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Upgrade could bury pieces of history

Not all archaeological explorations have the importance of Hiram Bingham's 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan city high in the Andes, or Dr. Robert Ballard's 1985 discovery of the grave of the RMS Titanic in the sunless chilly waters of the North Atlantic.

Often, the rediscovery of forgotten or overlooked objects, large or small, can produce the same emotional reaction. And Baltimore is full of what I call fascinating industrial archaeology left over from an earlier time.

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Such was the case this week, when Steve Panopoulos, a Fallston rail enthusiast, called to tell me that he and his buddy, Todd Sestero of Riderwood, wanted to show me something they had discovered some time ago along the Mass Transit Administration's light rail line right-of-way near Cockeysville.

We agreed to meet after work at the grade crossing near the intersection of Beaver Dam Road and Industry Lane, where heavy dump trucks rumble in and out of the nearby Genstar Quarry in almost endless procession.

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Here, as we marched along the track, we saw a little pathway of white, notched stones. They stretched for several yards through the weeds and high grass before coming to an end at an elevated section of roadbed where the MTA is installing a second track. The stones or "sleepers," which once served as anchors for "T" iron rails, had been bulldozed as part of the grading process.

The stones measure roughly 30 inches long by 18 inches wide and weigh roughly 200 pounds each. The slot is 4 1/8 inches wide. The stones are recessed a foot or so below the surface.

What we were looking at were the remnants of the early track bed of the Baltimore & Susquehanna, one of the nation's earliest railroads. It was chartered in 1828, a year after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the country's first chartered common carrier line.

By 1832, the B&S; had reached Timonium, some 11 miles north of Baltimore, and the grand plan by its backers pushed it through to York, Pa., by 1838. Weak finances later caused the company to be reorganized as the Northern Central Railway in 1854 and, in 1861, it came under the control of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which gave it access to Tidewater Maryland and Washington markets.

In the early years of railroading, stone, rather than wooden ties, anchored rails. It was a short-lived experiment.

Rails today are spiked to wooden ties and, in recent years, to concrete ties. Travelers on light rail or Amtrak's Northeast Corridor can easily see the yellow-colored concrete ties that hold in place the rails they are riding over.

The notched stones "are about 2 to 3 feet apart and a strap rail was placed in the notch and then was spiked down. The holes that held the spikes are visible. Some have two holes and others have four," said Panopoulos, 42, a machinist and dye-maker who has hiked the entire line to York.

"They were made of Cockeysville marble ... the same stone used to build the Washington Monument in Washington," said Sestero, 52, an engineer for Northrop Grumman Corp. "How they notched these stones so perfectly is a mystery. It's amazing what they could do."

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The two rail fans are concerned that the stones will eventually be covered and disappear from view. They hope that the stones may be removed and preserved as important technological relics that have survived from the dawn of American railroading.

"The B&O; gave up on stone-block track bed around 1831," Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a nationally known railroad historian and author, said the other day. "English railroads had used them, and they were the prototype at the time. The basic idea was that they were permanent and never had to be replaced. The trouble was they couldn't keep the track aligned."

In an analysis when the stones first turned up in the early 1990s, Harwood wrote, "As it turned out, the stone track-bed construction quickly proved to be both a financial and operational disaster. Installation was too slow and terribly costly. And as steam locomotives went into use and speeds increased, the track bed itself proved to be too rigid, providing a rough ride and damaging equipment and rail.

"More importantly, this bed is one of the very few surviving visible examples of the earliest and primitive railroad technology. This installation, in fact, most probably was one of the last to use stone construction," wrote Harwood.

"It is also a graphic illustration of how experimental those early days had to be before the present standard railroad track structure was developed. In addition, the type of stone used and the specific methods of finishing and using the stone blocks have not been documented on any other line and thus appear to be unique," he wrote.

Harwood and the rail fans report that another series of exposed stones near Padonia Road now lie buried under regrading.

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"It is history that is about to disappear before our eyes," Sestero complains.

"And I don't think the MTA is very concerned about preservation," adds Panopoulos, who also alerted Baltimore County officials to the stones' existence.

"Once they're gone," Harwood said, "they'll be gone forever or until someone tears up or modifies the line in 200 years."


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