The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was the first commercial railroad in the United States. The B&O was launched with the intent to lay tracks from Baltimore to the Ohio River. Not an easy task, it would take twenty-five years to accomplish this feat at a cost of 14 million dollars. The B&O began construction west from Baltimore in 1828, opening its line as it reached towns and cities along the way. The first thirteen miles of track was completed between Baltimore and Ellicott City (then known as Ellicott’s Mills) on May 20, 1830. The station served as the original end of the line (terminus) for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
The Board of Directors took the inaugural trip to Ellicott’s Mills on a horse-drawn passenger car named the Pioneer on May 22, 1830 to dedicate the line. Regular passenger service began on Monday, May 24, 1830 with three scheduled trips between Baltimore and Ellicott’s Mills. The first year the railroad opened, over 81,000 passengers traveled along the Main Line. Behind Baltimore, Ellicott City served as a significant commuter station and consistently generated the most passengers along the B&O’s Main Line throughout its history.
The station at Ellicott City was not completed until November of 1831, even though the B&O opened regular service in May of 1830. Prior to the depot’s completion the B&O used houses, hotels, and inns for early passenger service. Passengers purchased tickets and boarded the trains from a platform connected to the second floor of the Patapsco Hotel located on Main Street directly across from the present-day depot.
Ellicott’s Mills was a logical choice for a railroad station. The town was a bustling community with numerous mills. The surrounding agricultural region provided an abundant source of freight. The station was located on the corner of Maryland Avenue and the Baltimore & Frederick Turnpike, which allowed freight wagons and travelers quick and easy access to and from the station. Influencing the actual location of the building was the generosity of the Ellicott family. They realized that an advantageous location of the B&O’s line west would reduce shipping costs for their flour and raise the profits of their mills. The Ellicotts donated 52,125 square feet of land located next to the Patapsco River and the Baltimore and Frederick Turnpike directly across from their Lower Mill. The Ellicotts allowed the B&O to quarry granite for the construction of the building and the bridge over the adjacent turnpike from their quarries free of charge. They also donated land for a turnout and siding that would connect the railroad to the Lower Mill.
In the early years of the railroad, few of the buildings built by the B&O were permanent in nature. The few permanent buildings were solid, simple, utilitarian facilities designed for freight service. The building at Ellicott’s Mills was called a depot, a railroad building specifically built to store freight and produce. The Ellicott’s Mills depot also had a car house for storing engines and rolling stock. Facilities at Ellicott’s Mills consisted of more than just the main freight depot. The B&O built several structures on the land the Ellicotts donated, including the Oliver Viaduct (1830), the main depot (1831), a blacksmith’s shop (1833), a turntable (1863), and a freight house (1885). Stables were built near the depot to house the horses used in relaying the trains.
The main depot consisted of three sections: an office section, a freight section, and a car house. The office section was located on the north end of the building closest to Main Street. Loading dock doors lined the lower level of the depot facing present day Maryland Avenue. Wagons backed up to the building to load and unload freight directly into the building. The center section of the building, where the museum’s gift shop, main entrance, men’s waiting room and telegraph and ticket office are now located, was a two-story warehouse for freight and produce. There was a large opening in the floor and a pulley was used to raise and lower items within the building. The south side of the building functioned as a car house. There were two large wooden doors and two sets of tracks that allowed horse-drawn cars and steam engines to enter the room for repairs and storage. Openings in the floor allowed access to the underside of the cars.
The station has been modified several times over its long history. The most notable renovation took place in 1856-57 when the second floor of the station was modified to accommodate passengers. This included the addition of separate waiting rooms for men and women and the addition of a ticket window and telegraph office. Renovations also occurred in 1883-1886 including the addition of ornate wood designs on the exterior of the depot and indoor bathrooms.
The station ceased offering passenger service on December 31, 1949 due to a decrease in the demand for passenger travel. Freight service continued until 1972. Rains brought by Hurricane Agnes between June 21 and June 23 of that year severely damaged the Main Line near Ellicott City. The railroad repaired the tracks but discontinued the Railway Express business and never reopened the building.
Preservation and restoration of the Ellicott City depot began shortly after it closed in 1972. A local volunteer preservation group fought the B&O’s plans to tear down the 1885-freight house and cut two feet off of the main depot’s roof line nearest the tracks. The Ellicott City Bicentennial Association raised $20,000 for the preservation of the building. The group merged with a preservation organization called Historic Ellicott Mills and renamed themselves as Historic Ellicott City, Incorporated (HEC, Inc.) and was active in the initial restoration of the station. In 1976, Howard County leased the building from the B&O and HEC, Inc. negotiated a management contract to open the station as a museum. CSX transportation sold the station to Howard County in 1996 and in 1998, a restoration project restored portions of the depot to its current appearance. Today the station is managed by the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore.
Source: Two Centuries on Main Street: An Interpretive Manual for the Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station Museum by Dave Shackelford.