Decades ago, the old Parkton Local hustled commuters to the station just up the way, its steel rails ringing. The engineer blew the whistle loud and clear as he passed a track-side sign warning of a road crossing. Up near Bluemount Road, a giant white oak, wonderfully twisted and spreading on its own terms, rustled momentarily as the iron horse shot by.
Walk by that big oak today, along the Northern Central Railroad Trail in northern Baltimore County, and only the wind rustles the old tree's still-spreading canopy. You can see, feel and hear a scene the crewmen and the passengers missed in their haste.
The train whistle has been silent since Tropical Storm Agnes wreaked havoc on the railway in 1972. Now the song of the veery, a cousin of the wood thrush, is loud and clear as the bird flits from branch to branch along the shaded hillsides. It sounds like someone trying to hum and whistle at the same time.
If you're lucky, you'll see a beaver slipping through a 4-foot-deep pool along the Gunpowder Falls, which meanders along about half of the 20-mile rail trail.
As you pass through tunnels of green, where the lime-green shag carpets of ferns sometimes cover an acre, the cool, moist air is intoxicating.
The Northern Central departs any time, at any place from Cockeysville north to the Maryland line: Ashland, Phoenix, Sparks, Glencoe, Monkton, White Hall, Parkton, Bentley Springs and Freeland. The passenger, on foot, bicycle or horse, chooses the speed.
"It's nice being out here in the fresh air," says Ruth Huether of Phoenix as she strolls south of Monkton with her husband, Cal. "You can hear the red-tailed hawk scream."
Her words sum up what the trail is for some people: tonic for the mind as well as the body. Since the first seven miles opened in 1984, walkers and bikers have come by thousands. Fishers hike the trail to reach choice spots along the Gunpowder Falls. In winter, cross-country skiers use it, too.
"It's long enough that you can attack from any number of places," says Mr. Huether, a "60-something" former jogger whose knees have let him down. Retired from a company that erected steel structures in downtown Baltimore, Mr. Huether is satisfied walking the trail, rather than feeling compelled to "attack" it with his running shoes.
North of Monkton, Gene and Margie Karwacki, a 60-ish couple from Phoenix out for their weekly walk, say they are regulars on the Northern Central.
"We're here all year long," says Mrs. Karwacki, a grade-school teacher in Rosedale. "Each week, we'll go a different section."
"You're not supposed to touch anything," she adds, issuing a version of the hikers' creed: "Leave only footprints, take only pictures."
Around the bend, south toward the restored Monkton station, the trail comes alive with its dominant users: bicyclists. All sorts of two-wheeled contraptions -- speedy multi-gear ones, old clunkers, ones built for two, ones with training wheels -- ply the crushed-stone trail.
Ed Martello, of Ed's Garage in Hereford, used to ride the old railroad right of way on his motorcycle, at 45 mph, before the state made it a trail. At Glencoe on a recent Sunday, the Martello family, including wife Pam, daughter Andrea and son Brian, were maxing out at 4.5 mph of pedal power.
Speed wasn't the order of the day. Otherwise, the kids, 6 and 9 years old, would never have been able to stop and taste the sweet nectar of honeysuckle, which grows along the trail.
"On your left," barks a man on a trendy mountain bike, as he passes a hiker.
"Excuse me," says another biker.
Courtesy is big on the trail.
So is cleanliness. One piece of litter -- a Big Gulp cup -- was found during a recent 10-mile walk.
The state Department of Natural Resources, which operates the trail as part of Gunpowder Falls State Park, is considering removing most trash cans to encourage people to take their trash with them, says Dave Davis, an ever-polite ranger who keeps a bike in his DNR truck for an occasional patrol.
For Robert L. Williams, 37, a former Amtrak employee from Lutherville who also has worked as a ranger, a stroll along the Northern Central is a walk through history.
"It was considered one of the finest railroads in the country," he says.
Completed in 1838, it ran 320 miles, from Baltimore to Sodus Point, N.Y. In addition to carrying passengers, the railroad brought flour, paper, milk, coal and other goods to Baltimore. It was the second oldest railroad in the country, behind only the Baltimore and Ohio, he says.
President Lincoln rode the Northern Central to deliver the Gettysburg Address. After his assassination, his body was transported back to Gettysburg along the Northern Central en ++ route to his home in Illinois.
The Northern Central also served as an important supply route to Gettysburg for the Union army, and wounded soldiers rode the line to hospitals in Baltimore.
Places like Parkton, Monkton and White Hall were important stops for the railroad. Now they are quiet suburban hamlets.