Howard County's History
Howard County officially became the 21st of Maryland’s 23 counties in 1851. It was originally part of Anne Arundel County and was designated the Howard District in 1839, in honor of John Eager Howard, statesman, soldier, and fifth governor of Maryland.
Howard County was mainly the farming and hunting grounds of Native Americans until 1608 when Captain John Smith of Jamestown sailed up the Patapsco River. However, the first colonial settler, a Puritan named Adam Shipley, came much later, in 1687, when Lord Baltimore granted him a home on the Patapsco River. It is also at this time when Howard County’s tradition of farming started.
In the 1700s, the family of Charles Carroll, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, acquired nearly 13,000 acres of farmland and forests. On this property, Carroll built an elaborate masonry home in grand plantation style, located several miles west of Ellicott City. It was named Doughoregan Manor. Today, descendants of the Carroll family still live on the property, of which only 3,000 acres remain. This is a private residence, not open to the public.
On Howard County’s eastern edge, a great port was established in the late 1700s. The Great Falls of the Patapsco River terminated the navigable route upstream, just northwest of what is today called Elkridge. It was a natural location for the establishment of Elk Ridge Landing as a transfer point for goods. Ships coming from England and points farther east brought furniture, spices and other finished goods to trade. “Hogs heads” of tobacco and iron from the nearby furnace were shipped back to England. Elk Ridge Landing became the largest colonial seaport north of Annapolis.
In 1772, the Quaker brothers, John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, chose the picturesque wilderness upstream from Elk Ridge Landing to establish a flour mill. The brothers helped revolutionize farming in this area by persuading farmers to plant wheat instead of tobacco, and by introducing fertilizer to revitalize the depleted soil. Charles Carroll was one of the first and the most influential converts from tobacco to wheat. It was to Carroll’s estate that the Ellicott brothers built the first part of a road that was later to become the National Road, America’s first interstate highway.
The Ellicotts made significant contributions to the area and the era. They helped create Ellicott’s Mills, one of the greatest milling and manufacturing towns in the east at that time. They built roads, bridges and a wharf in Baltimore, introduced the wagon brake and plaster as a fertilizer, erected iron works, a furnace, rolling mills, schools, a meeting house, shops and beautiful granite houses.
In 1791, Andrew Ellicott was commissioned to survey the boundaries for the nation’s new capital, Washington, D. C. Benjamin Banneker, an African American scientist and friend of the family, joined him in his work. Banneker maintained notes for Ellicott, made calculations as required and used astronomical instruments to establish base survey points.
On the southern corner of the county, along the Little Patuxent River, Savage Mill began operation in 1822. One of the county’s longest-operating companies, Savage Mill functioned as a textile mill from 1822 until 1947and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1830, the railroad came to Howard County. The Baltimore & Ohio’s first 13 miles of track connected Baltimore with the thriving community of Ellicott’s Mills. America’s first railroad terminal was built there in 1831. The Ellicott City B & O Railroad Station Museum is a National Historic Landmark.
The first curved stone-arch bridge in America carried the B&O rail line over the Patapsco River near Elkridge. The Thomas Viaduct, built in 1835, is a 700-foot long structure of eight elliptical arches. Despite the opinions of skeptics, not only did it support the first trains, it has remained in service for more than 150 years. Another significant railroad bridge on the early B&O line is the Bollman Truss Bridge. This wrought and cast-iron, semi-suspension bridge was brought to Savage in 1860 when the B&O Railroad serviced the Mill. One of the last remaining examples of this design, the Bollman Truss Bridge is a National Historic Landmark. It now carries pedestrians across the Little Patuxent River behind Historic Savage Mill.
The Patapsco Female Institute was one of the first schools in the country to educate women academically. Built in 1837, the school (now an historic park) was constructed on land in Ellicott’s Mills donated, in part, by the Ellicott brothers.
In 1839, the area was designated Howard District of Anne Arundel County. The small, granite building at the top of Main Street in Ellicott City served as an interim courthouse from 1840 to 1843. Howard County became an independent jurisdiction in 1851.
The small town of Lisbon in western Howard County developed as a farming community before the Civil War. It was also a supply depot and waystation on the Old Frederick Turnpike. In the mid-1800s, Lisbon was a summer resort for city dwellers escaping the heat. At the corner of Rt. 108 & 32, you’ll find Clarksville, a prosperous little town in the late 1800s with its post office, grocer, four blacksmiths & wheelwrights, five stores, three carpenters and three doctors.
When the Civil War broke out, the county was divided, much like the rest of the nation was. The railroad and its bridges became prime targets of the Confederate Army. Cooksville, in western Howard County, played a part in the outcome of the Gettysburg campaign. Heading north to assist Gen. Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg, JEB Stuart was delayed here in a skirmish with opposing forces bent on stopping him. He captured the enemy troops, but was late getting to Pennsylvania. By that time, the tide was already turned against the Confederates.
The county was predominately agricultural in character until 1966, when construction began on the new town of Columbia. Columbia was planned and developed by The Rouse Company, led by its founder James Rouse. Beginning with an idea and the purchase of more than 14,000 acres in the mid-1960s, it has reached its original population projection and in almost every other way has met the goals put forth in its original proposal and advertising.
The county’s population has grown approximately 500 percent since then, and it is now one of the wealthiest in the nation. Under a home rule charter since 1968, Howard County is governed by an elected County Executive and five member County Council.