The Patapsco River and Valley

Avalon History Center.Founded in 1907 as the Patapsco Forest Reserve, Patapsco Valley State Park is Maryland’s oldest state park. It is the site of some of Maryland’s earliest mills and factories, America’s first common-carrier railroad and the world’s first underwater hydroelectric plant.

Catastrophic floods have damaged or destroyed many of the valley’s historic structures and sites. As you travel through the park, whether by foot, bicycle or car, keep an eye out for historic structures, sites and ruins. Wayside interpretive signs will help you discover the valley’s rich history, especially in the Avalon and Orange Grove Areas. Be sure to bring a park map with you on your journey.

Please note that on busy summer weekends, several park areas, such as Avalon, Orange Grove and Daniels, often fill to capacity. Be sure to arrive early if you plan to come on the weekend.

The Effects of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972

“At the time, Agnes was the costliest hurricane to hit the U.S. in recorded history" (reports Wikipedia). The hurricane hit Florida and swept up the east coast becoming a Stropical storm” (a hurricane minus the strong winds) by the time it reached Maryland. Nineteen people lost their lives in Maryland, seven along the Patapsco River. With a floodplain of 540 square miles, the 10-14 inches of rain that fell brought an immense amount of runoff water into the Patapsco Valley. This area was the hardest hit part of Maryland, and it devastated the Patapsco Valley State Park. Old mill towns received extensive damage, Ellicott City and Oella were severely flooded, and on June 23" it was reported that the water was 40 feet higher than normal. A Relay, Md. resident reported seeing the high waters up almost to the tops of the arches of the Thomas Viaduct. (That level was very close to the level seen at the time of the “Great Flood” of 1868 when the raging waters of the Patapsco reached up to 45 feet higher than usual.) A large part of River Road got permanently washed away, more than 900 people were evacuated from their homes, and a National Guard helicopter was called in to rescue workers from the roof of the Daniels Mill. In Howard County, 704 people were left homeless. At least 80 homes in Ellicott City and 72 homes in Elkridge received damage.

Other severe flooding in this highly susceptible area had occurred in 1868, 1923, 1934, 1952, 1956, and with Tropical Storm Eloise in 1975. Even Hurricane Irene followed by Hurricane Lee in 2011 resulted in floodwaters reaching levels over the cash register drawer in the park's contact station at the entrance to the Avalon Area. Furthermore, the spring rains of 2014 brought floodwaters in Avalon again up to the cash register drawer in the contact station while powerful waters washed away part of the railroad embankment near Gun Rd. and brought rocks up to the size of basketballs through the tunnel leading to the Glen Artney Area of the park.

In 1972, main street Ellicott City looked like a virtual lake. Hundreds of thousands of trees were uprooted and washed downriver. Trucks and cars were swept away, and electric service to the area was knocked out. Roads and bridges were eliminated leaving many people stranded. More than 50 businesses in Ellicott City were damaged, and the Wilkens-Rogers flour mill on Frederick Rd. at the Ellicott City bridge incurred $50,000 in damages.

Ilchester to Elkridge was the most highly devastated area in the valley, and the hardest hit areas of the park were Orange Grove and Avalon. River Road from Ilchester Road to Orange Grove was washed away. Sections of the railroad received severe damage while the superstructure of the 1906 Bloede Dam was gone. Half of the Avalon Dam built in 1910 was eliminated, and the Patapsco River rerouted itself around the remaining section. Washed away also were picnic shelters, restrooms, park equipment, the park headquarters building, the Swinging Bridge, and Lost Lake. Electrical and water systems were uprooted and swept away as severe erosion was widespread. The sanitary sewer interceptor line running next to the river became uncovered and fractured in four places depositing millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Patapsco River. When the floodwaters receded, hundreds to thousands of bags of cake flour from the Wilkens Rogers flour mill in Ellicott City could be seen stuck up in the tree branches 30 feet or so up off the ground. Damage to the park was estimated at $2 million. Then President Nixon declared Maryland a federal disaster area which enabled federal funds to come to the most severely affected areas.

