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The railroads helped Harford County grow, prosper

The Aegis

Gone but fondly remembered is the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, affectionately called the Ma & Pa, which once ran through the heart of Harford County from Whiteford in the northeast through Fallston in the west.

The Ma & Pa was a latecomer to the railroad building age of the early and middle 19th Century and, after several false starts, was finally laid out on a circuitous, 77.2-mile route between Baltimore and York, Pa.

Harford County's first through railroad, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore, ran along the southern area of the county in the "tidewater" area. It would eventually become the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad and survives today as Amtrak's Northeast corridor mainline.

The Baltimore and Ohio, American's first railroad, also built through Harford in the late 1800s, its tracks paralleling those of the Pennsylvania, with which the B&O hoped to compete for passenger and freight business between Baltimore and Philadelphia and points north. This railroad was the predecessor of the present day CSX.

All these railroads in their various incarnations played an important role in Harford County's economic growth from the mid-19th Century right into the 21st.

All early railroad builders between Baltimore and the north faced the natural barrier of the wide Susquehanna River. The Ma & Pa's founders were caught betwixt and between.

Initially foiled by the river, they then hoped to take advantage of the rich agricultural region of southern York and northern and central Harford counties and their flourishing slate mining industry, according to several published accounts of the road's history.

From a business standpoint, however, the Ma & Pa was an endless struggle to stay afloat, barely profitable at times and often on the verge of bankruptcy. That its 43.8-mile Maryland Division through Harford managed to survive 57 years was, in retrospect, remarkable.

Even more remarkable is how 58 years after the final train ran through Harford County in August 1958, the Ma & Pa lives on in name, sight and story. The Forest Hill Station is largely intact, stretches of right-of-way are still visible and stone bridge abutments and piers can be seen at several locations.

Then there's the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail between Bel Air and Fallston and in the Forest Hill area, arguably the most popular parkland in the county. Significant parts of the trail follow the old railroad bed – more are coming once the county is able to complete the unconnected stretch through Bel Air. There's also talk of a northern trail in the Whiteford area.

The railroad had a dozen station stops in Harford, and many of its employees were Harford residents. Folks in Harford commuted to jobs in Baltimore on Ma & Pa trains, which also delivered milk from local farms to dairies in the city.

The automobile, the truck and decline of farming and slate mining all had a part in the demise of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad. More than a half-century later, however, a dedicated group of collectors, historians and preservationists stubbornly refuse to allow its idiosyncratic life fade into oblivion.

A PLACE IN HISTORY

"If it had not been for railroads, the history of Aberdeen would read quite differently," we wrote at the time of Aberdeen's centennial in 1992.

By 1885, Aberdeen, situated in a very strategic location in the middle third of the through route from Washington to New York, was being served by two railroads, the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio.

The tracks for the two were constructed parallel to one another some five blocks apart, providing transportation necessary for the products of the surrounding dairies, farmlands and canneries to reach markets in the large cities of the East.

These rail lines provided boundaries for three adjoining, but separate, centers, Aberdeen between the tracks, Halls Cross Roads to the east and Mechanicsville to the west. At the time of incorporation in 1892, the area, with a population of some 600, was known by one name – Aberdeen.

Although the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) was the first railroad in Maryland, it had concentrated its efforts southward from Baltimore to Ellicott City in 1830. It was the tiny Baltimore and Port Deposit, incorporated in 1831 that built the first tracks through the Village of Aberdeen.

The Baltimore & Port Deposit merged with the larger Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore (PW&B) in 1838, with corporate offices in all three cities.

That would enable some large area landowners with unprofitable estates to divide them up into thrifty little market farms and gardens and not only benefit themselves, the counties and the city of Baltimore, but give profitable business to the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad.

Approximately nine acres of a total 1,100 acres in Halls Park belonged to the "Railroad to Philadelphia." Otho Scott, prominent attorney of the mid-1800s, was the original counsel for the PW&B Railroad.

