Decades ago, the old Parkton Local hustled commuters to the station just up the way, its steel rails ringing. The engineer blew the whistle loud and clear as he passed a track-side sign warning of a road crossing. Up near Bluemount Road, a giant white oak, wonderfully twisted and spreading on its own terms, rustled momentarily as the iron horse shot by.
Walk by that big oak today, along the Northern Central Railroad Trail in northern Baltimore County, and only the wind rustles the old tree's still-spreading canopy. You can see, feel and hear a scene the crewmen and the passengers missed in their haste.
The train whistle has been silent since Tropical Storm Agnes wreaked havoc on the railway in 1972. Now the song of the veery, a cousin of the wood thrush, is loud and clear as the bird flits from branch to branch along the shaded hillsides. It sounds like someone trying to hum and whistle at the same time.
If you're lucky, you'll see a beaver slipping through a 4-foot-deep pool along the Gunpowder Falls, which meanders along about half of the 20-mile rail trail.
As you pass through tunnels of green, where the lime-green shag carpets of ferns sometimes cover an acre, the cool, moist air is intoxicating.
The Northern Central departs any time, at any place from Cockeysville north to the Maryland line: Ashland, Phoenix, Sparks, Glencoe, Monkton, White Hall, Parkton, Bentley Springs and Freeland. The passenger, on foot, bicycle or horse, chooses the speed.
"It's nice being out here in the fresh air," says Ruth Huether of Phoenix as she strolls south of Monkton with her husband, Cal. "You can hear the red-tailed hawk scream."
Her words sum up what the trail is for some people: tonic for the mind as well as the body. Since the first seven miles opened in 1984, walkers and bikers have come by thousands. Fishers hike the trail to reach choice spots along the Gunpowder Falls. In winter, cross-country skiers use it, too.
"It's long enough that you can attack from any number of places," says Mr. Huether, a "60-something" former jogger whose knees have let him down. Retired from a company that erected steel structures in downtown Baltimore, Mr. Huether is satisfied walking the trail, rather than feeling compelled to "attack" it with his running shoes.
North of Monkton, Gene and Margie Karwacki, a 60-ish couple from Phoenix out for their weekly walk, say they are regulars on the Northern Central.
"We're here all year long," says Mrs. Karwacki, a grade-school teacher in Rosedale. "Each week, we'll go a different section."
"You're not supposed to touch anything," she adds, issuing a version of the hikers' creed: "Leave only footprints, take only pictures."
Around the bend, south toward the restored Monkton station, the trail comes alive with its dominant users: bicyclists. All sorts of two-wheeled contraptions -- speedy multi-gear ones, old clunkers, ones built for two, ones with training wheels -- ply the crushed-stone trail.
Ed Martello, of Ed's Garage in Hereford, used to ride the old railroad right of way on his motorcycle, at 45 mph, before the state made it a trail. At Glencoe on a recent Sunday, the Martello family, including wife Pam, daughter Andrea and son Brian, were maxing out at 4.5 mph of pedal power.
Speed wasn't the order of the day. Otherwise, the kids, 6 and 9 years old, would never have been able to stop and taste the sweet nectar of honeysuckle, which grows along the trail.
"On your left," barks a man on a trendy mountain bike, as he passes a hiker.
"Excuse me," says another biker.
Courtesy is big on the trail.
So is cleanliness. One piece of litter -- a Big Gulp cup -- was found during a recent 10-mile walk.
The state Department of Natural Resources, which operates the trail as part of Gunpowder Falls State Park, is considering removing most trash cans to encourage people to take their trash with them, says Dave Davis, an ever-polite ranger who keeps a bike in his DNR truck for an occasional patrol.
For Robert L. Williams, 37, a former Amtrak employee from Lutherville who also has worked as a ranger, a stroll along the Northern Central is a walk through history.
"It was considered one of the finest railroads in the country," he says.
Completed in 1838, it ran 320 miles, from Baltimore to Sodus Point, N.Y. In addition to carrying passengers, the railroad brought flour, paper, milk, coal and other goods to Baltimore. It was the second oldest railroad in the country, behind only the Baltimore and Ohio, he says.
President Lincoln rode the Northern Central to deliver the Gettysburg Address. After his assassination, his body was transported back to Gettysburg along the Northern Central en ++ route to his home in Illinois.
The Northern Central also served as an important supply route to Gettysburg for the Union army, and wounded soldiers rode the line to hospitals in Baltimore.
Places like Parkton, Monkton and White Hall were important stops for the railroad. Now they are quiet suburban hamlets.
