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The History of Frederick, MD

Fredericktonians’ commitment to fighting the forces that threatened the city’s survival began long before its modern-day revitalization efforts.  The city, whose elegant church steeples inspired John Greenleaf Whittier to write of the “Clustered Spires of Frederick,” has deep roots in both Revolutionary and Civil War history, but it was during the latter when the city’s residents truly showed their resolve. In 1864 Confederate Gen. Jubal Early entered Frederick and demanded $200,000 for the use of his army or he would burn the city. City officials called on numerous banks to contribute to the ransom demand and the funds were ultimately delivered to Early and his forces, thus preserving the city’s early architectural heritage for future generations.

One hundred years later, it would not be military forces that threatened Frederick’s survival, but rather economic ones.    

Located along the National Road and as the County Seat, the city of Frederick served as the epicenter of Frederick County’s political, business and agricultural activities for centuries. Supported by a successful manufacturing base of numerous tanning and canning businesses, the city served as the social hub of the community as well, where people -- especially the farmers who supported the county’s agricultural base -- gathered to shop, visit and recreate. 


Like so many other American cities, however, Downtown Frederick saw its fortunes begin to decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, when four of the city’s retail anchors pulled up stakes and moved to a new shopping mall that opened on the west side of town. Now connected by interstates to Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Frederick also saw many of its jobs – and shopping dollars – travel out of town. In 1976, a devastating flood of Carroll Creek inundated nearly 100 acres Downtown, further exacerbating the flight of businesses from the area and jeopardizing what was left of the community’s historic fabric.

Yet even as the city faced some of its darkest days, community visionaries were able to foresee a much brighter future for Frederick’s Downtown. Under the leadership of Mayor Ron Young, work began on the Carroll Creek flood control project, a $65 million endeavor in which the waters of Carroll Creek were re-directed into large underground conduits, leaving only a portion of the water visible aboveground to create a meandering waterway nestled between pedestrian walkways.

With the potential for future damaging floods eliminated, Frederick County made a commitment to locate its new courthouse in Downtown Frederick and soon scores of attorneys and other professionals began renovating into office space the historic row houses that dotted the city’s major east-west artery, Patrick Street. Soon after, the City of Frederick relocated its City Hall into the circa 1862 Courthouse and the Weinberg Center for the Arts, which was heavily damaged in the 1976 flood, was restored and donated to the City to serve as an arts and entertainment destination.

To cater to the growing business and entertainment clientele, a number of sit-down restaurants began to open downtown along with several small, independent retail stores. The redevelopment efforts were further enhanced by the vision of community leaders who commissioned the construction of the first of three Downtown parking garages and the burying of electrical and phone lines underneath Market Street (later celebrated with the annual signature “In The Street” festival) to create an aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian-friendly tree-lined thoroughfare. 

The revitalization of Downtown Frederick is the result of broad-based, coordinated community support. The Tourism Council of Frederick County was established in 1976 to help promote the city and county’s abundant historical treasures, many of which had been carefully documented and preserved by the Historic District Commission which was established in 1952 when the City of Frederick became the second city in Maryland and the 13th in the nation to establish a local historic district.  Business and property owners, organized initially as Operation Town Action and today as Downtown Frederick Partnership, the official managing entity of Frederick’s Main Street program, worked closely with government officials to retain many of Downtown’s business institutions while also recruiting new players who contribute to the revitalization effort. The passion and enthusiasm of Frederick’s residents sustains and feeds revitalization efforts. 

Nearly 30 years after the flood that almost destroyed them, practically all of Downtown Frederick’s 2,500-plus historic properties have been renovated for modern use and include stunning examples of mixed-used development. The city is an arts and entertainment destination, vacancies stand at less than 10 percent, and the Creek that once threatened to destroy it has become the centerpiece of the city’s successful revitalization efforts.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has recognized this success, and named Frederick one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2002 and a Great American Main Street in 2005.