Backstory: Little girl's observations of B&O Railroad

An old friend, Linda F. Lapides, called the other day to let me know about another astonishing find she recently added to her highly acclaimed collection of 18th- and 19th-century texts that were published in Baltimore for juvenile readers.

"The United States Reader or Juvenile Instructor No. 2," written by William Darby and published in Baltimore in 1829, is so interesting because within its pages is a very early account, albeit brief, about the new Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Chartered in 1827, the B&O was the nation's first common carrier railroad, and at the time Darby's book was published, the railroad was building its line westward from the city to Ellicott's Mills, today's Ellicott City. It opened for traffic in 1830.

Lapides and her husband, Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, a veteran Maryland legislator and lawyer, were attending the Baltimore Summer Antiques Show at the Convention Center in September when Jack discovered the book in a stall.

"Jack said, 'You probably won't want this because it's in such terrible condition.' I looked through it and saw the part on the B&O, and I certainly did want it," said Lapides, now retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she worked for three decades as a young-adult librarian.

What Lapides held in her hand was far from pristine. Many of its pages were loose, and others were missing. She was grateful, however, that its title page had remained intact. And since the book was a primer for children, there is an obligatory quote on the title page from Proverbs 15:32: "He that refuseth instruction, despiseth his own soul."

"But it managed to survive. I was taught that condition was everything, and I guess that I've lowered my standards considerably," she said, with a quick laugh.

"Condition issues represent tough love. These books were read and re-read in the hands of children and then passed down from one sibling to another."

Lapides said that it was "highly unusual to find such a direct reference to something specifically Baltimore, as the B&O, even in a book published in the city."

Additional sleuthing on her part turned up only one other copy, and it's in the rare-books department of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

She asked librarian Jeff Korman in the Pratt's Maryland Department to find out what he could about author William Darby, but he came up dry because there were no city directories for those years.

The book's publisher was "Plaskitt & Co. No. 254 Market Street," and the book was "Deposited in the Office of the Chief Clerk of the District of Maryland on Feb. 3rd in the 53rd Year of Independence" in 1829.

The story that initially caught Lapides' attention is titled "Rail-Road," which concerns "Little Elizabeth McDermott" who was taken on a visit by her parents to Baltimore.

"The wonders in that city did not surprise her, as she had been there before; and had seen other cities; but the Rail-road, she could not understand," wrote Darby.

She asks her father, "What do the people mean by Rail-roads? You know in the country, our fences are made with rails; and I am sure if a road was all laid over with rails, it would be so rough that it would break the horses' feet, the carriages and our bones to drive along it."

Her father tells his daughter that a "railroad, is the smoothest of all roads; when finished. And in a carriage made in a suitable manner, you sit, eat, converse, or go to rest as quietly in a steam-boat, or almost as quietly as if in your own room."

He adds, "A rail-road carriage is indeed a moving house, and what is more, moves so rapidly, that while you could read fifty pages of the United States Reader, you would pass over ten miles."

"I loved it when he puffs his book," Lapides said of Darby.

Not convinced by her father's railroad information, Elizabeth says, "You must know best, papa, but I cannot understand how a road made of rails can be so smooth."

Her father promises to take Elizabeth and her mother the next day to inspect the new enterprise and gives his daughter a book of white paper and a pencil.

"You must take notes; and we will see what kind of journal you can make out, to read to your friends in the country," he says.

Her four-page account is titled "Elizabeth McDermott's Journal of a Visit to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad."

Elizabeth notes that between Baltimore and Lime Grove (a check of the Maryland Manual of Coordinates failed to show where this village once stood), there is "a small river called Patapsco. It is this little river which passes Ellicott's mills."

She observes railroad workers building the line through the Patapsco River Valley, following the course of the river and cutting a roadbed through clay hills.

Workers were putting dirt in dirt carts that traveled over wooden rails, which she writes would eventually be replaced by "polished iron rails."

"What a delightful ride it will be when the road is finished," she writes. "Only yesterday, and I could not think how any one could make a smooth road with rails! but as soon as I saw the road itself, all became plain enough."

She envisions the time when the "dirt carts" would be replaced by "little houses that can be made like band-boxes; and I hope to have a ride in one of them before long, with all our little group. We have been told that the part from Baltimore to Ellicott's, will be finished next fourth of July."

The line opened for service on May 26, 1830, with horse-drawn cars and round-trip tickets costing 75 cents. In August of the same year, Peter Cooper's steam engine, the Tom Thumb, revolutionized operations on the line.

Steam would put an end to the era of plodding horse-drawn trains, whose teams were changed at Relay, and make travel time between the two points much faster.

Lapides pointed out another reason why the book is significant.

"Prior to 1820, most children's books were copies of English books. The American values and spirit that saw birth in the 1820s finally became subjects for American children," she said.

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