Mystery adds to Cockeysville legend Notorious underpass is long gone, but who took the bronze plaque?


Someone, somewhere has a souvenir of the legendary Cockeysville underpass -- and the Baltimore County Historical Society wants it.

From 1930 until 1972, the bridge carried the Pennsylvania (Northern Central) Railroad over York Road while the 265-foot-long underpass below earned curses as a traffic bottleneck and potential drowning pool during heavy storms.

Now that the landmark two-lane underpass is history, however, replaced by a smooth, new five-lane thoroughfare, the historical society will enshrine its memory in its museum in the Old Alms House, 9811 Van Buren Lane, Cockeysville.

One of the two bronze plaques that marked the project's original construction will be unveiled at a ceremony June 16. The second, however, vanished in the early stages of demolition.

The missing plaque will be represented by a photograph taken by Essex Community College history professor Neal A. Brooks just before the underpass was demolished in 1990.

But that is no substitute for the real thing, said Historical Society President Joan H. Wroten, who learned of the second plaque two

weeks ago. She said she hopes it will be returned to join its mate at the museum.

Charles R. "Dick" Harrison, a state district highways engineer, said that when demolition began he asked the contractor to bring both plaques to his office for safekeeping.

"By the time he got there, one was already gone. It disappeared overnight," Mr. Harrison said. "The other one even disappeared out of my office once, but we did a lot of 'soul searching' and it was returned."

The surviving plaque, about 18 by 30 inches and weighing between 50 and 75 pounds, marks the bridge a "Grade Eliminator," and bears the names of the state roads commissioners and engineers of the time.

There were many requests for the plaques, but the Historical Society had the best claim, Mr. Harrison said.

The missing plaque, which appears in photographs to be larger than the other one, marks the 1931 completion of the Beaver Dam Run Bridge, at the northern approach to the railroad bridge. The stream still flows under York Road in the re- construction.

For many years, there were gates and a watchman at the York Roadcrossing, said Elmer R. Haile, Jr., 82, of Hydes. But increasing traffic led to the bridge's being built to eliminate that dangerous crossing.

Between 1927 and 1931, while he was a student at the Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Haile watched the bridge construction during his daily commute from Cockeysville to Union (Penn) Station. The railroad built a detour line around the bridge site, which slowed the travel time during the year of construction, said the retired federal highway engineer. "It had a sharp turn and they had a flare beside the track a half-mile away all the time to remind the engineers. There was never any problem that I know of."

Construction of the bridge, which occurred during Depression days, hurt local business, Mrs. Wroten said. The project usurped curbside parking space and some businesses departed, she said. "It really hurt Cockeysville."

As development expanded and traffic grew, the two-lane underpass became ever-more of a major bottleneck on York Road -- trucks more than 14 feet high could not pass through -- and it flooded in heavy storms.

The railroad abandoned the line in 1972 after Tropical Storm Agnes washed out a bridge upstream on Beaver Dam Run.

Bill Bentley, who for 20 years has owned the largest shop along the evolving Cockeysville Antiques Row at the south end of the former bridge, is delighted that it's gone.

"It's one of the greatest things the state could have done," Mr. Bentley said. "It was a bottleneck, and there have been at least three drownings

there during floods."

Business along the strip suffered somewhat during the two years of construction even though parking lots were developed behind the shops, Mr. Bentley said. "But it will be better, and easier, now that it's finished," he said.

In February 1991, an editorial in The Sun said, "Shed no tears for the Cockeysville underpass. It cost $260,000 to build in 1930 and $8 million to get rid of 60 years later. As an example of American roadway architecture, it was quite literally the pits -- ungainly, dark, damp, narrow and a community-splitter if there ever was one."

But, whatever the complaints about the old underpass, it was an area landmark, Mrs. Wroten said, "We used to give people directions from the underpass. What are they going to call it now?"

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