Real Estate

Storybook treasure awaiting the seeker

There's a turn-of-the-century, storybook look about the small community of Relay. The older homes with broad wraparound porches can fill an architect's notebook of styles: Victorian, Federalist, Georgian, Queen Anne. Many homes date to the Civil War, built on streets that have been quiet and tree-shaded ever since.

Relay is south of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, hugging the hillside along the protected river and woodlands of Patapsco Valley State Park.

"You'll only find us if you're looking for us," said Anne Heinrichs, 41, whose parents, Herbert and Dolores Plitt, purchased a Civil War-era home on Rolling Road and Cedar Avenue about 40 years ago when she was a year old. They restored the original yellow wood siding with green shutters while raising six children.

"And the six of us bought homes in or near Relay . We didn't get very far," she said.

The storybook character of Relay is one small clue to the village's abundant history of local inventors and the challenges they overcame while working here.

A small marker shows where Samuel Morse kept a laboratory before stringing telegraph wires between Baltimore and Washington by way of Relay for the world's first successful telegraph message.

The railroad tracks through Relay show the site of the race between a horse-drawn train carriage and the first American locomotive. With the population wagering on failure, the world's first curved railroad viaduct was built from Relay to Elkridge over the Patapsco. Another inventor, Relay resident David Woodward, patented the first photographic enlarger.

Even the Relay Town Hall is known for firsts. It once was station No. 1 of the Baltimore County Volunteer Fire Company. Also, it held the first branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. The Relay Improvement Association was chartered in 1903 and is one of the oldest in Maryland.

"It's been a community grass-roots effort to renovate the town hall, to bring it up from its knees to where we're in the final stages," said Linda Vanderbeek, an association member whose home dates to 1868.

In addition to receiving four community conservation grants, association members host a Relay History Weekend on the final weekend of September and have other fund-raisers during the year to restore and maintain the historic town hall.

Protecting the gentle culture that remains in historic Relay is the work of improvement association members. Marge Fahrenbach and Cathy Sweet helped Relay become a Baltimore County Historic District this year.

Relay began about 1828, when train carriages were pulled by teams of horses over steel-topped wooden tracks. The relay , which was a fresh team of horses, waited here, midway in the 13-mile route between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills, as Ellicott City was known back then.

Today, maps of Relay show a place seemingly trapped in a web of highways. Yet the traffic bypasses the pulse of the community, and visitors find an undisturbed quality to the neighborhood.

One can walk most places

"We've got great access, and that's a good selling option lately," said Heinrichs, president of the improvement association. "We're back to having people come in who aren't tied to the area. Houses used to never go on the market, but were bought by children. My mom used to put notes in mailboxes if a house was to be sold."

"Relay is on a human scale. You don't need a car, really. You walk to the train station, and, within less than a hour, you're at the Library of Congress in Washington. Some even say this is a Washington suburb," said Gabriele Hourticolon, a free-lance researcher.

She and her husband recently returned to Relay after a 10-year residency in Dickeyville. For their three boys, Hourticolon says, living in Relay is "the American boyhood fable, wholesome, original, where the world is still together."

Old Relay

Hourticolon lives in what residents call "Old Relay ," a community of about 500 families built on the hillsides above the fork in railway tracks leading from Baltimore to points north and south. The elaborate, frequently photographed Relay train station and hotel was demolished in the 1950s.

Today, locals are served by the St. Denis train station named for the residential area on the south side of the tracks.

The modern community of Relay, as defined by the student population now attending Relay Elementary School, extends north of Old Relay, to neighborhoods of Wynnewood and Huntsmoor, as far as the Maiden Choice area of Arbutus, noted lifelong resident Kathy Hawkins, who is the school secretary.

The first suburban surge developed about 130 years ago when train service allowed an easy commute, and the railroad promoted village development.

After the Civil War, one developer offered a $100 bonus to the first purchaser in St. Denis.

The growth of the area continues. Modular classrooms were added two years ago and again this year to the Relay Elementary School that opened in 1965.

Growth has not always been welcome. The Relay Improvement Association recently stopped the development of a proposed 200-townhouse development on 27 acres off Cedar Avenue.

School has been another focal point.

The second Relay school survives as the Relay Children's Center, a handsome brick structure on a sort of town square surrounded by trees.

Linda Stevenson, librarian at Relay Elementary, lives in the first Relay Elementary that was built on Rolling Road about 1850. One classroom has become the dining room, another is the kitchen.

Wainscoting and plaster preserve the original look and feel. A child's name, Ruby Rose, is etched into one of the original windows.

Viaduct didn't collapse

"The history has really drawn me to Relay," said Hourticolon, who has researched the dramatic story of Samuel Morse, acknowledged as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, who spent two months here in 1844 while finishing his telegraph.

The community history of Relay holds many stories of invention and creativity.

One of the first was construction of the Thomas Viaduct, the world's first railroad bridge built on a curve. Despite great doubts by the general population, and betting placed upon its failure, the viaduct was constructed between 1832 and 1835 over the Patapsco River.

The granite blocks for the bridge, 60 feet high, 612 feet long, and 26 feet wide at the top, were quarried just miles from here in Granite.

Most of the citizenry thought the bridge would collapse under the weight of the train, or the train would fall into the river.

After the initial two trains, with 6.5-ton engines, successfully crossed the span from opposite sides, observers who had held their eyes shut cheered, according to local lore. The viaduct has lTC been in use for 165 years, including providing shelter for the anti-slavery Underground Railroad and being used as a key defensive post during the Civil War. In 1964 it became a National Historic Landmark.

"Here, America finally shed its technological dependence upon Europe. It is a gateway to American history," Hourticolon said.

Her research has led to her own creative vision. Hourticolon wants the history of Relay to be preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"It's a neat place; that's why I moved here," said Linda Vanderbeek.


Population: 1,200.

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes

Public schools: Relay Elementary, Arbutus Middle, Lansdowne or Catonsville High

Shopping: Catonsville-area shops, The Mall at Columbia, Marley Station

Points of interest: Patapsco Valley State Park, University of Maryland Baltimore County campus, Catonsville Community College, historic district, Thomas Viaduct, Relay History Weekend

ZIP code: 21227