Rebuilding took many years. The Army Corps of Engineers played a huge role in the recovery efforts. For example, bulldozers were seen pushing tons of sediment from downtown Ellicott City back into the river channel. Numerous replacement and renovation projects in the park involved shelters, restrooms, playground equipment, parking lots, roadways, and much more. The Swinging Bridge was replaced (for the 64 time in history since first created in 1856). Furthermore, extensive numbers of uprooted trees and other debris deposited along the banks of the river in the park had to be removed. An overturned tanker truck washed downriver by Agnes remains today along the Grist Mill Trail as a grim memento. By the 1980's, construction projects to fully restore the park were completed, and a new park headquarters building opened on Rt. #40 at the Hollofield Area in 1984.

Edward F. Johnson
Volunteer Ranger
Patapsco Valley State Park

Who Was Fred Besley and What Did He Do?

Without him, the public would not be using and enjoying Maryland's First State Park (Patapsco Valley) and other subsequent State parks.

First of all, Mr. Fred W. Besley was Maryland's first State Forester and served longer than any other... from 1906-1942. During his tenure he inventoried every stand of trees in Maryland larger than five (5) acres. What is now Patapsco Valley State Park was originally the Patapsco Forest Preserve before 1907. Mr. Besley said, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is today."

Secondly, Fred Besley developed a successful way to fight forest fires in the early 1900's. Fires then used to consume an average of 203 acres, but his system of using volunteer "fire wardens" to fight fires reduced the average loss to only 17 acres.

Thirdly, he opened the door for the public to use and enjoy public lands for recreation and pleasure. During the 1920's, Fred Besley encouraged the public to come to Orange Grove where he camped with his family. He wanted people to experience the joy of the outdoors. Families could picnic and camp the whole summer for free as long as they obeyed campfire rules and dug their own latrines. Electricity reached those large, old tents in the 1920's for radio service, and one family even brought their piano with them.

Presently, Patapsco Valley State Park is utilized by well over a million visitors each year. They have learned that nature reduces stress, and there's much to appreciate here. Thank you, Fred Besley!

Edward F. Johnson
Volunteer Ranger
Patapsco Valley State Park

​An Enthusiastic Ally Passed Through the Patapsco Valley, But Nine of His Soldiers Drowned

At the time of the American Revolutionary War the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat, enthusiastically supported our efforts at his own request. He was a successful leader in combat and a most loyal companion to General George Washington. The Continental Congress appointed him a major general in 1777, and he co-led American forces in the successful siege of Lord Cornwallis' British armies at Yorktown.

Elkridge residents, stores, and iron forges were busy supporting the war effort with blankets, musket parts and cartridges, tents, medical supplies, and hauling cannon (on Gun Road) as troops passed through the area. The Elkridge Battalion was on alert and called to duty, also. But on the fateful day of April 19, 1781 nine (9) French soldiers met their fate, not in battle, but in the waters of the Patapsco River at Elkridge. While crossing the wide and deep waters in scows used for ferrying purposes for both men and supplies, one scow sank, and the nine men drowned. Many of Lafayette's men at that time were barefoot and dressed in ragged clothes.

By Vol Ranger Ed Johnson

Historic Sites

There are four main areas of the park where trails, historic sites and parking lots are grouped together. Each area - Avalon, Orange Grove, Hollofield and Daniels - offers unique sites and experiences. The areas as listed below follow a geographical sequence upstream.

Elk Ridge Landing and the Elk Ridge Furnace

Elk Ridge Landing, established in 1690, was a prominent colonial deep-water port, similar to Annapolis and Joppa. Prior to the establishment of Baltimore, Elk Ridge Landing was a "gateway" for shipping agricultural products, natural resources and manufactured goods from the Patapsco's many tobacco plantations. Thanks to erosion caused by deforestation, Elk Ridge Landing silted in and was no longer a serviceable port by 1868.

Elkridge was also the site of one of Maryland’s first iron furnaces: Elk Ridge Furnace. Built by Caleb Dorsey in 1755, the furnace manufactured “pig iron”-- cast iron that was worked into implements such as nails, horseshoes and shovel spades by blacksmiths. The furnace reportedly supplied cannons and ammunition during the Revolutionary War.

