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‘Beyond rescue’: Ellicott City’s bizarre, rainless flood and its deadly 20-foot wall of water

A Harper’s Weekly illustration showing the flood of July 24, 1868, in Ellicott City. At least 43 people died and 28 houses were swept away. (David Healey, Great Storms of the Chesapeake)

It did not rain, at least not in Ellicott City. That’s what made the 1868 flood so bizarre and unexpected for the residents of Ellicott City, Md., who were reeling again this week after being devastated by their second 1,000-year flood in two years.

A 39-year-old National Guard sergeant was swept away Sunday as he tried to rescue a woman trapped by the raging waters on Main Street.

‘Washed away real quick’: Missing Md. man was trying to help woman trapped by flood

But the flood on July 24, 1868, was far deadlier, claiming the lives of dozens of people. According to David Healey, author of “Great Storms of the Chesapeake,” the tremendous thunderstorm that caused the flood 150 years ago stayed west of town.

On that fateful day in July, the morning light was completely blacked out by tall thunderstorm clouds to the west of Ellicott City, which was founded in 1772 at the site of a grist mill along the banks of the Patapsco River.

Birds stopped singing, mill workers were forced to quit early, and flashes of lightning filled the western sky. Residents of the thriving town, which served as the terminus of the first section of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, braced for a storm, but it never arrived. The storm, probably stationary, didn’t move east, but its runoff certainly did.

The National Weather issued a flash flood emergency for Ellicott City, Md., on May 27, after 3-6 inches of rain fell in just two hours. (Video: JM Rieger, Taylor Turner, David Bruns/The Washington Post)

The Patapsco River began to rise. By 9:30 a.m., the river rose 10 feet. Within minutes, the people of Ellicott City heard a terrible roaring noise. Witnesses described a wall of water rushing down the Patapsco toward the city.

Waves and spray were described to splash 20 feet into the air as the wall of water hit Ellicott City. The Louisville Daily Courier reported 50 lives were lost — though Preservation Maryland puts the number at 43 — and that at least 28 homes were swept away. In addition, the Patapsco flour mill was swept away, the cotton mill was ruined, and the nearby iron works washed down the river.

A Louisville Daily Courier article from July 29, 1868, described families crawling on top of their roofs only to have their entire houses swept away by the “cruel waters.”

Healey described the scene in his book: “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 36 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.”

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Later, the flood swept toward Baltimore, where it wrecked bridges and filled the streets and harbor with debris. There has never been a “dry flood” like it since in our region where areas without rain were inundated with so much water.

Harper’s Weekly published an article on Aug. 8, 1868, called “The Maryland Flood,” which described how after the floodwaters receded, parts of crushed houses, piles of furniture, goods from stores, trees, logs and stones that were deposited in tangled heaps along the path of the water, and how a new channel had been cut through town. The Harper’s Weekly article also quoted the Baltimore Telegram, which described daring water rescues by boat during the flood that were led by Police Commissioner James E. Carr.

Records at the U.S. Naval Observatory for July 24, 1868, show that about two inches of rain fell during the early afternoon. But rain from that thunderstorm was not responsible for the flooding that occurred in Ellicott City and Baltimore.

I asked Healey whether he thought the flood of 1868 had a higher water level than the flood that occurred this weekend.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “Based on the video footage online, yesterday’s flood was certainly devastating, but I would say that the 1868 flood was even greater based on the contemporary descriptions.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the river rose 10 feet at 9:30 p.m. It should have been 9:30 a.m. 

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