Excavators unearth history at President Street Station Tracks: Archaeologists working near the 19th-century terminal during the weekend found 2 1/2 feet of an iron strap rail that was used in railroad construction in the late 1830s.

March 18, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Archaeologists digging Sunday beside Baltimore's historic President Street Station uncovered 2 1/2 feet of iron rail dating to the earliest period of American railroad construction.

"We're pretty amazed," said Shawn Cunningham, director of the Baltimore Civil War Museum. The museum is housed in the station at President and Fleet streets. "These are probably some of the earliest railroad tracks ever built in the United States."

In the 1830s and 1840s, the 2 1/2 -inch wide strap rail might have carried escaping slaves Frederick Douglass and Henry "Box" Brown, a congressman named Abraham Lincoln and a young Army officer named Robert E. Lee.

Excavations at the site, supported by the Friends of the President Street Station, began early last month -- two years after construction of a water line to the new museum first exposed evidence of an old track bed.

In the first few days of digging, volunteers uncovered the wooden remnants of a style of rail construction unique to the late 1830s. It is known today from the descriptions of an Austrian engineer, Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner, who traveled extensively in the United States in 1842 and 1843, Cunningham said.

Instead of spiking rails to crossties, flat iron straps were nailed to long wooden "stringers" -- timbers laid in the direction of travel. The stringers were separated by crossties that butted against them, rather than running beneath.

But no iron rails were uncovered until Sunday.

"The last thing we expected to see was metal," Cunningham said. "That would have been dear enough to warrant being pulled up and scrapped."

Archaeologist Esther Doyle Read of the University of Baltimore's Center for Urban Archaeology and volunteer Marty Zemel found the rail sitting on a tie.

The badly rusted rail is about 2 1/2 inches wide and an inch to 1 3/4 inches thick.

"We can't tell how it was attached," Cunningham said. "It won't lift up. But we are fairly certain it was attached by spikes driven through holes in the rail itself. It appears that further down the stringer there are spike holes."

The crossties are about 6 inches square.

Some look milled, while others look like logs that were cut and dropped into place. The ties are set flush in a bed of fist-sized rocks that appear to have been carefully set, "like a funky-looking patio," Cunningham said.

The rail runs along the outside edge of the stringer, suggesting that the train's wheels had flanges on the outside to hold the car on the tracks. Today's trains have flanges on the inboard side.

"This site would never have been heavily mined for this kind of information," Cunningham said. "We're doing archaeology that we would never have known to do without having first restored this building."

The President Street site was a vital part of the early rail system linking major East Coast cities. Trains from the Baltimore and Port Deposit Railroad, founded in 1832, left from this point.

In 1838, the B & PD and two other railroads merged to form the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad.

The PW & B, which built President Street Station in 1849, used the site as its main passenger terminal until 1886.

Historians believe abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass might have escaped to the North from Baltimore's President Street terminal.

It was also the likely transit point for a slave named Henry "Box" Brown, who had himself shipped in a box from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia.

Rep. Abraham Lincoln passed through the railhead in 1848 while campaigning for Zachary Taylor, and Robert E. Lee went through en route to St. Louis in 1838.

The dig has uncovered about 15 feet of the old track, running east and west behind the station.

"It could run all the way across the Inner Harbor East," Cunningham said.

Anyone interested in assisting with next month's excavation is invited to call the museum at 410-385-5188.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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