You can view a portion of Elk Ridge Landing at the historic Elkridge Furnace Inn restaurant. From U.S. 1 North in Elkridge, turn right on Levering Avenue. Go one block, and turn left on Main Street. Follow Main Street one block, and turn right on Furnace Avenue. Proceed down Furnace Avenue to the Furnace Inn on your left. Furnace Inn is a part of the State Park that is leased as a private inn and conference center. The buildings that make up the Elkridge Furnace Inn restaurant complex date to the early-to-mid 1800s, and only scant ruins of the furnace itself remain along the river bank. This curatorship/lease arrangement aids the state in preserving this historic building, while providing public access to this historic structure.

Elba Iron Furnace

The Elba Iron Furnace was constructed c. 1847 by three Baltimore businessmen, Eben Belknap, John Griffiths, and Ammon Cate. In 1849, Isaac Tyson, Jr. purchased the furnace and approximately 15 acres of land for $10,000 for his son James Wood Tyson. Tyson also purchased dam and water rights from James Sykes, who had a mill in the vicinity. These rights would prove to be a source, as James' wife Elizabeth Tyson noted in a letter of 1851: "The country is parched for want of rain; the river is very low, so that the furnace has to stop for two or three hours every evening after old Sykes shuts his dam off until it spills and runs over. He built a dam against all James could do who told him it was not legal and now I am only waiting to feel a decisive inconvenience from it and will sue him."

Survey No. CARR-1586
Maryland Historical Trust HISTORIC PROPERTIES

​Avalon Area

The Avalon Area consists of the Thomas Viaduct and the William Offutt Visitor’s Center, plus sites of the Avalon Iron Works, the Avalon Water Works, Camp Tydings and Lost Lake.

The Thomas Viaduct was completed in 1835 and is the world's largest multiple-arched stone railroad bridge with a curve. Built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Thomas Viaduct makes up the first leg of the railroad’s Washington Branch. It is named for the B&O’s first president, Philip Thomas. The viaduct is located just west of the Avalon Area contact station. Enter the Avalon Area of Patapsco Valley State Park off U.S. 1 at South Street, just north of Elkridge. Proceed on Park Entrance Road to the contact station. Temporary parking is available in front of the contact station. An interpretive sign is located at the contact station. To view the bridge, carefully walk down the road to examine the Viaduct, keeping in mind the danger of the blind curve on the roadway. Please note that the viaduct is still an active railroad. Do not, under any circumstances, approach the tracks or cross the bridge.

The William Offutt Johnson History Center (formerly the William Offutt Visitor’s Center) is one of the few surviving buildings from Avalon Iron & Nail Works. Built in the 1830s, this tiny stone duplex was home to at least two families employed by the forge, which operated nearby from 1761 to 1868. The History Center is once again open to the public following a long closure to undergo renovations. Interpretive exhibit panels are located on the grounds near the Visitor’s Center. Also near the Visitor’s Center are the remnants of the Baltimore County Water and Electric Company’s water filtration plant. Also known as the Avalon Water Works, the water treatment plant supplied clean water to local communities in the early 1800s. The History Center can be reached by following the Avalon entrance road to the end, making a right at the “T” and then parking in the parking lot on the right.

Old Gun Road stone arch bridge spanned the millrace that supplied water to Avalon Water Works. The age of this bridge is unknown, but is believed to date back to either the early 19th or 20th century. The Gun Road stone arch bridge is located across from the Avalon Visitor Center parking lot.

Near park Shelter #1 are the remains of Camp Tydings, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp that operated between 1933 and 1942. The CCC was created in 1933 as part of the New Deal, and employed young men to work on environmental conservation projects, which helped shape many of the parks we still enjoy today. Following the start of World War II, the CCC camp was converted to the nation's first conscientious objectors’ camp. Shelter #1 can be reached by following the Avalon entrance road to the end, making a right at the “T” and then the next immediate left.

