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Walking and documenting the B&O Railroad

Railway TransportationVehiclesCancer

John David Hiteshew Sr. and John David Hiteshew Jr. — both known as David — spent four years walking and exploring hundreds of miles of Maryland railroad trackage to document the industrial infrastructure and physical characteristics of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the nation's first common-carrier railroad, which began building westward from Baltimore in 1827.

They were armed with walking shoes, notepads and a digital camera used to photograph trackage, alignments, curves, grades, tunnels, culverts, bridges — both stone and steel — yards, signals and wayside structures affiliated with the railroad.

They also recorded stations, towers, shop buildings, and the remains or foundations where structures had once stood. No detail, however mundane or pedestrian, escaped their attention.

And in the process, father and son, both Catonsville residents, managed to rack up an impressively detailed archive of more than 50,000 images.

After documenting the B&O lines as far west as Harpers Ferry, W.Va., they turned their attention to the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, now part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, between Baltimore and Havre de Grace.

"We had just started on the Pennsylvania when dad got sick with cancer," David Hiteshew Jr., a fuel truck driver, said in an interview the other day. "We found some old mileposts that were far away from the original alignment and several old stone culverts from the line's original route."

The elder Hiteshew, 71, who was a retired National Cash Register technical service engineer, died late last month. Born in Baltimore and raised in Edmondson Village, he had two lifelong hobbies: railroading and photography.

"When we were boys, Dad bought us Lionel trains and we built layouts, but David always liked real trains," said a brother, Richard A. Hiteshew, also a Catonsville resident.

After undergoing back surgery several years ago, the elder Hiteshew's physician suggested he start walking to help in his recovery.

Because the B&O's Old Main Line coursed through Patapsco Valley State Park near his home, he went trackside to walk and photograph what he found along the right of way.

He was soon joined by his son.

"We started in 2007," David Jr. said.

They walked, studied and photographed virtually all of the B&O's trackage in Maryland.

They explored from Mount Clare to Harpers Ferry, the Old Main Line from Relay to Point of Rocks, the Capital Subdivision from Baltimore to Washington, the Metropolitan Subdivision from Washington to Point of Rocks, and the abandoned Georgetown Branch that ran from Georgetown to Silver Spring.

"We'd park the car and walk about three miles. And remember: We had to walk the three miles back," the son said. "And for safety reasons, we never walked on the track but alongside it. We were very careful."

To their delight, they discovered long-forgotten weed-choked gradings, former alignments and original granite track stringers that dated to the 1820s and were used before wooden and today's concrete cross ties came into use.

Horses that pulled the cars in those days walked in the middle of the parallel stones on which the iron strap rails rested and flanged wheels rolled.

The pair documented the sites they were photographing with elaborate notes and, once home, downloaded the photos they had taken.

Their consistent and orderly perambulations would begin where they had previously left off, and took place only during warm months.

Along the way, they discovered forgotten infrastructure that reached back to the B&O's earliest days.

"They uncovered some marvelous archaeological finds," Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a noted railroad author and B&O historian, said the other day.

"They found the only example anyone has ever seen of a switch set in one of those granite track stringers; also, a hunk of original strap rail, complete with spike. They also found all of the original stone mile markers on the Washington Branch," said Harwood, a retired CSX rail executive.

"And on and on. Not spectacularly dramatic stuff for the outside world, but a marvelous achievement for those of us who are fascinated by the bits of history that are hidden under our feet, and particularly the relics of the days when the B&O literally invented the American railroad," he said.

Harwood praised the diligence of the Hiteshews' work.

"The concept and execution of this stupefies me, but it's wonderful that somebody has done it. These things that they found can still tell us stories. They found things no one else has ever seen," he said.

The Hiteshews shared their work and historical documentation with Steve Okonski, a software engineer and Fulton resident who operates the Old Main Line website —trainweb.org/oldmainline — which is a virtual tour of the Old Main Line, Washington and Metropolitan branches, Locust Point Branch, and Camden cutoff and spur.

"They contributed to my site and had more material than I have. They helped fill in gaps. Their work brought the railroad to life, and they were really into it," he said.

"And when you look at what they photographed, it reveals a lot about the history of labor. For instance, there were no bulldozers or cranes when they built the original line. It was dug by hand. A lot of lives were lost when they built that original route. They really had no protection," he said. "We can go out, look at it, and still marvel at what it is."

Not everyone was thrilled with the Hiteshews' work.

"We saw lots of deer, snakes, foxes, birds and lots of turtles," David Jr. said. "We had no trouble with transients or undesirables. It was the railroad police. They would order us off the property and tell us, 'We never better catch you again around the tracks, and don't come back.' Some were nice about it, and others weren't."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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