Riding the rails and seeing the sights

On a recent Saturday morning, I had an opportunity to ride Amtrak north from Baltimore to Philadelphia. I had not been on a train in something like 13 years, and I was interested to see how I would view the places in Harford and Cecil counties along the rail line from a different perspective.

Crossing Bush River into Perryman, I was surprised to see very little had changed, or at least I had that feeling. Other than a few new industrial buildings here and there, and some new homes near the water at Forest Greens, the area looked open and much of it is still being farmed.

Seeing what remains of the venerable Mitchell family canning buildings, now given over to the storage of farm implements and other equipment, reminded me of a story I had read in an old edition of The Aegis from the 1940s or 1950s about two wandering hobos who got what the newspaper called "the ride of their lives."

As the story goes, the pair had broken into one of the Mitchell buildings along the railroad tracks looking for a place to sleep and had bedded down for the night. At some point, a freight train had come rumbling by in the night and lost one of its trucks, I don't recall why, but the heavy railroad truck knocked in the side of the building and apparently sent the two of them scrambling to get out before they were run over. Somebody investigating what happened saw them running away and found the belongings they had left behind and figured out what had happened.

Rolling into Aberdeen, I inspected the area just north of Route 715 where former mayor Fred Simmons had proposed developing a mufti-modal transportation center including a new train station and bus station to include shuttles onto Aberdeen Proving Ground and to local business parks. The Simmons plan was rejected by his successor and the Maryland Transportation Department in favor of modernizing the existing train station. I always liked the Simmons plan, but I also noticed a lot of the property where he wanted to develop this sensible proposal appeared to be under a few inches of water on both sides of the railroad tracks - probably not the best of environmental conditions for spending tens of millions of dollars.

My train stopped in Aberdeen, what they would have called a whistle stop in the old days, although I did see a few people get off and a few more get on. As we came into the station, which really could use some updating, the conductor informed everyone that only the doors in one car would open at Aberdeen.

My impression of Aberdeen from the tracks is that there isn't much there. Of course, I know better, but if you are just passing through on the train at street level, you probably wouldn't be impressed. The Bel Air Avenue overpass and the hideous pedestrian overpass that were built a quarter century ago don't make for much interesting viewing from the train entered and left the Aberdeen station.

We followed Route 40 into Havre de Grace. The scenery from the train doesn't look much different than it would from a car driving on Route 40, and when you first enter Havre de Grace's industrial district from the west, there's not much to see either. One of the tracks come onto what I'll call the airline, the part where they are elevated above the city from about the middle school to the river, it's really an impressive sight. The downtown area of Havre de Grace and the waterfront look vibrant, even with many of the slips at the marinas vacant for the winter. I think someone viewing Havre de Grace from above for the first time would want to know more about it.

As I've written in previous columns, crossing the Susquehanna River on the old PRR bridge was always a big deal for me, no matter how many times I've done it. The latest trip was no different. It's a wonderful view of the Hatem and CSX bridges, Garrett Island and the waterfronts of Havre de Grace and Perryville and of the Chesapeake Bay less than a mile downriver.

When we came through Perryville, I anticipated seeing the old station and the wye connecting the Port Road line to the mainline. The Perryville station is just a classic railroad building, and it's too bad they couldn't have saved the stations in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen, as well as the various switching towers along the line. I would say, however, that the station is the only highlight when one goes speeding through Perryville on the train.

I kept interested in looking out the window throughout the remainder of my trip. One thing I noticed between Perryville and Elkton were several abandoned tracks or the paths those tracks had followed away from the main line. Those old tracks no doubt had stories of their own to tell.

Maybe in another 15 years or so I'll ride the train north again. In the meantime, I'll keep a copy of this column somewhere, so I'll be able to compare what I see in the future with what I saw in December 2011.

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