Here's The Real Truth Behind 'Big White Lie' And B & O

The Scene -- County currents and undercurrents

July 10, 1991|By Patrick L. Hickerson Jackie Powder

We've heard of the big lie and a white lie, but I think Ellicott City is the victim of a big white lie, something relatively innocuous that has been repeatedly told until it gains credibility.

The issue involves repeated claims that the Mount Claire Station, part of the B& O Museum in Baltimore, is the oldest railroad station in the country.

I've let this little bit of mendacious trivia go for some time.

But in the last few weeks, I've been badgered from several angles -- a newspaper report, the 1991 Maryland Travel and Outdoor Guide and even a 39-year-old collection of photographs by A. Aubrey Bodine -- each of which claims that Mount Claire is the oldest railroad station in the United States.

Fate, it appears, is compelling me to come to the defense of my hometown.

For the record, there are reputable sources that believe Ellicott City Station, the familiar two-story granite structure that rests along the Patapsco River, is the oldest station.

As evidence, I submit citations from two books that refer to the Ellicott City Station: "A Guide to Baltimore Architecture," by John Dorsey and James D. Dilts, and "Impossible Challenge," by Herbert H. Harwood.

The former is a brief survey of architecture in the Baltimore metropolitan area, and the latter dealt with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's expansion west of Camden Yards and east of Hagerstown.

Under the Ellicott City Station, Dorsey and Dilts are rather declarative in their conviction, "This is the country's oldest railroad station."

Well, what controversy?

Furthermore, the authors write in the acknowledgment that they had the benefit of an advisory board that included a former director of the Peale Museum, along with several architects and architectural historians.

The countervailingopinions did not make their citations known.

Finally, I offer Harwood's book.

He is a third-generation railroad man who has worked for CSX Transportation and has written extensively on this area's railroading.

His last book, published last year, covered the Royal Blue, which ran from Baltimore to New York.

Although Harwood appearsaware of this tempest, he shows the same amount of total conviction in the epilogue of his book as Dorsey and Dilts:

"It's hardly a secret that the country's oldest station (and probably the world's oldest) stands on the B & O in this area. Bravely, but positively, (I) nominate Ellicott City.

"This two-story stone structure dates to 1831 and served briefly as the railroad's first terminal as B & O built its way west up the Patapsco Valley."

Ironically, Harwood once headed the B & O Train Museum located at the Mount Claire Station.

Frankly, I can't think of a better authority on the B & O.

He does, however, address those who claim Mount Claire is the oldest:

"The other contender for 'oldest station' prize is, of course, Mt.

Claire in Baltimore -- reputedly built in 1830.

"But strong evidence says it isn't and wasn't. It was built in 1851 as an adjunct to the Mt. Claire shop expansion and growth of West Baltimore neighborhood at that time."

The B & O did begin in Baltimore.

The first stone was laid between Gwynns Fall and Gwynns Run 153 years ago.

In fact,passenger service did begin on or close to the Mount Claire grounds.The conflict here, however, is with edifice, not location.

I havenothing against the Mount Claire station. It is part of an outstanding museum, a superlative among other railroad museums in the world.

But that only begs the question of why such a great museum would need to cling to the claim of being the nation's oldest when, in the final analysis, such a claim is spurious.


I didn't think it would ever happen, but on Aug. 1 I will become a Columbia resident.

When I started working here three years ago, I came toHoward County with a built-in dislike for the place.

It was a city centered around The Mall, with flaky-sounding street names and no character.

The "hot" topics of discussion at community meetings included the ratio of pools per residents and whether the athletic center would get a new racquetball court.

These things haven't really changed, but I guess I have.

I'm sick of living in a place with "character" -- which translates into a small apartment in Baltimore withno parking, neither washer nor dryer and no closet space.

How I am looking forward to the ease of Columbia life. I'll be close to The Mall, the Gourmet Giant and China Chefs.

I'll miss the deli next to my apartment, the local video store with the greatest selection of foreign films and living in the neighborhood that was the setting forthe movie "The Accidental Tourist."

But I'm ready to move on.

Goodbye character, hello Columbia.

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