The tree by the tracks was travelers' delight Shining: A holly planted in 1870 was decorated by the B&O for Christmas from 1947 to 1971 and became a holiday landmark to rail passengers.

Remember When

December 29, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Growing along the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's and today's CSX main line between Baltimore and Philadelphia, some 40 miles north of the city in the Cecil County town of Jackson, is a 126-year old holly tree that for years was decorated and lighted by the railroad.

Called the Traveler's Christmas Tree, the Holly-Tree-by-the-Tracks and now the People's Christmas Tree, the tree, for a time, rivaled in popularity the White House Christmas tree and the giant tree in Rockefeller Center.

Planted originally by Evan G. Sentman in 1870, after he returned from a fishing trip, the tree grew to became a notable specimen. During the 1880s, the railroad constructed its Royal Blue Line, which passed close to the tree and Sentman's house.

The tree caught the attention of George M. Shriver, a B&O executive who often admired it as he passed by. He eventually persuaded railroad officials to buy the property and, in order to protect the tree, he had it fenced.

Decorating begins

In 1947, several railroad workers, including Sentman's son, decided to decorate the 50-foot-tall tree with ornaments and lights donated by volunteers. The next year, the railroad officially took on the tree, and it took a boxcar filled with lights, ornaments and wiring to illuminate the tree.

So popular was the tree with travelers and Marylanders that the railroad slowed its passenger trains, including the Capitol Limited, the Royal Blue and the Diplomat, and dimmed the interior lights in the cars so passengers could get a better view of it.

The railroad even stopped the train carrying Indian Prime Minister Nehru so he could get a good look at the tree.

The official lighting ceremony in early December always occasioned a train from Mount Royal Station, jammed with the president of the railroad, officials and the public.

Members of the railroad's Women's Music Club and the B&O Glee Club climbed aboard the Holly Tree Special and got the crowd in the mood.

"1954 is the seventh year that has witnessed the lighting of the giant holly and a goodly throng was on hand for the ceremony staged on a covered platform, lavishly adorned with garlands of evergreens and holly and wreaths trimmed with green and red ribbons and vari-colored balls," reported The Evening Sun.

"Carol singing, a brief talk by Howard E. Simpson, president of the railroad, darkness and the lighting of the tree -- a brief moment of breath-taking beauty -- and the ceremony was over."

For those who didn't pass by to see the tree, B&O employees system-wide, ranging from engineers to dining-car waiters, track workers and conductors, wore sprigs of holly in their hats and in their lapels during the Christmas season.

During the Christmas season, dining car menus explained this old-fashioned and convivial gesture worthy of the genteel B&O.

End of an era

The railroad lighted the tree until 1971, when the railroad suspended passenger operations and announced it could no longer afford the $4,000 to $5,000 cost. A year later, the railroad deeded the property and the tree to the Cecil County Commissioners.

After remaining dark for a number of years, the tree fell on hard times, and the site became a lover's lane and a drug haven.

Enter Brian Gray, who had grown up near the tree and as a boy used to help railroad workers decorate the tree. He organized the Holly Tree Committee and prevailed upon local government to give him a hand. Then he and his volunteer band rolled up their sleeves and went to work cleaning up the site.

"That tree means so much to so many people, it would be a shame to ever stop the tradition. For some, it is the only Christmas tree they'll ever have, and I think of all the children who have come there over the years and are now bringing their children to enjoy its magic," he wrote in a letter to The Sun in 1991. "It is for them, and for the kid in all of us, that I keep doing this thankless job."

Original star

It takes 2,000 lights and some 1,000 ornaments -- including the original 50-year-old star that was fabricated in the B&O's Mount Clare Shops -- to decorate the tree, which this year was lighted Dec. 7. The tree will remain illuminated until the first Saturday in January.

Gray said recently that he has big plans for next year's 50th anniversary.

In years past, his committee has issued a commemorative mug to raise funds for the protection of the tree and the purchase of necessary supplies, and next year will be no exception.

"So when the Holly tree blazes again this year it will light up, as it has lighted for a number of years past, more than a short stretch of the B&O tracks," wrote author and journalist Gerald Johnson in 1954.

"It will light up the old American doctrine that a man is a man, whether he is president of the B&O or its humblest laborer and as the efforts of all are necessary to success, so the happiness of all is a proper concern of the group to which they belong. It's a fact, and a delightful fact that the carolers were stating a policy of the B&O when they sang:

' 'Tis the season to be jolly,

Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, tra-la-la.' "

If you would like to visit the tree, take U.S. Route 40 north from Baltimore. The tree is two miles east of the Susquehanna River Bridge at Perryville.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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