A light-rail preview from Cockeysville to Howard Street

Jacques Kelly

January 07, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The last time I was through the Jones Falls watershed on a train, my grandparents were alive and passengers traveled comfortably in spacious coaches painted the Pennsylvania Railroad's deep maroon color.

The other day, I revisited that rail route, today known as the Central Light Rail Line. My guide was John W. Von Briesen of the Mass Transit Administration. Von Briesen was driving a truck with heavy flanged wheels that fit the vehicle to the rails. We traveled from Cockeysville to a spot just shy of the Howard Street Bridge.

This light-rail route is a historic way in and out of Baltimore, where trains have been passing since the 1830s. Towns and industry grew up alongside these rails, which are in the initial stages of being improved and converted into a dual-purpose transit-freight operation.

Our preview ride -- the line isn't supposed to be in business until next year -- began near an old Cockeysville station (now a lawn mower repair shop) just to the west of York Road and what used to be the underpass there.

Once we got rolling, all the tangle of York Road's botched zoning and bungled planning disappeared. We were rolling along a pathway of trees and wildflowers in a right-of-way dug by Irish laborers some 160 years ago. You know that assertive development surrounds you, but you cannot see it.

The route unfolds aspects of Baltimore County history that highways have done their best to hide. For example, in Texas, an old stone tavern near the entrance to the Genstar Plant still is in business. It's not hard to imagine someone buying a ticket there for Baltimore in the 1830s, when this was known as the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad. There are a few other whitish stone houses along the way. One still has a Pennsylvania Railroad-style "Padonia" signboard in the tone of red the line used.

The Genstar Plant (formerly Harry T. Campbell quarry, later Flintkote) in Texas remains the heaviest shipper on the line and accounts for the majority of the freight cars carried by Conrail trains.

In 1850, there were 13 smaller quarries and 40 lime kilns here. The area was settled by Irishmen who were in a rifle company that served in the Mexican War. They were known as the Texas Greens. After they returned, the name Texas stuck.

The coming of the railroad allowed the so-called Beaver Dam marble, which takes its name from Beaverdam Run, to be shipped to Baltimore, where it went into local marble steps. The stone also went into the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument, as well as the spires of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Timonium State Fairgrounds flashed by and the grade crossing at Timonium Road, where new rail was being laid in long lengths. It was mindful of an old photo of the crowds who assembled here to catch a glimpse of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's arrival in 1941.

The line bends through the Christmas garden-like village of Lutherville, where the old stone station still stands. There's a surviving brick platform, a reminder of the days when a local saying held: "At 7 a.m. the workers departed; at 7:45 the clerkers left; and at 8:11 the shirkers got on."

The right-of-way was green and crisscrossed by streams. Soon we were at Riderwood, where the old station, designed by architect Frank Furness, sits in ruins. The right of way was green and crisscrossed by streams. Graul's Market (at Bellona Avenue) and the neighboring Ruxton shops sit on a small rise. But alas, the old Ruxton Station is no more; the spot cries out for a classic depot.

From this point south, the scenery dominated. This is the controversial Lake Roland portion of the run, the sparsely populated, curving stretch where residents have tried to block the new rail system. On a cold day, the scene was blessedly quiet. I can see why people love walking through here. The homes seemed far away. Around a corner, I caught a glimpse of the white water at the old Lake Roland Dam in Robert E. Lee Park.

Soon we were under the old Falls Road Bridge, which was closed to traffic last week. Then it was Mount Washington, where the line suffered the loss of a classic rail station some years ago. What an asset this neighborhood would have if a good village center could be constructed here around a new station.

Here we hugged the side of the Jones Falls water course and its namesake expressway. Cross Keys and Poly-Western passed. Old Woodberry remains, with many of its 19th century mill buildings surviving. There's a good collection left at the Poole and Hunt Foundry.

As the rails clung to the eastern edge of Druid Hill Park, some wild deer (not zoo escapees) made occasional appearances. Now we were in the deep city, but the rock outcroppings that tortured 1829 work crews made it feel as if we were in Washington County.

We passed the old Mount Vernon mills, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad freight station and roundhouse, the Baltimore Streetcar Museum and the light-rail yard that is being constructed at Reservoir Hill. At that point, the rails ended. Construction crews were building an elaborate bridge to link the system with Howard Street, the Camden Yards, Westport, Baltimore Highlands, Linthicum and Ferndale. But that advance trip will have to wait a few more months.

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