FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Erin Henson, 410-865-1025
David Broughton, 410-865-1029
Partnership with Maryland DNR Researches History of Cabins Near Furnace Site
HANOVER, MD (July 26, 2022) – Artifacts dating back to Colonial America are being uncovered this week by archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) as they research two small cabins near the historic Elkridge Furnace in Howard County. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the iron furnace, part of the U.S. National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, used enslaved, indentured and convict labor.
The research team, led by MDOT Chief of Cultural Resources Dr. Julie Schablitsky, has uncovered brick floors, stone foundations and artifacts during excavations that began last week and continue through Friday. Archaeologists hope to determine the age of the buildings and their relationship to the historic furnace.
“Archaeology is our last chance to understand the lives of these iron furnace workers who endured horrific conditions," said Dr. Schablitsky. “We are piecing together their life one ceramic sherd and lost button at a time."
The $50,000 archaeological project is a partnership between MDOT and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The property was once owned by the MDOT State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) in conjunction with its construction of nearby I-195 but was later conveyed to DNR who saved the historic complex.
“This latest partnership between MDOT and DNR shows our shared commitment to collaborate with fellow agencies and the community to discover and preserve one of Maryland's greatest assets: our history," said MDOT Secretary James F. Ports Jr.
Archaeological findings will be incorporated into interpretive materials, and the investigation will inform DNR's work to restore the buildings. In the future, DNR and the on-site restaurant, Elkridge Furnace Inn, will use the archaeological discoveries to share the history of the site and the lives of the iron workers with the public.
“As stewards of Maryland's natural and cultural resources, we are proud to partner with MDOT and support this archaeological work," DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said. “Having this information on the Elk Ridge Furnace site is invaluable as we work to interpret the important history of the Underground Railroad and convey what life was like during our nation's early Industrial Revolution."
The Elkridge Furnace Complex, near the intersection of Furnace Avenue and Race Road, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Elkridge is one of the oldest settlements in Howard County, and its growth was related to the country's economic success and transportation. Between late 18th century and mid-19th century, the community was a center for the iron industry with the establishment of furnaces, businesses and homes along the Baltimore Washington Turnpike and railroad.
In the mid-1700s, Caleb Dorsey, a tobacco planter, established this furnace next to forests, rich deposits of iron ore and the Patapsco River leading to the Chesapeake Bay. The furnace, named for the port town of Elkridge Landing, was one of Maryland's largest iron producers in the 18th century.
Maryland's iron industry flourished in part because of political tension between Britain and Sweden that resulted in a 1717 trade embargo from Sweden against Britain, eliminating Britain's major source of iron. As a result, Britain incentivized iron production in the colonies, including iron-rich Maryland. Those events are not unlike today's embargoes on Russia, which have the United States and other countries seeking alternative suppliers of natural resources.
The furnace operated using enslaved, indentured and convict labor, and peaked in its production during the American Revolution. Work at Elkridge Furnace was brutal. Advertisements in 18th century newspapers document at least five enslaved people who tried to flee and were depicted as “runaways." In several cases, individuals who escaped multiple times, and were caught, suffered severe punishments. The furnace highlights an underrepresented component of Underground Railroad history: resistance to industrial slavery.
By the early 19th century, Elkridge Furnace was operating at a deficit, and in 1822, the complex was sold by Edward and Samuel Dorsey to James and Andrew Ellicott. It is unclear if the Ellicott family operated the furnace or leased it. The site continued as a furnace until 1850, when the Ellicott family declared bankruptcy. In 1858, the site was bought by the Great Falls Iron Co. Then in 1868, the furnace was damaged by a flood, but continued to operate until 1873, when a major flood and fire shut it down for good.
The Elkridge Furnace Inn, adjacent to the furnace ruins and near the two cabins that are under archaeological excavation, was built between the 1820s and 1830s as a company store and residence. It was privately owned until the 1980s, when MDOT SHA purchased the complex for the construction of I-195. The building was set for demolition, but Elkridge citizens petitioned for its preservation, and the land was deeded to DNR. In 1989, the inn was leased as part of DNR's resident curatorship program, and today it is operated as The Elkridge Furnace Inn.