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
"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
"And the six of us bought homes in or near Relay . We didn't get very far,"
The storybook character of Relay is one small clue to the village's
abundant history of local inventors and the challenges they overcame while
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
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
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
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.
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
Public schools: Relay Elementary, Arbutus Middle, Lansdowne or Catonsville
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