Lights at the end of the tunnel Christmas: Train ride resumes glorious holiday run of Cecil County holly, left dark and dying for too many years.

December 04, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff

For Brian Gray, growing up during the 1950s near the main line tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Cecil County, the "Holly-Tree-by-the-Tracks" was often the only Christmas tree he had.

"My dad was a preacher and there were six kids at home. There wasn't an awful lot of money to go around and sometimes we didn't have a Christmas tree," Gray recalled.

"I could hear the trains passing and they used to rock me to sleep at night," he said. "From an upstairs window, I could see the tree lit at night, and for us kids, it was pure magic. For a lot of people who were poor, this was their only Christmas tree."

But the 60-foot-tall American holly tree, formally known as the Traveler's Christmas Tree, was special to thousands of others as well. Beginning in 1947, the tree was lit with hundreds of lights and ornaments, and hundreds of thousands of B&O passengers traveling along the railroad's Royal Blue Line enjoyed its beauty.

It's been years since the last passenger train rolled past the tree. But partly thanks to Gray, the B&O's successor, the CSX Railroad, will load up a train called the Holly Tree Special Saturday evening to mark the tree lighting's 50th anniversary year.

The special train will depart from the grounds of the B & O Museum at 901 W. Pratt St. at 3 p.m., with a scheduled arrival at the tree site in Jackson planned for 4: 30 p.m.

A crowd of 5,000 -- most of them arriving by means other than the train -- is expected to turn out.

Along with the lighting of the tree, there will be carol singing, the unveiling of a commemorative Holly Tree print, and a U.S. Postal Service cancellation of a special cachet envelope.

The Holly Tree Special will comprise 10 MARC coaches, two CSX office cars and two diesel locomotives, said museum director John Ott. He said the resumption of the train is owed to the willingness and cooperation of CSX, MARC, the Cecil County Parks Department -- and Gray's persistence.

"He was the one who first started writing to CSX about it and pushing the 50th anniversary aspect of it," said Ott.

Gray, now a teacher of martial arts in Newport, Del., is chairman of the Cecil County Holly Tree Committee, a volunteer group that has decorated and cared for the tree for nearly 25 years. He's been a fan of the tree since his father first took him to see it being decorated in 1956.

The tree is a notable specimen. It's estimated by arborists to be at least 127 years old, and the largest such tree in the East. Its history dates to 1870, when Evan G. Sentman planted a holly twig he'd found while on a fishing trip near his Jackson home.

During the 1880s, the B & O constructed its Royal Blue Line within 50 feet of the tree. During the 1920s, the tree caught the attention of George M. Shriver, a B & O executive who often glimpsed the tree while passing by. He suggested to Daniel Willard, the railroad's president, that the railroad ought to purchase the tree.

The Sentmans, though, rejected Willard's overtures about a purchase until 1930, after a fire had destroyed the family home. It finally agreed to sell the tree and an acre-and-a-half of land around it.

In 1947, local trackmen in the area suggested that the tree be decorated as a gesture to the tiny line-side community.

Virginia Tanner, a former B&O public relations staffer and retired editor of the B & O Magazine, recalls getting the OK for the project from her boss, R.M. Van Sant.

"We bought ornaments from the same New York firm that supplied the decorations used on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree," said Tanner, who will be on hand for Saturday's ceremonies. She recalls trackmen using extended ladders to hang the lights and decorations, which filled an entire boxcar.

"That first special 12-car train was packed. Mr. Simpson [Howard E. Simpson, later president of the railroad] threw the switch and turned on the lights while the B & O Glee Club and the Women's Music Club sang carols," said Tanner, who works today as public relations director for Villa Julie College.

For the 50th anniversary re-lighting, said Gray, some of the original ornaments will be hung on the tree, as well as the original tree-top star -- fabricated in the B & O's own Mount Clare Shops. A total of about 2,000 lights and 1,000 ornaments, each a foot in diameter, will dress the tree.

For years, the B & O didn't just take travelers to the tree. Engineers, conductors, dining-car waiters and other railroad workers throughout its system wore sprigs of its holly in their hats and lapels throughout the holiday season.

The tree proved to be so popular that the railroad always slowed its crack passenger trains, including the Capitol Limited, the Royal Blue and the Diplomat, so that passengers could get a good look at the tree as they rolled by. By 1964, an estimated 500,000 travelers had stopped, via train, car or on foot, to bask in the tree's warm holiday glow.

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