a clothing store operating there.
She lost $150,000 worth of inventory. Electronics with her point-of-sale data are “floating in the river someplace.”
The first recorded flood was in 1780, just a few years after three Quaker brothers from Bucks County, Pa. — Joseph, Andrew and John Ellicott — founded what became a center of milling and graining. They chose a shallow valley in the middle of a lot of water.
A support beam under the railroad tracks downtown marked where water reached during the worst of the floods in 1868, 1972, 1923 and 1952. There were bad ones in between as well: 1901, 1917, 1923, 1975, 1989, 2006.
As Ellicott City grew, many businesses and homes were built over the Tiber, a tributary of the Patapsco. When the rains began on July 30, Beideman got a call from her panicked manager who reported that the water was coming up through the floor.
“Back in the day, it was kind of a good thing to do. They didn’t have good sewage [systems] back then,” said Don Reuwer, the Howard County developer who owns or co-owns a major portion of the Main Street corridor.
But high water is more than a calamitous event for Main Street and its owners and merchants. Over the decades it has seeped into the civic soul, to the point where recovery is now part of the town’s identity, and a point of pride.
“We always come back better,” Reuwer said.
Downtown was devastated by the June 1972 flooding that followed Hurricane Agnes. “Of the town’s 83 stores 39 were on such low ground that they were swamped by river and mud. The water rose so fast that almost nothing got saved,” said a Washington Post account.
It also caught Ellicott City in the midst of preparations for its bicentennial that September. Enough of the damage was repaired that the celebration went forward as planned.
Three years later, Hurricane Eloise “filled up Lower Main Street like a large basin, flooding shops to the second story,” local historian Joetta Cramm wrote in 1996. The cleanup began anew.
Longtime residents said those who couldn’t tolerate the constant punishment dealt by the rivers have long since left. Those who remain have assimilated it as a part of life in Ellicott City.
“You can always see it from the lifers,” said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society. “It’s obviously sad and tragic, but it’s something they’ve done before.”
The history hasn’t all been uplifting and inspiring. Caplan’s was a retail anchor for downtown through most of the 20th century. Sam Caplan, whose grandfather founded the business in 1895, was a popular figure, often referred to in newspaper stories as Ellicott City’s “unofficial mayor.”
The store “carried a little bit of everything,” his wife, Gertrude, said in a 1997 oral history excerpted by the Baltimore Sun. Caplan’s boasted of the lowest prices: In 1949, ladies’ dress shoes were $4.49. Men’s neckties went for $1 to $2.50.
But Gertrude Caplan said things were never the same after the 1972 flood.
“Don’t ask me, don’t ask me,” she said of the flood. “I think that was really the turning point of Ellicott City. That was the downfall of our business . . . because it just, everything just sort of was washed away.” The store closed in 1977.
The long, low-rise concrete building at 8307 Main is young by Ellicott City standards, dating back to about 1930, according to Reuwer, its owner. It was a showroom for Charles Miller’s Chevrolet dealership and later housed the Howard County Health Department and the Howard County Times newspaper.
Remnants of the ramp for moving cars to the dealership’s second-floor garage are still visible inside the Linwood Center Boutique, one of two businesses on the lower level. It is a thrift store staffed by autistic adults enrolled at the same-named school, which is on higher ground. The store, which relies on community donations of furniture, clothing and knickknacks, is designed as a training opportunity for Linwood students.
The surrounding building is solid — with concrete floors three feet thick. But inside the boutique is an uninhabitable gumbo of water, mud and debris. Executive director Bill Moss is eager to start the turnaround so his students can return.
“They want to work, and it’s hard to find jobs,” said Moss, who calls the store “a godsend.”
Next door at La Palapa Grill and Cantina, the familiar post-flood smell is taken to the next level by spoiled food. General manager Simon Cortes and his workers are wearing dust masks as they clean out the main dining room, where a buffalo head hangs over the bar.
“Nobody knows what’s next. Everything is still up in the air,” said Cortes, whose father, Gilberto, opened his first restaurant, El Azteca in Clarksville, 23 years ago. The family operates five places.
Cortes wasn’t even supposed to be on the premises. Howard County restricted access to Main Street last week because of safety concerns. But he needs to get rid of the stinking food and start ripping out the floors and walls.
Cortes had a full house that rainy Saturday night, lots of large parties and people waiting. He knew there was trouble when he saw the Tiber, which also runs under his place, spilling out from an exposed channel in his parking lot. Soon the water was backing up onto Main Street, and drivers were climbing out of windows onto their car roofs.
“Everybody started freaking out,” he said.
Cortes is proud of his employees, all of whom stayed to help guests. His biggest regret now is that they are out of work. “We’ve tried to place them at other restaurants, but we can’t place 50 people.”
As he returns to the tasks in front him, Cortes repeats the vow heard up and down Main Street last week.
“We’ll rebuild and we’ll be back. That’s for sure.”