Monday, June 8, 2009

A Rare Peek Into the Past

Rare 19th century photography, portraiture, and fine art affords historians an opportunity to gather a glimpse of many aspects of American life. Presented here (with reference numbers added) is the earliest known photograph of the Ellicott City Station and the surrounding buildings and structures in Ellicott's Mills. While the photographer is unknown, this view was taken atop the roof of the Gambrill Flour Mill once located on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River roughly where the large concrete Washington Flour Mill stands today (built in 1918 as The Patapsco Flouring Mills). The Gambrill and Carroll family bought the Ellicott's mill in 1832 and operated it for nearly 100 years.

The image has many charactertistics of either a Daguerreotype (invented 1839) or an Ambrotype (invented 1854) but this view was re-published by E&HT Anthony of New York (1862-1902) as a stereoview. Stereoviews were popular throughout the mid to late 19th century as a form of home entertainment. They were two side by side paper photographs mounted on cardboard (often with a descriptive narrative printed on the reverse) and designed to be seen through the use of a stereopticon. When placed in the view, the image appears in 3-D.


Let’s take a rare peek into the past and see if we can gather some clues that might date the photograph!

Ellicott City

1) The B&O Railroad Ellicott City Station (1831) is seen here with its long roof and cupola but without the long trackside overhang and the addition of fancy timbered eaves that were added when architect E. Francis Baldwin designed and installed decorative additions to modernize the Station in 1880.
2) The Patapsco Hotel (1830) with its multi-storied piazzas actually served as the second railroad passenger station in America (the first was at Mt. Clare). The Ellicott City Station (1) was designed by the B&O Railroad as a freight station. This hotel, located directly across Main Street had a second floor passenger waiting rooms and a trackside platform for boarding. The old hotel served passengers until the Ellicott City Station was remodeled by Baldwin in 1880. In 1887 the building became the printing plant for the town's newspaper. By 1912 it was a warehouse for ice when the B&O locomotive de-railed and structurally damaged the building in 1925. Abandoned after the accident, the hotel collapsed in April 1926 and was re-built in its current form.
3) In the foreground of the images is Jonathon Ellicott's home (1790). One of three large stone residences at the mill built by George and Jonathon Ellicott, it was severely damaged in the 1868 flood (along with the Gambrill Mill and many of the other houses seen in front of the Ellicott house) and completely destroyed by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
4) Perched in the distance atop the hill is Howard County Courthouse (1843). Construction began in 1841 and was completed in 1843.

Taking all of this evidence and information about the structures depicted into account, we definitely date the photograph before the 1869 flood and after the invention of this type of photography (1839). Characteristics of the original image (present when copied to a stereoview) show some discoloration, and scratching that is typical of Daguerreotype and Ambrotype photographs that used silver emulsion on the surface of a glass plate. This type of photography was most prevalent in America from about 1850-1865. Short of a miraculous discovery of a dated specimen, we will probably never know the exact date the unknown photographer climbed atop the Gambrill Mill to take this picturesque view. But we can be confident that it was taken in the decade preceding the Great Flood of 1868.

Courtney B. Wilson
Executive Director