Lost Lake is a man-made lake that once was part of the Avalon Dam and millrace. After Tropical Storm Agnes bypassed Avalon Dam in 1972 (part of it survives on the other side of the river), a new Lost Lake was built by DNR to replace the original. It is called Lost Lake because during much of the year an algae layer covers the pond. Lost Lake is located at the end of the same road at Shelter #1 (see above), but remains closed following the flooding of Ellicott City in 2018.​

At the end of Lost Lake parking lot is the eastern terminus of the Grist Mill Trail. Along the Grist Mill Trail between Avalon and Orange Grove are the remnants of a tanker truck that was deposited on the river bank by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

Orange Grove Area

The Orange Grove Area consists of Swinging Bridge, ruins of the Orange Grove flour mill, and the sites of Bloede’s Dam and the Patterson Viaduct.

The Swinging Bridge spans the Patapsco River at Orange Grove, 1.6 miles northwest of Avalon, following Park Road beyond shelters 104 and 105. Previous suspension foot bridges at this location enabled residents of the Orange Grove mill town to cross the river to Baltimore County. This was especially helpful for those who worked at the C.A. Gambrill Manufacturing Company’s Orange Grove Flour Mill, which stood five stories high. Orange Grove flour was sold in white bags whose tops were string tied and whose labels proclaimed "Patapsco Superlative Flour." This mill burned down on May 1, 1905. Cross the bridge to discover ruins of this large mill site that extended from the railroad tracks to the Swinging Bridge abutment.

The site of Bloede Dam is located about a mile upstream from Orange Grove. It is believed to have been the world's first submerged electric-generating plant. Local businessman and philanthropist Victor G. Bloede and electrical engineer Otto Wonder developed this unique and experimental hydroelectric dam, which operated from 1907 until about 1930. The dam was removed in 2018 to restore passage for migratory fish. To see the dam site, follow the River Road (on foot or by bicycle) upriver beyond the Orange Grove Shelter, or follow the Grist Mill Trail (across the river) upstream.

The Patterson Viaduct was built for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1829. Named for B&O director William Patterson, the bridge spanned 375 feet with four arches. The bridge’s lifespan was relatively short; a flood swept away three of its arches in 1866. An iron bridge was built in its place until the line was bypassed in 1903. Today, the remaining abutment and arch support the “cable-stay” bridge that makes up the western terminus of the Grist Mill Trail.

Hollofield Area

The Hollofield Area consists of the Union Dam, the Union Dam Tunnel and the U.S. 40 Bridge.

The first Union Dam was built in 1810 by the Union Manufacturing Company for a cotton mill, which was located in present-day Oella, over one mile downstream. The mile-long millrace was intended to power several mills, but only powered one. The original stone and wood dam was replaced by a concrete dam in the early 1900s. Tropical Storm Agnes diverted the river around the dam in 1972. When the concrete dam was removed in 2010, remnants of the original dam were revealed. Today, you can visit the dam site by following the Union Dam Trail beyond Hollofield Shelter 300 down into the valley.

The nearby Union Dam Tunnel was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1902 to bypass a tight, narrow curve around around the hillside. The tunnel is on private property and is still an active railroad. Please view the tunnel from a safe distance and do not approach the tracks.

The U.S. 40 Bridge, originally called the Edmondson Avenue Extension Bridge, was built by the State Roads Commission in 1936 to carry Baltimore National Pike across the Patapsco Valley. Built of reinforced concrete, the bridge features 27 small arches overtop of a 180 foot-long gentle arch. Hollofield is named from the last owners of Ellicott’s Upper Mills, which was established in the late 18th century. A clerical error has caused the misspelling of “Hollifield” to stick and the park area today is called “Hollofield.”

