Caravan of railroad fans to trace mighty Ma & Pa

JACQUES KELLY

June 11, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Thirty-five years ago today, a seven-car freight train rolled through Towson, worked its way across the rolling Sheppard-Pratt hospital property and into the Stony Run Valley.

It was the last run of the small but mighty Ma & Pa into Baltimore.

The Ma & Pa, more properly the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, was at the time a 77-mile line that connected Baltimore and York, Pa. It took the long way there, rambling and swaying, pausing for boys who played on its timber trestles, backing up for tardy passengers and blowing its whistle to let residents along the line know what time it was.

In the decades since its steam engines were scrapped and its day coaches sent to museums, the Ma & Pa has become a storied piece of Maryland railroad history, studied by people who never rode the curving line. There are two separate societies dedicated to its memory. And there's going to be an auto caravan tomorrow to retrace portions of the Ma & Pa's approximate route.

"I'm geared toward the romance of railroading," says C. Stewart Rhine, a 37-year-old Owings Mills resident who will lead the search for the cinders.

His plan is to assemble the friends of the long-cold fireboxes at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at the line's old engine house, which still stands and is used as headquarters for the city's snow removal equipment. It stands on Falls Road, not far from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.

Stalwart Ma & Pa fans who want to retrace the line should bring their own cars, good walking shoes and cameras. And their memories, too.

"If there's a bridge abutment left or surviving retaining wall, we'll look for it. The old engine house, the grande dame of the line, still survives. The freight house is there, too, but the coal tipple has just about disintegrated. When the creosote in the timbers gave out, it fell apart. It took 30 years to cave in," Rhine says.

Everybody loved the Ma & Pa. It was an antique, a curiosity and a joy. Its coal-belching locomotives ran through Remington, Hampden, Wyman Park, Evergreen, Roland Park, the Orchards, Woodbrook, Armagh Village, Rodgers Forge, Towson, Glen Arm, Baldwin, Fallston and Bel Air. You never heard a complaint from residents about the creaking old train that maybe stopped auto traffic for a minute or two on Cold Spring Lane or what used to be called West Belvedere Avenue.

"You can always tell when the county is hurting for money. The rails pop through the asphalt," Rhine says of a former Charles Street grade crossing just north of the city line at Stevenson Lane.

During the summer of 1958, a wrecking and salvage crew tore up the rails in Maryland. The big stone engine house on Falls Road not far from Maryland Avenue became municipal property. There was some talk of using the single-track right of way for mass transit purposes, but nothing came of that, much to the regret of latter-day transit planners.

In many ways, the railroad attained the status of legend after it disappeared from the city and Baltimore and Harford counties. Rail historian George Hilton published a fine historical account 30 years ago. Model railroaders began rebuilding the line in miniature in their basements. Some of the old stations were converted into homes. Walking the abandoned right of way became a pastime.

"The Stonehenge of the Ma & Pa is in downtown Towson on York Road. It's the old pair of bridge abutments. They fascinated me as a child. We had a convertible and I'd look at the underside of the old span. Unfortunately, I never saw a train crossing," Rhine says.

How many other boys played games of dare-you-to-walk-across the Ma & Pa's famous trestles? These timber and steel spans look as if they were planned by the designer of an amusement park roller coaster. One of the largest in the Baltimore area spanned Loch Raven Boulevard at Cromwell Bridge Road. It was so high that some motorists didn't even like driving under it. Similar spans were at Sharon and Laurel Brook in Harford County, near the old jail in Towson and near the old Maryland Training School for Boys. One of the oldest surviving Ma & Pa wood trestles is near Delta, Pa. It may survive for many more years.

"Only the hardiest of souls walk across it," Rhine says.

As a corporate entity, the Ma & Pa did not die when its Maryland operations ceased 35 years ago. The line still exists and runs freight out of York but on a route far different from the one held in such reverence by its fans.

Don't try telling those who are going exploring tomorrow that they are wasting their time. They know this long-ago railroad lives on in their hearts and memories.

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