Catonsville works on trail project

Volunteers to turn old Short Line into walking path

Walking path

Barbara Gondeck and her dog, Cooper, walk along the Short Line path. Catonsville community members crusade to reopen the very old Catonsville Short Line as a walking path called the Catonsville Heritage Trails. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / September 27, 2012)

After the frost lowers the mosquito population, a dedicated group of park builders will be clearing a path through the middle of Catonsville. They are reclaiming the old right of way of the Catonsville Short Line Railroad, a route that has been overtaken by weeds and trees since the last train left for good in the spring of 1972.

The summer's storms, including the June 29 derecho, felled tree limbs along what had been a tidy gravel walking path, which is now being expanded through several neighborhoods within greater Catonsville. A tunnel remains to be built under Bloomsbury Avenue. A far-distant dream would be a new bridge over the Baltimore Beltway to replace the rail span that was removed in the days when rails-to-trails projects were unknown.

While many people know that Catonsville was the terminus of one of the last two traditional streetcar lines to operate in Baltimore, they often forget that it also had an active freight rail line, which also carried passengers in swaying wooden coaches. Private estate owners underwrote the rail line; they also had their own whistle-stops.

Built in 1884, the line ran in obscurity in later years. It branched off today's MARC and Amtrak mainline at Loudon Park Cemetery and ran in a cut alongside the granite monuments and burial stones. It also touched the southern flank of Baltimore National Cemetery and twisted through dense vegetation bordering the old St. Charles College, a Roman Catholic seminary that is now the Charlestown Retirement Community, and Spring Grove State Hospital (a big customer of coal for heating its campus), ending at the village of Catonsville.

A 1942 reminiscence at the Catonsville Library said the line was "born in a cemetery and ended up in an insane asylum."

Catonsville residents already have opened walking paths along the No. 8 streetcar line between Frederick Road and Edmondson Avenue. Baltimore County and other volunteers opened the Ellicott City branch streetcar route as well.

But the 2.2-mile short line remained a weedy afterthought even as memories persisted. Some recalled how the brakeman threw Tootsie Rolls from the caboose to children who lived along the line.

"I challenged myself to walk the entire line, to crawl on my stomach where I had to," said attorney and Catonsville resident Sheldon Smith, who remembered seeing the freight train run from 1966 to 1969 when he was a Catonsville Junior High School student.

He began volunteering last year. He used hand saws and clippers to clear away the remaining portions of the line closed by enveloping nature. He envisions a tidy path as a way of linking the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus and the heart of Catonsville.

"We want students to come into Catonsville and its business district, and we want Catonsville residents to visit the campus," said Smith, adding that a separate branch trail is envisioned into the heart of UMBC.

The volunteers like working in later autumn and through the winter. They will commence regular weekend cleaning and clearing chores on Nov. 10. They say that all sorts of people "just show up" to lend a hand or a strong back.

"The hardest part of volunteer days is making sure there are enough jobs and nobody is standing around idle," said Maureen Sweeney Smith, the Catonsville Community Foundation's director.

She said that the rails-to-trails project is popular — and that Baltimore County, the state Department of Transportation and the France-Merrick Foundation have been generous. She's had volunteer help from high schools, Scout troops and UMBC students.

"People write checks for $100," she said, adding that this is a classic we-can-do-it community project where dedicated and hardworking volunteers just started cleaning a path without a lot of bureaucratic permissions.

Their efforts are paying off. The path that begins at Maiden Choice Lane attracts grandfathers walking grandchildren, who stroll under the trees just beginning to show some autumn color.

"The enthusiasm for this project is incredible," said Maureen Smith. "Catonsville is really looking good."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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