The town was originally established on the River Mersey at the entrance to the Ellesmere Canal. As well as a service sector economy, it has retained large industries including Stanlow oil refinery, a chemical works and the Vauxhall Motors car factory. There are also a number of tourist attractions including the National Waterways Museum, the Blue Planet Aquarium and Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet.
The town of Ellesmere Port was founded at the outlet of the never completed Ellesmere Canal. The canal now renamed was designed and engineered by William Jessop and Thomas Telford as part of a project to connect the rivers Severn, Mersey and Dee. The canal was intended to be completed in sections. In 1795 the section between the River Mersey at Netherpool and the River Dee at Chester was opened. However the canal was not finished as first intended; it never reached the River Severn. Upon reevaluation it was decided that the costs to complete the project were not projected to be repaid because of a decrease in expected commercial traffic. There had been a loss of competitive advantage caused by steam engine-related economic advances (nationally, regionally and locally) during the first decade of canal construction. During or before the construction of the canal the village of Netherpool changed its name to the Port of Ellesmere, and by the early 19th century, to Ellesmere Port.
Settlements had existed in the area since the writing of the Domesday Book in the 11th century, which mentions Great Sutton, Little Sutton, Pool (now Overpool) and Hooton. The first houses in Ellesmere Port itself, however, grew up around the docks and the first main street was Dock Street, which now houses the National Waterways Museum. Station Road, which connected the docks with the village of Whitby, also gradually developed and as more shops were needed, some of the houses became retail premises. As the expanding industrial areas growing up around the canal and its docks attracted more workers to the area, the town itself continued to expand. Whitby was a township in the ancient parishes of Eastham and Stoak, Wirral hundred, which became a civil parish in 1866. It included the hamlets of Ellesmere Port and Whitbyheath. To enhance the economic growth of the area, the Netherpool, Overpool and Whitby civil parishes were abolished on 1 April 1911 to become parts of the new civil parish of Ellesmere Port.
By the mid-20th century, thanks to the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 and the Stanlow Oil Refinery in the 1920s, Ellesmere Port had expanded so that it now incorporated the villages of Great and Little Sutton, Hooton, Whitby, Overpool and Rivacre as suburbs. The town centre itself had moved from the Station Road/Dock Street area, to an area that had once been home to a stud farm (indeed, the former Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council officially referred to the town centre as Stud Farm for housing allocation purposes) around the crossroads of Sutton Way/Stanney Lane and Whitby Road.
In the 20th century, a number of new housing estates were developed, many of them on the sites of former farms such as Hope Farm and Grange Farm. Many estates consisted of both council housing and privately owned houses and flats.