Railroad Roots to Bedroom Boom

September 23, 1994

Mount Airy will mark its centennial this weekend, an appropriate time to reflect on the town's history and ponder its future. Like many other small towns, Mount Airy has its share of boom and bust cycles, although boom seems in store for the foreseeable future for this quaint burg near the juncture of Carroll, Howard, Frederick and Montgomery counties.

Railroads were the defining force for much of Mount Airy's history, later replaced by the automobile. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's construction of the Baltimore to Frederick line generated a tremendous spurt of development in the 1830s -- and the town's name as well. Depending on what version of the story you hear, either an Irish brakeman on the B&O or an Irish laborer complained about the chill wind that whistled along the ridge. "The weather around here," the worker said, "is rather airish."

Although settlers had moved into the area in the early 1800s, the railroad brought construction workers to the enclave of houses and farms on Parrs Spring Ridge, the chain of hills that separates the drainages of the Potomac and Patapsco rivers. It was the highest point of the line, and the tracks were built and rebuilt several times during the 19th century. Each time brought more people into town.

Construction of a railroad depot on Henry Buzzard's property atop the ridge in 1839 served as a nucleus for development. Houses, stores and churches were built around the depot, but fires in 1904 and 1914 wiped out many of the buildings. Passenger trains stopped serving Mount Airy in 1949; freight trains stopped about two decades later.

Construction of Interstate 70 in the 1960s and '70s brought renewed growth to the community. Easily accessible to employment centers in Baltimore, Columbia and Montgomery County, Mount Airy has doubled in population and become a suburban bedroom community.

While the town was powerless to control the railroads, it has developed a plan to control automobiles. The purpose is to preserve Mount Airy's charm and to discourage typical suburban sprawl born of automobiles from swallowing up the town and its indentity. We hope when Mount Airy celebrates its bicentennial 100 years from now, it will have long since deemed the effort a success.

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