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Tracking an old train line


My father's Sunday drive route always included a pause alongside the Northern Central Railway tracks. There, beside Lake Roland at Ruxton, the mighty locomotive and string of dark maroon passenger coaches shot past. No matter what its destination, we always called the train the Buffalo Flyer.

We watched, waited and listened for trains with great names. The Buffalo Day Express. Gotham Limited. St. Louisan. Liberty Limited. The Parkton Local. Some were long affairs, with strings of baggage, Pullman and dining cars. Others were just a "gas car," my father's expression for the little commuter vehicles that energetically worked the Jones Falls-Roland Run valleys until 1959.

Or that spring evening in 1958. Half the membership of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick assembled at the line's Mount Washington siding to await Silky Sullivan, a horse entered in the Preakness and known for its come-from-behind energy. In those days, horses arrived by rail and were vanned to Old Hilltop.

Most people never had the chance to view the Northern Central in its entirety, an iron link straight through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, an impressive route from the Chesapeake Bay to Lake Ontario.

The Northern Central, long a wholly owned Pennsylvania Railroad property, was created by Baltimore capitalists and Irish laborers in the second quarter of the 19th century. It was always overshadowed in story and fame by its local competitor, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

But the old NC now has a platform, so to speak, for its own story. Robert L. Gunnarsson, a 45-year-old fraud investigator for the state, has written "The Story of Northern Central Railway," a 189-page treatise on the construction and mission of this overlooked line.

"I'm a student of 19th century America. I'm not a locomotive expert," he said of his work, which includes chapters on the Civil War, the coal industry and the towns and villages the line served.

Baltimoreans tended to see only a fraction of the Northern Central and remember its graceful stations at Mount Washington, Ruxton, Riderwood, Lutherville, Cockeysville and Parkton. A few more recall the line's downtown depot, the old Calvert Station, demolished in 1948 and replaced by the present Sunpapers buildings. (The Downtown Athletic Club is housed in the NC's former freight terminal.)

Born in Baltimore, Gunnarsson spent his childhood in Glen Arm when it was served by the gentle and antique Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, the famed Ma&Pa.; But he rode on the Northern Central's commuter trips from Baltimore to Cockeysville.

But what attracted him was a fascination with the picturesque and hard working towns the railroad served, the New Freedoms and the Williamsports, the Millersburgs, Elmiras and the Watkinses.

"The railroads had a tremendous impact on the towns and the lives of the people in them," he said.

Gunnarsson delights in the smokestacks, lumber yards, blacksmiths, canneries, octagonal towers and coal mines scattered along the NC's curving tracks that wound their way through the some of the most sumptuous scenery in these parts.

The author winces heavily when the Pennsylvania Railroad assumed near total control of the line after 1914. Indeed, even the "NC" came off the locomotives. But the Pennsy was a rich parent that kept the trains running until competition with autos, tracks and interstates doomed the line. Hurricane Agnes, in 1972, just about finished moribund chunks off.

This book arrives in time for a rebirth, of sorts, for the railroad. It's now the basis of the North Central Light Rail Line.

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