Old Catonsville rail lines become walking, bike options

Rachel McCloud, 4, tested her first two-wheeler on the black-topped trail in Catonsville that was once the terminus for a streetcar line. Chase Draper celebrated his third birthday with a stroller ride on the same half-mile trek.

"He loves the trail and usually talks to everyone, when we are strolling on it," Chase's mother TraceyDraper, said of the old rail line, reborn three years ago as a path between two major arteries.

The trail's popularity has increased community interest in improving other, longer paths in the area. Maureen Sweeney Smith, who helped found Catonsville Rails to Trails 15 years ago, said the all-volunteer group has organized a clean-up on the first weekend of November along the Short Line, a two-mile stretch that begins near Maiden Choice Lane.

The Baltimore County Council recently assigned $50,000 to the latest trail project and has also appointed a bicycle advisory committee.

"The trails promote health, lend a neighborly feel and in many ways increase property values," said Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat who represents the Catonsville area and frequently cycles on rail trails."Young families, especially, are looking for livable communities where they can live, work and play."

Catonsville's transportation history lends itself to what could be a network of trails that would make it a walkable community, Smith said.

"Maybe, we won't have to use cars for errands," Smith said. "The streetcars were the lifeline to Baltimore until the automobile put them into museums. Now, just think, we are trying to return to mass transit and get people to walk."

It took time, planning and fundraising to create a trail from what was a turn-around for the streetcar line that carried passengers from Catonsville through downtown to Towson until 1963, Smith said. The experience will help with the next trail challenge, she said.

In the meantime, she likes showing off the streetcar trail and sharing streetcar lore, like how the No. 8 would drop into woods, beside a farm that has long since made way for Hillcrest Elementary. The car would ride down to Edmondson Avenue's Catonsville Junction, turn around on a circular apron and sometimes collect a few passengers from a station, built in 1939 of surplus cobblestones from Baltimore City. The car would head back up the hill on its route to Baltimore.

Now a path lined with trees, many of them thorny Osage orange trees planted a century ago to contain farm livestock, runs from Frederick Road to Edmondson Avenue. Volunteers have built a patio with granite stones and surrounded it with criss-crossed iron railing to replicate the fencing that surrounded a railroad station. The patio sits next to a popular Frederick Road restaurant, which stands on the same spot as the Terminal Hotel that served travelers heading west. Similar granite stones also formed a retaining wall, built in 1899, that runs several hundred yards on one side of the path.

Tom McGrath, 51, took his daily hike along the path on a balmy fall day.

"I love the route," he said. "I remember all the buildings on the mural and I used to ride on that Number 8 streetcar."

Along the route, visitors will spot a large mural that depicts the streetcar and its neighboring buildings, such as the Caton Tavern and the blacksmith shop. Originally painted in 1997 by Clark LeCompte, who was then a 14-year-old Boy Scout, it offers an accurate, life-sized image of a streetcar, recreated from diagrams that the young artist studied at the city's Streetcar Museum.

It was nearly ruined by graffiti, until this summer, when a group of fledgling artists, participating in the annual Kaleidoscope Camp, spent two weeks in July restoring the images. The mural was rededicated earlier this month.

"Maybe now that this is all new again, there is a respect for others' work," said Pat LaFon, camp director.

For Smith, the mural is yet another example of the neighborhood's stake in the trail. Other Scouts have built a bat house and undertaken a tree identification project. Neighbors have put in gardens. After three large trees fell during Tropical Storm Irene, three of Smith's "chain-saw gang" cleared the path within a few hours

"Every time we need something done on the trail, someone shows up to do it," she said.


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