Stone remnants of some small track-side communities remain along the trail, such as those of the bygone town of Pleasant Valley just north of Monkton. In Corbett, just south of Monkton, one building housed the town's general store, post office, school and church. The restored structure, east of the trail, is now a private residence.
Mr. Williams, who salvaged thousands of drawings and records from the railroad's offices at Penn Station, assisted in the renovation of the Monkton station, which serves as a hub and an interpretive center for the trail.
The Northern Central trail, which eventually will be extended another 20 miles to York, Pa., is one of about 465 rail trails in the United States. They cover more than 5,000 miles of old track. New conversions are expected to boost the number of trails to 500 by October.
"We are making the best out of a bad situation," says Philippe Crist, community affairs coordinator for the Washington-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
"We're not for the abandonment of our nation's rail system," he says.
The railroads, succumbing to competition from trucking companies, abandon an estimated 3,000 miles of track each year. With the opening of the Northern Central and other trails across the nation, the rails-to-trails movement has become the Great Recycler. And the momentum is increasing.
The movement, not much more than 10 years old, first was aided by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court, ruling in favor of trail proponents, settled a dispute between the proponents and landowners who thought abandoned railways should be controlled by people living along the old tracks.
And now, the newly passed federal transportation-spending bill will provide millions of dollars for rails-to-trails conversions in the coming years, says Mr. Crist, whose organization lobbies for such money and helps communities build rail trails.
Mr. Crist, 25, commutes by bike to his job along the 45-mile-long Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park, a rail trail from rural Purcellville, Va., north of Leesburg, to Arlington. With 1 million users a year, it's the most popular rail trail in the country.
But as its proponents and those of the Northern Central trail know, rail trails have faced roadblocks.
Before the construction of the Northern Central trail, the tracks were a "total dump," Mr. Crist says. It was a popular spot for four-wheelers. Trash and broken glass littered the right of way.
Still, some neighbors thought a trail would attract more vandals and criminals.
"Overwhelmingly, the exact opposite happens," Mr. Crist says. "The trails get cleaned up. They get patrolled."
And the rail trails, sometimes called "linear parks," provide valuable habitat for plants and animals. They are migratory paths for birds. They are havens for fox, deer and other mammals. And in Illinois, rail trails provide some of the last remaining habitat for prairie grasses. The Northern Central is one of the best stops in Maryland for watching the spring migration of warblers as the tiny, colorful birds head north from the tropics.
Maryland, which also has the 14-mile Baltimore and Annapolis Trail in Anne Arundel County, is studying possible locations for additional rail trails. Since 1920, about 800 miles of railroad rights of way have been abandoned in the state. Just slightly more than 10 percent of that number has been acquired for recreation.
Two years ago, the state bought a 20-mile section of the old Western Maryland line. A rail trail is planned from Fort Frederick to north of Hancock. Planners hope the trail, scheduled for completion in about four years, will be an economic boost to Hancock. State officials hope to promote trail-side cafes, bike-rental shops and other ventures.
The rails-to-trails movement feeds the public's demand for recreation and relaxation close to home.
The Parkton Local and the Northern Central railway are long gone, but you can still walk or ride a bike along the old lines that were so important to the building of the nation. And you still can get somewhere, even if it's at a snail's pace and even if it's only a few miles.
The whistle may not blow, but you can hear the strange and wonderful song of the veery.
And maybe you can put your mind on track for a few hours..
HOW TO HIT THE TRAIL
The Northern Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County is open from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. There are nine designated parking areas, all on streets that intersect with York Road. Here are directions, starting with the southernmost area. Begin at York Road:
Ashland: Take Ashland Road east 1/2 mile. Parking area is on the left.
Phoenix: Take Phoenix Road east 1 1/2 miles. Parking area is on the right.
Sparks: Take Sparks Road east about 3/4 mile to the parking area.
Glencoe: Take Lower Glencoe Road east. Follow this to Glencoe Road, then turn east and cross the river. Parking area is on the right between the river and the trail.
Monkton: Take Monkton Road east 3 1/2 miles. The visitors' center for the trail is on the left. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Comfort facilities available.
White Hall: Take Weisburg Road east 2 miles. Parking and comfort station are on the right, where White Hall Road intersects with Weisburg Road.
Parkton: Take Frederick Road west. Parking is at 18858 Frederick Road.
Bentley Springs: Take Kaufman Road west, then turn right on Bentley Road. Parking is straight ahead about 1 mile.
Freeland: Take Freeland Road west. Parking and comfort facilities are straight ahead about 2 miles.
For more information
In addition to the comfort stations mentioned above, there are several portable toilets situated along the trail. Pay phones also are available at various locations. For more information about the trail, call Gunpowder Falls State Park at (410) 592-2897 or the visitors' center at (410) 472-3144.