It's been more than half a century since the trains of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad — quaintly remembered by old-timers in these parts as the Ma & Pa — rolled over a single set of tracks on a circuitous 77.2-mile route that began in the Jones Falls Valley and, after wandering across Baltimore and Harford counties, terminated in York, Pa.

And it's been nearly that long since a new full-scale profile of the railroad has been undertaken; in 1963, noted railroad historian George W. Hilton's "The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad" was published.

That all changed this fall when authors Henry C. Peden Jr. and Jack L. Shagena Jr. wrote "The Ma & Pa Remembered: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad."

This 502-page production, jammed with high-quality photos (many in color), drawings, maps, postcards, original paintings, track diagrams, timetables, advertisements and pamphlets, weighs in at an impressive 3 pounds, 5 ounces.

This massive undertaking is no doubt destined to become the ultimate and quite possibly the last word on a railroad whose memory has been kept alive by a hardy and steadfast band of fans and preservationists who seem to be impervious to the passage of time or mother nature as it reclaims its old former right-of-way.

Many of the photos of locomotives, both steam and diesel, trains, stations, cars, trestles, bridges, yards, engine houses, water tanks and other aspects were drawn mainly from the collections of Charles T. Mahan Jr. and Jerome E. Murphy, who devoted their lives to preserving the Ma & Pa on film.

If Santa Claus left you some green under the tree — and I don't mean dried needles from the tree — this book would be a worthy investment.

Always something of an anomaly, the Ma & Pa began life in 1867 as the Maryland Central Railroad and 15 years later merged with the Baltimore and Delta Railway.

A narrow gauge operation, it merged again in 1891 with the York and Peach Bottom Railway, and along came another new name, the Baltimore and Lehigh.

The modern name that lasted until the abandonment of operations in Maryland in 1958 was the Maryland and Pennsylvania.

And like most railroads of that era, the Ma & Pa was not immune to the rigors of angry stockholders, even angrier bankers, reorganizations, receiverships, and merger fever.

Somehow or other with its agrarian traffic base that consisted of picking up and delivering to Baltimore fresh milk from dairy farms in Baltimore and Harford counties and hauling farm supplies, mail and passengers, the Ma & Pa managed to slug it out and somehow thrived in a territory where the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad were never too far away.

Throughout its history, the railroad was never quite able to shake its 19th-century origins. Even as steel cars replaced wooden cars, it soldiered on with a fleet of tea kettle steam engines and only in the 1940s realized that diesel motive power was finally here to stay and would be cost effective.

Even though its rolling stock would have been envied by any railroad museum, it got to be so old that the Interstate Commerce Commission, for safety reasons, forbid its being used in interchange service or going off line.

In its bucolic ramblings, the Ma & Pa never seemed to run straight for very long on its journey to York, and when all added up, traversed 476 curves and 114 bridges, including such aptly named trestles as "Jail Trestle No. 70" in Towson or "Washhouse Viaduct No. 92," which is near the intersection of Loch Raven Boulevard and Interstate 695.

Those two stone piers on York Road in Towson are decorative but one supported a steel-span of a bridge. Sharp-eyed travelers can still spot a remaining stone pier of the Joppa Road bridge near Towson Estates.

If such stone remains catch your attention, one out in the open is "Jennifer's Trestle No. 108," with abutments at the intersection of Satyr and Cromwell Bridge roads. Another stone pier stands in the Gunpowder River.

Other extant Ma & Pa industrial archaeology would be the small depot called Homeland, on West Lake Avenue, now a private residence, or the piece of diagonal trackage peeping through Charles Street by Eddie's grocery store, which was happily spared being paved over last summer.

Wags loved making fun of the Ma & Pa and its imponderable four-hour journey between Baltimore and York, much of it made at a civilized and leisurely pace of 20 mph, and never much higher.

The other thing the Ma & Pa provided in way of public service, in addition to hauling freight, was to give a rail connection to the outside world to the citizens of such villages and towns as Hornberger's Siding, Bynum, Forest Hill, Baldwin, Glen Arm, Highland, Bel Air and even Towson.

The Ma & Pa exited passenger service in 1954, and ended its Maryland operations four years later. While the road in Maryland was dismantled, it did continue to operate several miles of trackage between York and Hanover, Pa.

So much is chronicled here that it is impossible to go into all of it. But there are a few things I want to mention.

On page 162 is a stunning photo (among many in the book, I may add) of the famous head-on collision of a freight and passenger train at Woodbrook, on North Charles Street just north of the Elkridge Club, that occurred May 22, 1920.

It's the first time I ever saw a picture of the wreck that killed the engineer on the passenger train and the fireman on the freight train and injured several passengers.

The book concludes on an impressive note with Chapter 18, which contains 35 pages of "Fond Memories of the Ma & Pa" that had been contributed by fans who remembered the railroad. The book's 57-page Chapter 19 lists every employee who worked for the railroad between 1867 and 1999, when it became part of Yorkrail and officially went out of business.

The book, which costs $75, is not available in bookstores. Those interested in obtaining a copy can go to the Ma & Pa Railroad Historical Society's official website.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com