The floods that ravaged Ellicott City last year unearthed an unexpected mystery- underground caves. Research conducted by the Howard County Historical Society team led by Shawn Gladden revealed that the caverns below Main Street were multi-purpose. They served as a hideaway for booze during Prohibition, importantly as a stop on the Underground Railroad (as with many properties in Howard County) and cold storage for a saloon and beer garden in the 19th century. This was not at all unusual for Maryland.
Prior to refrigeration the coolest place to lager beer (age at cooler temperatures for about 2 months) and to store it was underground. Subterranean Baltimore was a cavernous network of lagering cellars excavated deep beneath the streets of Canton, Highlandtown, Federal Hill, and the northern Bel Aire/ Gay Street quadrant of the city, as the grounds were immensely suitable for such an undertaking. Frederick and Cumberland also witnessed vast lagering cellar excavations, fomenting growth of the industry in those well-travelled, populous locales. To produce and offer quality beer, and grow a brewery’s customer base, deep underground vaults became a necessity. Admittedly, a few brewers attempted the same feat by digging instead into a tall hillsides with somewhat dodgy results. Depth was key to reaching proper temperatures and good beer.
What began as good quality control measures for brewers eventually branched into another, most valorous mechanism for societal change. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, many slaves sought freedom via the Underground Railroad. Success was dependent upon safe places to hide from slave catchers while traversing northward to (hopeful) freedom. Maryland was a critical state with several safe ‘stops’ for fugitive slaves. Although great risk was incurred by those that hid these travelers, many Marylanders stepped up, including brewers. After all, they possessed the perfect hiding place (or weigh station) that was oft overlooked. Once the Civil War broke out the cellars continued to provide hiding places, not just for slaves, but for other valuables- from jewelry to horses, and even a few AWOL soldiers. Many of the brewers paid other men to serve in their place during the war, so they could remain with their family (and businesses) as a measure of both physical and financial protection. Civil War era brewers shared numerous stories of soldiers from both sides taking beer, property, horses, food, and anything they could lay hands upon from the breweries and their homes. This was rampant, and many had to devise methods of protecting their property and securing their post war survival. The lagering cellars offered just such an opportunity. When soldiers did discover these hidden underground gems, they often took possession of the cellars as places to hide guns, ammunition, and lie in wait for the enemy.
After the Civil War, ‘Ice machines” became a standard feature of late 19th century breweries, obviating the need for the cellars for those that could afford this new mechanical refrigeration. Those deep cellars however were not forgotten and evolved into perfect contraband storage for bootleggers (and ‘in the know’ citizens hoarding booze) during Prohibition! It turned out to be ideal when federal dry agents decided to conduct raids (since Maryland never paid for or appointed local agents), as they knew nothing of the vast subterranean vaults just below their boots. After thirteen years, liquid gold flowed legally once again with those agents none the wiser.
Many of these cellars have since been filled in, a critical aspect to the vast infrastructure built atop. Some however, like those in Ellicott City are still concealed, waiting to be rediscovered, revealing secrets and deepening our understanding of Maryland’s rich history.