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What's Up Magazine

Relay, Maryland's Historic Horse Town

May 04, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo
By Ellen Moyer

Historic Relay, Maryland, is a sleepy, hard-to-find remnant of a once hustle-bustle summer amusement center founded in 1830. Ships once navigated to the wharfs at nearby Elkridge Landing, an iron ore, mill town founded in 1733 on the Patapsco River that bounds Relay to its west. To the east, Relay is bounded by the Post Road, opened in 1741 carrying Waggoner’s stage coaches and everyday business of men on horseback. Troops and horses of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and the two great World Wars used the road too. Today, this road is the Historic National Route 1 that extends 2,369 miles from Maine to Key West, Florida. Bisecting the town of Relay is Rolling Road, once alive with the sound of horses and groans of men rolling hogsheads of tobacco from neighboring farms to the ships waiting transport to England.

In 1800, the future town of Relay was surrounded by an industrial zone. Numerous mills thrived on the water power of the 34-mile Patapsco River. The indispensable horses carried the goods to the prosperous port towns. Without them, there would be no profit. Nearby Dorsey’s Foundry, manufacturer of nails and much needed horseshoes demanded by the mother country England and, illegally, sold to colonists forging a new land, disposed waste in the river until forbidden by provincial legislative action in 1753. 

In 1868 it was all gone. A devastating flood roared down the narrow valley and in one day everything was wiped out—no port town of Elkridge Landing, no iron mill, no cotton mills, no grain mills, no navigable river, horses, or, even, livestock; all gone, except for the town of Relay.

In 1830, the train came to Relay. Sandwiched between the river and the Post Road, the nation’s first and oldest commercial and passenger railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, opened 13 miles of track following the river on a bluff from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills (today’s Ellicott City). The first trains, rectangular boxes, were driven by horses. 

Horsepower was not new. Tramways date back to 600 BC in Greece. In the British Isles, coal was moved along wooden rails pulled by horses. Exploring ways to reduce friction, manufacturers in Shropshire, England, discovered as early as the 1600s that the horse could pull 36 tons of goods on certain types of rails for six miles in two hours. In 1830, if the horse was going to do the job for the B&O in its goal to reach the Ohio River before the horse drawn boats of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the six-mile rule was important. Half way between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills was a point that became Relay.

An enterprising politician and entrepreneur, Denis Smith, bought land at the proposed six-mile mark and built a tavern and roadhouse. He offered the space for a ticket office and traveler rest site—for a fee of course. The process for changing horses was called “relay.” So, he named his railroad stop The Relay House, the nation’s first railroad hotel.  The town that grew around it, the first town created by a railroad became Relay, the town named for horses.  

In short order, Relay became famous for a series of firsts. Four months after the first horse trains pulled into Relay, a tiny little steam engine called the Tom Thumb and the horse-drawn train drew crowds to witness a race from Baltimore to Relay House between horse power and steam power. On this occasion, horse lovers cheered as the horse won, Tom Thumb losing on a technical failure, a slipped belt. Despite losing, visionaries saw steam power as superior. By 1836, the B&O switched to steam power locomotives. After 2,000 years, the labor of the horse hauling goods over rails was a thing of the past. The iron horse was on its way west to Ohio.

 A guy by the name of Samuel Morse, of Morse code and telegraph fame, had a workshop in Relay. The first commercial telegraph line was proposed from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Lines were buried in trenches dug with plowshares pulled by teams of horses and oxen along the B&O railroad line to Relay where the granite terrain blocked the digging. To solve the problem, poles were erected to carry the wires. Relay became the home of the world’s first telephone poles. On May 24, 1844, the first commercial telegraph message, “What has God Wrought,” rippled through Relay across the underground and above-ground wires.

By 1875, Relay was the go-to-place. A second hotel, The Viaduct, had been built next to Relay House. It was a marvel of Gothic design with formal gardens and walking paths and three different restaurants. It was considered the fashionable place to stop between New York City and points south.

Baltimoreans liked Relay, too. They packed their picnic baskets, paid 75 cents for a round trip train ticket, and headed to Relay for summer holiday celebrations to relax and unwind. Some spent the summer away from the heat and humidity of the city. Here, they could dunk in the river, ride horses housed at the original stables of Relay House, and walk on the new garden paths. In the evening, music filled the air from the bandstand with popular musicians of the day. Parents danced while children shouted with joy from the flying-horse merry–go-round when mechanical horses moved horizontally as the go-around picked up speed. Life was joyous in Relay.

Today, the Victorian houses of the old town still remain. General stores and the first school do, too, but were converted to private homes. The hotels are gone. The place visited by five Presidents has disappeared; now memories of a by-gone time. What little town remains, runs along a billboard-cluttered Washington Boulevard. 

"Baltimoreans liked Relay, too. They packed their picnic baskets, paid 75 cents for a round trip train ticket, and headed to Relay for summer holiday celebrations to relax and unwind.”

 Nearby, off Route 1, is an entrance to Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland’s first and largest State Park; opened in 1904. It is a popular place for hikers and bikers, horseback riders, birders, and history buffs. The entrance frames the National Historic site of the Thomas Viaduct completed on July 4, 1835. Designed by Benjamin Latrobe II and built of Maryland granite from quarries along the Patapsco, it was dubbed Latrobe’s Folly and predicted to collapse of its own weight. Nearly 200 years old, it is still in use carrying heavy CSX locomotives across the world’s first and oldest multiple arched (there are eight) railroad bridges built on a curve. The bridge is named for Philip Evan Thomas, the first President of the B&O Railroad and the “Father of the American Railroad.”  It was first crossed by horse-drawn railway cars.

Modern trains still go through Relay, eliciting a mournful whistle as they rush by. Across the Route 1 Highway on another railroad line, a flag MARC train stops in St. Denis, named for the 1830 entrepreneur of the Relay House. The sleepy towns are still awakened by harbingers of their past.