Daniels Area

The Daniels Area consists of the Daniels Dam, the ruins of the towns of Daniels and Guilford and the original road bed of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The Daniels dam once powered the mill and town of Daniels. Originally called Elysville, then Alberton, Daniels was founded in the 1840s as a textile mill. In the 1860s, the mill produced canvas tents for the Union Army. The current name, Daniels, came from the C.R. Daniels Company who took ownership of the mill in 1940. The mill company demolished much of the milltown in 1968 and Tropical Storm Agnes destroyed the mill in 1972. To visit the Daniels dam and town site in Baltimore County, take Route 29 North to its termination at Route 99, Old Frederick Road. Turn right on Old Frederick Road and proceed to the first left, which is still Old Frederick Road. Proceed about one half mile to a left on Daniels Road where you drive about one mile to a parking lot on the left and the dam will be on your left. Please note that the site of the original mill, along with the surviving James A. Gary Methodist Church, are on private property. Do not trespass.

To see the ruins of Guilford, the milltown on the Baltimore County side of the river, hike on Old Alberton Road. Guilford was built as part of the Alberton/Daniels mill town, but because it was built on the other side of the river, it had its own identity. To reach old Alberton Road, take Daniels Road back to a left on Old Frederick Road. Follow Old Frederick Road to the railroad crossing and steel bridge at the "T" intersection across the bridge where you turn left on Hollofield Road. Proceed .3 miles to a "T" intersection with Dogwood Road. Turn left over a bridge, then turn left immediately into Alberton Road. Park in the lot before the cattle gate. Proceed through the gate passed the private home on the hill. Hike the Alberton road behind the gate and along the river. Please use caution when exploring the ruins.

Much of the Old Main Line Trail west of Daniels on the Howard County site follows the original alignment of the B&O Railroad as it was laid out in 1831. It was found to be too windy, even in the 1830s, and part of this line was bypassed by a short realignment in 1838, and then completely bypassed in 1907. Bridge abutments and piers from the 1838 realignment are visible near Daniels Dam and about a half-mile upstream.

For Further Reading…

Cramm, Joetta M., A Pictorial History of Howard County, Donning Publishing, 1988.

Dilts, James W., The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, the Nation’s First Railroad, 1828-1853, Stanford University Press, 1996.

Harwood, Herber H., Impossible Challenge II: Baltimore to Washington and Harpers Ferry, 1828-1994, Barnard Roberts, Inc., 1994.

Sharp, Henry K., The Patapsco Valley, Cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Maryland, The Maryland Historical Society, 2000.

Travers, Paul J., The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History, Shiffer Publishing, 2016.​​​

Why They Visited the Patapsco River Valley Area

(in random order)

John Glenn (not the astronaut)…..He owned a large tract of land in Catonsville which is now the site of the Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville Campus. Glenn donated the first 48 acres to the State in 1907 to preserve the Patapsco River valley, and it became Maryland’s first State Park.

Aubrey Bodine…..The renowned photographer of the Chesapeake Bay and its workers lived on Augustana Avenue in Elkridge and began his professional career as a photographer with the Baltimore Sun in 1922. The photo that got him the job was one he took of the Thomas Viaduct.

President Andrew Jackson…..He had the distinction of being the first American President to ride a train while in office as he rode the 13 miles from Ellicott’s Mills to Baltimore in 1830.

President James Polk …..He was the first president to ride a train to his inauguration and rode from Relay to Washington, D.C. in 1845.

President Abraham Lincoln…..He rode a train through Relay to his inauguration in 1861 and again in 1863 on his way to deliver his famous Gettysburg Address in Pennsylvania.

Greenpeace…..Beginning in 1982, members of the ecological organization sailed up the Patapsco and fought the industrial pollution of the river. There was significant media attention to the problem. Industry was held accountable for the first time in history, and the quality of the river improved greatly. Also, the community of Oella got its first public sewage hook-up as a result.

George Herman Ruth…..”The Babe” got married in 1914 at St. Paul’s Church in Ellicott City.

Oella…..She was a textile mill worker at the Union Manufacturing Company in 1810 (later to become the Dickey Mill) and was the first woman to spin cotton in America. The community of Oella bears her name.

Captain John Smith…..In 1608 he was the first European to explore and map the Chesapeake Bay and parts of the Patapsco River. His discoveries and findings of iron ore and limestone along the banks of the river opened the door to other Europeans and the first industry in the area….iron forges.

Edward F. Johnson
Volunteer Ranger
Patapsco Valley State Park