Aerial View of Old Ellicott City
Visit Howard County

Ellicott City Underground Railroad Walking Tour

Aerial View of Old Ellicott City
Visit Howard County

This 0.5-mile walking tour through the Ellicott City Historic District, the charming 19th-century flour milling town, reveals stories of freedom seekers from Ellicott Mills and the surrounding area. Places on the tour include routes to freedom as well as sites that were part of failed escape attempts and obstructions to liberation.

Park at the Courthouse Drive parking lot and begin your walking tour on Court Place, then stop at the interpretive marker on Court Place above the Historic Howard County Jail.

Howard County Jail, 1851
Historic Howard County Jail

Not all flights to freedom were successful. The Howard County Jail is a reminder of the treacherous life-threatening dangers of escaping slavery, and the fates of those who were caught. While the people and forces fighting the injustices of slavery were powerful, the law was not on their side.

Enslaved people who ran from their masters and those charged with encouraging them to flee or rise up were held here in the 1851 county jail. Augusta Spriggs and Richard Martin are a few of those who were held as a “fugitive without a pass.” Augusta Spriggs was held in jail while ads were posted for her slaveholder in Prince George’s County to claim her. Local free Black Augustus Collins was held in jail here while awaiting trial for inciting an insurrection among people of color.

An interpretive exhibit on Court Place near the courthouse parking lot visually describes the original jail and its 1878 additions as well as the jail’s connections to the Underground Railroad.

The historic jail is being revitalized through a partnership between Howard County and Preservation Maryland. The former jail will be repurposed and in part will provide a memorial space that acknowledges its challenging history.

1 Emory Street
Ellicott City 21043

From the interpretive marker on Court Place above the Old Howard County Jail, continue straight on Court Place, turn left on Park Avenue and walk around the 1843 courthouse. Continue on Park Avenue to its intersection with Court Avenue. Turn right on Court Avenue. An interpretive exhibit about Underground Railroad court proceedings is located in front of the courthouse building on Court Avenue.

Howard County Courthouse, 1843
Howard County Courthouse
Wikimedia Commons

Individuals who were charged with encouraging the enslaved to flee had court trials in this building. The most famous and dramatic case involved transferring known Underground Railroad agent William L. Chaplin from Montgomery County to Howard District in 1850.

William Chaplin was caught in the act of driving freedom seekers in a coach from Washington, D.C. Ambushed by a local constable in 1850 at the Maryland - Washington, D.C. border, he was found with the escaped bondsmen of two Congressmen after a shootout. Chaplin was jailed in both Washington, D.C. and Maryland and charged with assault and intent to murder against those who stopped the coach and detained him. He was also charged with assisting two enslaved people to run away.

After a bond was posted in Washington, D.C. for $6000 and paid by abolitionist sympathizers, Chaplin was turned over to authorities in Montgomery County, and his bail was placed at $19,000! Abolitionists raised the money.

Chaplin requested and received a change of venue from Montgomery County to Howard District and then jumped bail to escape prison and got away. He returned to upstate New York where he raised money through public speaking engagements to repay those who had backed him.

In addition to Chaplin, local free blacks like Warner Cook were charged here with enticing the enslaved to run away. Others who were tried here include John Ingles and W. Barner Hooker.

An interpretive exhibit on Court Avenue in front of the courthouse building describes the judicial proceedings for these cases.

8360 Court Avenue
Ellicott City 21043

From the front of the Howard County Courthouse, proceed on Court Avenue to the intersection with Park Avenue where you will find the Museum of Howard County History.

The Museum of Howard County History
Museum of Howard County History

The museum features exhibits about those who escaped slavery in Howard County and daily life in this 19th-century mill town. Exhibits provide a hands-on experience and a deeper understanding of Howard County history. The historical society's archives hold records for researching slavery, freedom and Underground Railroad related events in the county.

Next door to this museum is the Ellicott Mills Children’s Museum.

8328 Court Avenue
Ellicott City 21043

From the front of the museum, while facing Court Avenue, turn left and follow Court Avenue to the intersection with Emory Street. Follow Emory Street until it ends at the Old Howard County Jail. Here you can view the jail up close.

Then retrace your steps on Emory Avenue to Court Avenue. Follow Court Avenue past the Howard County Courthouse where a set of stairs descends to a parking lot on Court Avenue behind Main Street (the Historic National Road). Cross Main Street at the crosswalk and turn left. The Howard County Welcome Center will be on your right.

Historic National Road
Main Street, Ellicott City

Main Street in Ellicott City is part of the National Road, a series of privately-funded turnpikes and the first federally funded highway in the United States. The National Road began in 1811 to carry settlers and open trade between the port of Baltimore and the midwest. The Ellicott Brothers who established this grist milling town, arranged for shipment and export of wheat by constructing portions of this road.

Not only did this trade route carry cargo, but clandestine passengers also traveled this road by wagon or coach, hoping it would lead them to freedom. Many freedom seekers used The National Road as a route to freedom, hidden in wagons. Some used the National Road near Baltimore and Ellicott City, where they could access trains and boats to head north. Most freedom seekers on the National Road followed it around Hagerstown and Cumberland to enter Pennsylvania.

According to Underground Railroad historian William J. Switala, freedom seekers had several options along the road: traveling by foot, stealing away in wagons driven by Black teamsters or friendly white allies on their way to markets in Baltimore, or using the road to find a convenient B & O rail station to board a train.

Today you can stroll Main Street and browse stores along the National Road in the Ellicott City Historic District. See granite buildings like the Howard House, Railroad Hotel, Patapsco Hotel and the B & O Ellicott City Railroad Station that still stand since the early and mid 19th century.  These sites have survived the passage of time, endured the Civil War, witnessed the arrival of the United States Colored Troops and saw changes to our society that led to the abolition of slavery.

Look for granite milestones along the street that marked distances to Baltimore on the National Road. One exists near the railroad bridge on the east end of town. The National Road crosses the Patapsco River near here and heads towards Baltimore. The Patapsco River could also point the way from Ellicott Mills to Baltimore, another pathway to freedom.

Learn more about the Historic National Road at the Howard County Welcome Center on Main Street. Guided tours are available.

Howard County Welcome Center
8267 Main Street, Ellicott City 21043

From Main Street, retrace your route to the courthouse parking lot on Courthouse Drive and Court Place.

Pathways to Freedom Guide

Follow Pathways To Freedom Guide

Download the Pathways to Freedom Guide to find detailed walking tour maps.