Brighter future may await dreary depot Councilwoman seeks to preserve station, its history NORTH -- Manchester * Hampstead * Lineboro

December 02, 1992|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

The image of the Hampstead railroad station appears on the town's stationery and business cards and is mounted squarely in the center of the council table in the town hall meeting room. The old depot looks solid, freshly painted, well maintained and ready to receive passengers.

Clearly, the image conflicts with reality.

The old depot on lower Gill Avenue, once appropriately named Railroad Avenue, is a battered, boarded-up hulk. The once-white structure with the red trim has become a peeling eyesore with flaps of paint clinging desperately to its clapboard sides.

The slate roof has worn through in spots. As the wind blows through numerous holes, the old building seems to moan. A flapping gutter swings from its mountings.

An abandoned water heater is jammed up under the structure, and the station yard is littered with broken beer bottles and weeds. Where its platforms once supported freight bound for elsewhere, the broad planks are aged and rotten. A femur from a freshly slaughtered deer adds a bizarre highlight to a scene of absolute desolation.

However, that's about to change if Hampstead Councilwoman Jackie Hyatt has anything to say about it. "This is my project, and I am determined that this building will not be lost," she says.

Known as an advocate for protecting Hampstead's historic legacy, Mrs. Hyatt is about to do battle with CSX Transportation, the company that owns the depot and is corporate heir to the Western Maryland Railway, which built the structure.

"We would like to have CSX deed the structure to the town," she says. "But there are problems. The railroad wants us to move the building to another site, away from the tracks. This could be cost prohibitive, and I'm not so sure the old building could stand it."

Jay Westbrook, CSX spokesman, says there have been no serious inquiries about the building; however, the railroad is interested in hearing from parties with a plan.

"Because of guidelines adopted in 1988, any purchaser of former railroad buildings has to move them away from the tracks," he says. "Because the Hampstead station is located along an operating right of way and its future use is not railroad-oriented, it creates a liability situation.

"However, we want to hear from people who have a plan, and we are willing to sit down with them to discuss alternatives," he says.

At the moment, Mrs. Hyatt is concerned about preventing further deterioration of the station.

"It needs a coat of paint, and I have a volunteer who will donate slate to fix the roof," she says. "This effort will be a substantial labor of love."

Stewart Rhine, a member of the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society in Union Bridge, says his group is interested in seeing that the Western Maryland Railway's heritage is preserved.

"Because we are a volunteer organization, we always have a shortage of funds and couldn't underwrite a moving of the station, yet we could pitch in with volunteer labor to paint or clean up the station," he says.

"Hampstead is one of the best stations on the Hanover Branch of the Western Maryland Railway," touted a newspaper story at the time of its opening. According to railroad records, the building cost $4,100 to build in 1913.

Herbert H. Harwood Jr., retired CSX executive and prominent railroad historian and author, says the station was a standard Western Maryland Railway design.

"Many of the stations on the line were often housed in existing structures such as general stores," he says. "However, Hampstead got its own station."

One who knows the old station well is Marie Eburg, a spry soon-to-be 88-year-old Hampstead resident, whose father, John Henry Blocher, was the first station agent.

"Did we have fun down there," recalls Mrs. Eburg. "We played all around and under the station. A man, Billy Brown, worked for my father, and one day I wangled the keys out of him and opened a drawer. In there was a revolver, which my father kept because the station had been robbed.

"Anyway, as Billy was showing me how the revolver worked, it went off, with the bullet missing my ear but blasting the telegraph key in the operators' bay into a million pieces.

"Needless to say, trains ground to a halt and my father wasn't able to communicate with other stations up and down the line."

The last scheduled passenger train to call at Hampstead ceased operation on Dec. 31, 1942, when train No. 44, eastbound to Baltimore's Hillen Station from Gettysburg, Pa., stopped for the last time. It was wartime, and the lightly traveled line's equipment was needed on the much more heavily traveled Baltimore-to-Cumberland mainline.

The intervening years saw the old depot reduced to freight agent status because of the piggyback truck service required by Black and Decker's Hampstead plant. Finally, after serving as a maintenance facility for track workers, it was closed and boarded up when that work was transferred elsewhere in 1979.

It is Mrs. Hyatt's dream that the old depot could be used as a repository for the town's historical records or for meetings of local groups.

"The possibilities for the old station are endless," she says. "It may not look like it now, but I see a bright future for the station."

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