The stone bridge project left several laborers dead and injured, Patapsco River floods occasionally stopped the work and once a trestle collapsed, dropping granite loads into a millrace. The Thomas Viaduct was completed nonetheless and stands to this day, 174 years later - the country's oldest main line railroad span.
Trains have gotten bigger, heavier and longer, but still they roll over the eight granite arches heading north and south with freight and MARC passengers, wheels squealing through the river valley. It's an impressive sight, so much so that the viaduct's owner, CSX Corp., often uses the bridge to show off new engines in publicity photographs.
Yet, Patapsco Valley preservationists argue that for all its grandeur and historical significance, the viaduct built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad has been neglected. They hope to fix that by improving public access and historical interpretation, and to somehow get it done in time for the viaduct's 175th anniversary next July.
"Right now I would be embarrassed if I were the owner of this bridge and saw this condition," said John B. Slater, vice president of Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, standing near the Avalon entrance to Patapsco Valley State Park and looking up at the viaduct, rising to 66 feet above the river, 704 feet across.
The original cast-iron railing alongside the tracks exists only in remnants on the south side and is missing entirely on the north. Near the top of one arch, a stone has shaken out and hangs there like a loose tooth.
The walls of the viaduct are streaked white from chemical deposits most likely washing out of the mortar. In some spots the mortar is gone entirely, leaving dark cracks tracing the stone. A few small trees have taken root in the walls.
"The look of it should be improved," Slater said. Slater, who runs a landscape architecture firm in Columbia, says he will recuse himself and his firm from working on the project if it is carried out. "This should be a shining jewel."
His organization is troubled both by the condition of the viaduct itself and the presentation, which it feels poorly serves visitors and the structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
While two local volunteers have written to CSX urging the company to "do its part by repairing and maintaining" the structure itself, the Friends organization is backing a nearly $1.1 million plan to improve the site as a visitor attraction.
Slater said it appears most or all of the money would have to be raised from foundations and other private sources.
Steve McCoy, assistant park manager, said there's been only an informal review of the plan, but several agencies within the Department of Natural Resources would have to approve it. He said park officials are "supportive" of the project, but much will depend on how CSX responds.
McCoy said the state first has to establish the boundaries between CSX and park property. He said little can be done on the project "until we know where CSX is on this."
CSX lawyers responded last month to the volunteers' letter on the plan. They said that the viaduct is inspected annually and is safe, and that the company doesn't have money to "make any aesthetic improvements." The letter expressed concern that the renovations "would invite visitors to trespass near active tracks and impair safety."
In a phone interview, CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan underscored those points. Asked if CSX would object to site improvements if someone else paid for them, Sullivan said CSX would want to meet with park officials and others to discuss such a plan.
The proposal for "Thomas Viaduct Park" would add parking, lights and benches. It calls for clearing and paving an old walking path from the parking area through woods up to track level. The path would lead to a wooden deck built to resemble a train platform from which visitors would have a view of the full extent of the viaduct as it crosses the river from the Baltimore County to the Howard County side.
Fences would separate the platform from the tracks, and a fence is also planned to protect the commemorative obelisk next to the tracks.
The park would include presentations on the viaduct's history in addition to two displays near the parking area that were installed by the state about two years ago.
James D. Dilts, who has published a history of the B&O; Railroad, said additional displays could expand on the viaduct's architectural and engineering significance, as well as the stories of the laborers and of the young designer/engineer, Benjamin H. Latrobe Jr. The son of the architect famous for his work on the U.S. Capitol and the Baltimore Basilica was only 26 years old when he was assigned to build the viaduct. He developed some form of post-traumatic stress from the pressure of the task, Dilts said.