New book on Ma & Pa Railroad is a definitive work on 'America's favorite short line'

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a train meandered over 77 miles of track between Baltimore and York, Pa., crossing Harford County from the Cardiff quarry district in the north to Fallston and Baldwin in the west as part of that journey.

Various railways joined the 1867 Maryland Central to eventually become the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, affectionately known locally as the "Ma & Pa"…and sometimes, the "Maybe and Perhaps" or the "Misery and Patience."


In Maryland, where west of Harford County its tracks ran through Glenarm, Towson, Roland Park and Hampden, the Ma & Pa line hauled passengers until 1954 and freight until 1958.

Rail enthusiast and author James E. Dalmas calls a new publication by Harford County authors Henry C. Peden Jr. and Jack L. Shagena Jr. "the ultimate book about America's favorite short line railroad, the famous Ma & Pa."


"The Ma & Pa Remembered, A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad," 502 pages in hardcover, costs $75. The book is available at the Historical Society of Harford County, Boyd & Fulford Drugstore, Preston's Stationery and Broom's Bloom in Bel Air, at Scarborough's General Store in Scarboro, and at the Jarrettsville Pharmacy, or from Henry Peden at 410-879-8717.

In addition to a complete history of the line, the book contains about 400 black and white and color images, some not previously available to the public.

The book's dust cover features a painting by Stephen G. Stroup of Locomotive No. 6 crossing the Deer Creek Bridge (copies of which are available from

One chapter is dedicated to people's memories of the Ma & Pa, and another lists the employees and supporters of the railroad. The book is dedicated to Ma & Pa preservationists Charles T. Mahan Jr. and Jerome E. Murphy, who shared their photo collections with the authors for others to enjoy.

The first printing of 150 has already sold out, but a second printing of 250 is due to be delivered this week and should be available by this weekend, according to the authors.

"As the crow flies, the distance between Baltimore and York is only 49 miles," Peden said during an interview at the historical society building in Bel Air. "The Ma & Pa was 77 miles long, but it had 472 curves. It was nothing but curves."

While financial facts in the book came from the railroad's annual reports, many colorful incidents were mined from local newspapers like The Aegis and Intelligencer, predecessor of The Aegis. The newspaper related in 1891 that a bull was hit on the tracks near Bel Air.

A Baltimore Sun article from 1912 tells how Carville Amoss was driving a two-horse wagon filled with bricks across the tracks near the Fallston station when the train "…plowed into the wagon. The horses had passed over the tracks. Mr. Amoss was thrown out, but by holding the lines was dragged away from the tracks by the horses."


In 1951, The Aegis described how two luckless Baltimore County men were trying to shoot groundhogs from the train trestle near Sharon, in northern Harford, when the approaching train, unable to stop, ran over one and knocked the other to the ground below.

Freight carried by the Ma & Pa included coal, canned vegetables from local canneries – once a booming business in Harford, milk and slate granules used in roofing materials. At one time, the railroad carried so much milk from county farms and creameries to city dairies that it was dubbed "The Milky Way."

In 1914, Emory Matthew Reed moved his entire farm, "..cattle, horses, farm machinery, [and] household effects," from Virginia to Fallston by train. The last leg of the journey was made on the Ma & Pa.

"The Ma & Pa carried a lot of grain," Shagena said. "The mill in Bel Air [then known as Reckord Mill] couldn't get enough grain locally for making flour, so it had some brought in."

Landslides, flooding, derailments and vandalism took their toll on the Ma & Pa. Once, thieves escaped the scene of their crime by commandeering a handcar.

After 53 years, passenger service was stopped in 1954, when there was only an average of 13 passengers per trip between York and Baltimore for four months straight. The railroad's government contract to carry mail was canceled the same year. The last freight train passed through the railroad's Maryland Division in 1958. Trains still operated on the Pennsylvania Division from Whiteford in Harford County to York through the 1960s, but damage from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 pretty much finished most of the railroad except for its industrial switching in and around York.


During its years of service, the Ma & Pa was known to make an occasional unscheduled stop, like dropping off famous physician Dr. Howard Kelly, one of the Johns Hopkins Hospital founders, near his summer home Liriodendron in Bel Air. It is said that the trains often waited for regular passengers who were late and even backed up for those who had missed their stop.

In the "Fond Memories" chapter, Robert "Bob" Cassilly of Bel Air shared his story about the Ma & Pa.

"I took my wife Nancy and our three children, Joe [now State's Attorney for Harford County], Jane and Mary, for a ride on the last train to go from Bel Air to York. My brother-in-law, Joe Webster, drove up to York to bring us home. We didn't have a lot of money then, and I didn't know just how much the fare was, but I thought I had enough. After the train left Bel Air the conductor came through the cars collecting the fare. I think it was $11. I told him I didn't have that much. He asked, 'How much do you have?' I said, 'Nine dollars.' He said, 'That's enough.'"

Along with the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, parts of which roughly follow the old railroad's route north and south of Bel Air, less visible vestiges of the Ma & Pa linger today throughout Harford and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City.

Doris Barben, of Churchville, said that the floor joists her husband bought for their new house were formerly parts of the Ma & Pa wooden trestles. "It is still standing after 50 years," she said.

Lester Harry Orsburn from Bel Air uses a piece of slate from the Bel Air station's ticket counter as a table top that sits on a cast iron Singer sewing machine base.


"I got the slate when our company, Harry W. Orsburn & Son, removed the building to add on to the Southern States store [also now a memory]," Orsburn said.

Peden and Shagena, who have written nine other books in their Rural Harford County series, took a full year and a half to finish "The Ma & Pa Remembered," about three times as long as it took them to research and write each of the other books in the series.

"It was the most intellectually challenging thing I have ever had to write, deciding what to put in," Shagena said.

In addition to the Historical Society of Harford County, the authors did research at the Maryland Rail Heritage Library in the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, the Old Line Museum in Delta, Pa., the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Heritage Society at Muddy Run Forks, Pa., and the Smithsonian.

Ma & Pa buffs Alan Frame, Don Jones and Robert Martello, among others, also shared information and insights. The authors documented their facts with more than 1,000 footnotes.

"We were determined to support our facts," said Peden. "We didn't want to do anything that wasn't factually correct."


The authors gave copies of their research to the archives of the Historical Society of Harford County, about three shelves' worth. As a result, the Historical Society will have the most complete collection of Ma & Pa information under one roof, what Peden calls "one-stop shopping for researchers."