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Railroading in the Old Line State

Nov 27, 2012 08:04PM ● By Anonymous

From locomotive to caboose, trains carry much more than passengers or freight. Even before the famous golden spike was hammered into place connecting the first transcontinental railroad in the United States in Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869, trains have held a magical attraction; a sense of discovery at their peak in popularity and, today, nostalgic wonder. Riding on a train offers views of the American landscape unseen by car or plane; a closeness to the threads of our culture, itself weaving in and out of cities and farmlands.

In Maryland, there were a number of railroads that took cargo such as coal, livestock, and tobacco to seemingly far flung locales in the Ohio Valley, and passengers to local paradises such as the vacation hotspots Bay Ridge or Chesapeake Beach. Their history is ingrained in old railroad beds that crisscross the state, some barely held together by rusting spikes nearing 100 years in age. Their influence lives on in modern tracks carrying trains capable of reaching speeds never imagined when the railroading industry was in its infancy.

Maryland Lays First Track

Long before concrete and pavement formed a traffic web for interstate travel, the first track in our state to take a locomotive from station to station was the famous Baltimore-Ohio Railroad. The old B&O, as it’s colloquially known, was actually the first chartered railroad in the United States, receiving its charter on February 28, 1827. The B&O’s ceremonial First Stone was laid on July 4, 1828. It would become a railroad of firsts and one of the most innovative in history.

The hand that forced the B&O from drawing board to completion could be attributed to the Erie Canal in upstate New York. In 1820, the canal was built to accommodate rapid industrial growth with the goal of reducing transportation costs between the Eastern Seaboard—specifically New York City— and the Great Lakes region. It did this magnificently and other East Coast port cities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, fell out of favor as shipping points to western interior states (Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois). In an effort to compete with New York City and coincidentally introduce new technology to the U.S. in the form of the steam locomotive, two entrepreneurs—Philip E. Thomas and George Brown—along with 25 local merchants and bankers explored the best means possible to create an alternative transportation system, other than the Erie Canal . . . and the fastest. Their successful resulting plan was the B&O Railroad Company, which linked the port of Baltimore to the Ohio River with 380 miles of track by 1854 and generated a robust $2.7 million in annual revenue.

History buffs recall that the B&O introduced steam locomotive technology to the U.S.; namely the Tom Thumb, a demonstrative prototype engine built in 1830 that competed in a race with a horse-drawn cart to prove its worth. It passed the test, literally, and production began on a series of engines known at “Grasshoppers” and “Crabs.” But the most traveled of all “mules on the line” were the workhorse locomotives known as mallets, a type of large steam engine capable of hauling huge loads of coal, iron ore, and timber mined from the Appalachians near Cumberland, Maryland and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The first mallet was built in 1900 and named Old Maude, after a mule in a comic strip. Improved steam engine designs followed, and later diesel models were introduced (1925).

“The B&O worked hard at innovating and trying new things to help its business and I think that helps provide a positive legacy for the company and its employees in [the context of] American History,” says Nicholas Fry, archivist and director-at- large of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historical Society. “Its history of being a pioneer makes it special. The B&O was the first common carrier railroad, had the first air-conditioned trains in the 1930s, the first streamlined trains in the world with the Adams Windsplitter in 1905, and the first unit coal trains in the early 1960s.”

Among the many significant firsts accomplished by the B&O Railroad Company, the most famous was the approval of the first telegraph line, which was built along the railroad’s right-of-way, between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. When Henry Clay was nominated by the Whig Party as its presidential candidate on May 1, 1844, it was the first news to travel the wire. Twenty-three days later the telegraph was officially opened for business and Samuel Morse’s famous words, “What hath God wrought,” would forever alter the landscape of communication.

With the exception of a few interruptions in the railroad’s overall progress (the Civil War and Great Train Raid of 1861), the Industrial Revolution was charging full steam ahead and would propel towns, large and small, along the B&O into the 20th century. Though tourism was an afterthought to the bustling mining and cargo priorities of the B&O, it wouldn’t be long before it, too, emerged as an industry worth pursuing.

Life’s a Beach

The sustained success of the B&O Railroad spurred aggressive campaigns by many other entrepreneurs to build railroads throughout the region, but for reasons other than facilitating the gritty mining industry; namely travel and tourism. In the wake of the Civil War, America experienced the cultural equivalent of England’s Victorian Era. It was a period of romance, extravagance, worldly persuasions, and exploration. Old money began to rapidly exchange hands and new enterprises were often born from such wealth. Waterfront real estate—especially in the Chesapeake Bay region—was swiftly being developed into beach resort towns to lure the prosperous who could afford leisurely pursuits. Of course, building the fun was only half the storyline; developers also needed to build the means for travelers to get to their slices of paradise. Cars were not in the equation in the late 1800s and horse carriages weren’t exactly up to the task of quick, long-distance travel.

Among the dozens of rail lines that sprang up in the later part of the 19th century and early 20th, several of the more popular to emerge were the Wicomico and Pocomoke Railroad; Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad Company; and the Chesapeake Beach Railway. Even Annapolis was connected to the small resort town of Bay Ridge via a 4.5 mile short line from 1886 to 1904.

Ocean City is, perhaps, the most popular destination in Maryland today, but in 1875, when the seaside community officially became a town, it was an arduous, all-day journey for Baltimoreans, Washingtonians, and Annapolitans. The Wicomico and Pocomoke Railroad, along with the completion of a wooden railroad bridge over Sinepuxent Bay, helped morph the sleepy town into a thriving resort by the turn of the century. Trains would deliver upwards of 3,000 tourists each summer; a number that grew with each passing season. Though the journey from Western Shore points such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor would often begin by ferrying across the Chesapeake Bay, once on the Eastern Shore, beach-goers would catch the Lem Showell or Baltimore Flyer at the Clairbourne station in Talbot County, and arrive in Ocean City (often smudged with choochoo soot) ready to enjoy the cool, Atlantic waters.

A Refined Industry

As 20th century industry and ingenuity progressed towards 21st century technology, so too has Maryland’s railroads. Though many of the hard-worked rail lines of brute commodities have merged into one rail system, and old lines that ran passengers to beach resorts have been replaced by highways, there are still many lines in our state that cater to both the trade and tourist/ commuter sides of railroading.

The most heavily used rail line for transporting commodities in Maryland remains the same tracks that used to bear the B&O moniker. Today, those tracks, and most along the entire Eastern Seaboard, are part of one unified system known as the CSX, which competes with the trucking industry and hauls everything from Florida orange juice to Cumberland coal to points as far south as Miami and as far north as Quebec.

But for a nostalgic commuter railroading experience that harks back to the days of first-class travel, mountainous countrysides whizzing by, and girthy steam locamotives, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Allegany County delivers. The three and a half hour round-trip train attraction departs Cumberland pulled by a 1916 Baldwin 2-8-0 engine named Mountain Thunder (or the company’s restored diesel engine). The scenic trip chugs through the Allegheny Mountains passing gorgeous landmarks including “The Narrows” (a deep cut in the mountains known as “America’s First Gateway to the West”), “Helmstetter’s Curve” (a half-mile arc that sweeps across Cash Valley), “Brush Tunnel” (a curving portal through a mountain), and the turntables at “Frostburg Depot,” where a one-and-ahalf-hour layover allows ample time to explore downtown Frostburg, eat lunch, and shop boutique stores. You’ll even have time to visit the Thrasher Carriage Museum, where you can see examples of early-1800s transportation and ponder what travel was like before steam powered our nation and the great railroads of Maryland helped shape our state.