Dip in road dives into oblivion as Cockeysville covers its past

November 25, 1990|By Sheridan Lyons

It always was a bit of a shock: a dark maw dipping sharply tTC into the ground and then leading up just as rapidly into the light -- and the strip-zoned hubbub that is York Road.

Perhaps to stave off fear, children would squeal and adults honk their horns upon entering the Cockeysville underpass, which claimed at least one life during its 60 years.

Area residents use it as a quick reference in giving directions -- places in Cockeysville lie either north or south of the underpass -- and they probably will for years to come.

But the Cockeysville landmark is almost gone, being filled in by its own rubble. The two-lane underpass is being paved over to allow for a five-lane roadway north to Hunt Valley and the business and housing developments beyond.

Traffic surveys in 1984, when the new road was approved, showed 20,000 vehicles a day passing through the 265-foot-long tunnel that took York Road traffic under the crossing for the Pennsylvania Railroad's North Central line.

The last car went through Oct. 16, and the Six M Co. Inc. of Delta, Pa., began immediately to break down the side walls. The rubble and dirt will help to provide a stable bed for the new road, explained Michael S. Randow, Six M superintendent.

As he spoke, a giant drill punched away the 4-foot-thick roof of the underpass, laying the dank concrete open to the sunshine. Workers below used torches to cut through the steel rods that reinforced the structure.

The only familiar sights were a section of the concrete railing at ground level and a section of stairs, still clinging to the northwest wall, that once lead down to a walkway for changing the lights in the 14-foot-high tunnel.

Local legend has it that many people have drowned in the underpass in high water, and residents tell of rescues by boat over the years when the underpass was flooded by Beaverdam Run, which flows under York Road just north of the tunnel opening.

There was at least one drowning in 1972 during Tropical Storm Agnes, said Terry Winner, project engineer for the State Highway Administration, but no other deaths could be verified.

Ironically, it was the danger from the railroad crossing that led the railroad and the state to blast the underpass through the bedrock in 1930.

"It was to get underneath the railroad and eliminate a grade crossing," said John W. McGrain, a Baltimore County historic preservation planner.

"There was a public uproar about accidents."

The tradition of yelling in the tunnel seems to be "a normal reaction to the abnormal," he added.

Eights months after construction of the underpass began, the new roadway was opened under the tracks to eliminate this mix of trains and cars -- and a few horse-drawn wagons used the underpass, too.

Trains stopped crossing there after Agnes washed out another bridge just up the tracks over Beaverdam Run.

"There was nothing wrong with it structurally," Mr. Winner said of the underpass, which originally cost $260,000. "It just wasn't big enough."

The winning bid for the new road was $3.8 million, including a new Sherwood Road intersection and a new five-lane bridge over Beaverdam Run to replace one built in 1931. Beyond that bridge, York Road already has five lanes to Shawan Road.

Mr. Winner said the old railroad bed running north to Pennsylvania would become a trail for hikers and bicycles.

During construction, traffic has been diverted to one-lane service drives that run on either side of the Cockeysville underpass, and it's dusty and noisy where the traffic slows and splits.

In the midst of this confusion, some beavers that probably traveled down from Prettyboy Reservoir have reclaimed their clan's old turf and set up housekeeping in Beaverdam Run, Mr. Winner said, pointing east just beyond a big Grade-all machine.

The construction seems to have been more disruptive to human neighbors. Since work began on utilities and drainage May 16, Mr. Winner said, a few of the antique dealers who have clustered around the underpass in the past 20 years have sought new quarters.

Ann and George Casper lived beside the underpass in the 10800 block of York Road for 40 years, she said, but moved a few blocks up a month ago because "they put the road clear up to the front steps."

"They won't buy the houses, so what good are they?"

The state says that the front steps of the Caspers' home and their apartment building next door were on public property, she said, and the dispute may wind up in court.

Although the entire project isn't scheduled for completion until at least 1992, the underpass is being rapidly filled up to the level of the service drives.

Traffic could be running over, where it used to run under, "sometime after the first of the year," said James F. Kelly Sr., the Highway Administration's assistant district engineer for construction.

"It really does go fast," he said. "You can demolish a whole lot faster than you can rebuild."

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