The PW&B had one major bottleneck on the route from Baltimore to Philadelphia – the Susquehanna River. The General Assembly of Maryland made it lawful for pile bridges over all the rivers and streams along the way, except the Susquehanna.

Ferries had been operating on the Susquehanna since 1695, and from the 1830s all trains were ferried across on railroad scows. In the winter of 1851-52, the ice was so thick that tracks were laid upon it between Jan. 15 and Feb. 24, when the spring thaws set in.

In 1866, the problem was solved by a 3,200-foot, 13-span wooden bridge. The late Harford State Sen. William S. James recalled that his grandfather, Harry James, worked on the bridge in 1866 after returning from the Union Army. The railroad gave the name "Aberdeen" to the railroad stop because Edmund Law Rogers had bought land and drew the original plat of the "Village of Aberdeen in 1852."

The PW&B, built the first station in 1855, a house that sat on the north side of Bel Air Avenue west of the tracks.

Continuous problems plagued the railroad. In 1847, as reported by J.R. Trimble, engineer and general superintendent, if the stops of mail trains for "way" passengers could be dispensed with, the trips could be made from city to city in five hours, even including 1 1/4 hours at the crossing of the Susquehanna. The same year, repairs of the steamboat "Susquehanna" amounted to $16,200.

By the end of 1850, the superintendent reported that time between Baltimore and Philadelphia was 3 1/2 hours with a running time of 30 mph. Watchmen were receiving a salary of $1,891 per annum.

During the very early history of the railroads, each station became a post office. The PW&B had a contract with the U.S. Post Office for transportation of one mail daily with annual compensation of $21,500, according to its report.

The steam locomotive practically eliminated stagecoaches on the Post Road (the main road between Baltimore and Philadelphia) and trains carried all mail and passengers.

All railroad business was conducted at the station. Passengers bought tickets and waited for the trains beside the tracks. A crossing watchman's shed was built next to the station, where the watchman would alert traffic of approaching trains.

Then, about 1870, a two-story station was built on the west side of the tracks south of Bel Air Avenue. This frame station included living quarters for the agent on the second and remained until another station was built at the site about 1890.

B&O ARRIVES

The B&O rails were completed through the village of Aberdeen about 1885 with its new bridge over the Susquehanna River, one-half mile north of the one for the PRR. Its piers stood on the former Palmer's Island. The name was changed to Garrett Island in honor of B&O president John Garrett.

By the time Aberdeen was incorporated in 1892, there were two flourishing rail lines with steam locomotives giving definition to the community. According to the first tax records in 1892, the PW&B Railroad added to the tax base of the town by $118.50, and the B&O Railroad by $82.88 in that first year of incorporation.

As for the PW&B, the railroad was absorbed into the PRR system in 1902. In 1908, the present bridge over the Susquehanna was completed. The PRR line from Baltimore to Philadelphia was electrified about 1930, receiving some of its power from the Conowingo Dam.

In the early years of World War II, the old house used as the first station was demolished. In the early 1980s, both pedestrian and vehicular overpasses were built over the PRR, greatly changing the face of Aberdeen.

Passenger train traffic, having been greatly reduced over the years, has been revived since 1991 by the MARC commuter service and the old PRR station building renovated once again.

In newspaper clippings at the Aberdeen Room Archives, we found some stories recalling the B&O of a bygone era returning briefly to Aberdeen.

In May 1977, there is an article titled "The Royal Blue Stops Again." Included is a photo showing the Royal Blue train stopping at the old B&O Station on West Bel Air Avenue that day and told of a familiar sound once heard throughout the Aberdeen area on Saturdays.

The whistles of an energetic engineer and the familiar "puff puffs" of the steam locomotive attracted wide attention as it rolled into Aberdeen, where for the first time in 19 years passengers could again board the Royal Blue coaches.

The event was a special trip to Philadelphia and back for those fortunate enough to turn back the clock and enjoy again, or for the first time, the luxury of riding the Royal Blue.

A disappointed Aberdeen visitor remarked the next day that he certainly would have tried to board, "Had I known such a trip was yesterday, as I never had the opportunity to ride a train like that."

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