Tracking the valley

Train: Daily trips through Patapsco Valley give CSX conductor Walt Miller a view of the park others seldom see.

May 10, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Few people know Patapsco Valley State Park as intimately as conductor Walt Miller, who goes through it twice a day in a CSX locomotive cab the size of a minivan, with windows on three sides. From Baltimore, where he and an engineer board, to Frederick County, where they get off, they have a front-row view.

Never mind the occasional smell of rotting spillage from the grain cars on the tracks, or the youths in Cherry Hill who sometimes shoot BB guns at the train, or even the boredom that can set in traveling the same route -- known as the Old Main Line -- day after day.

In 20 years on the rails, Miller, 39, says he has seen few rides as pretty as the one that winds along the river through the state park.

Much as he loves the park, he has not followed the sometimes heated debate over the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a proposed trail network that would link the park to surrounding towns and market the recreational and cultural attractions of the valley.

"I haven't even heard of it," he says.

Miller, who is from Kingsville, conducts the train Monday through Friday as it carries alumina from a ship in Hawkins Point to an aluminum plant in Frederick County. The trip, 50-some miles, takes two to three hours one way. Round trips include time for unloading.

The train goes slowly, about 25 mph, swaying as commuter trains do. In spring and summer, when the side windows are open, they let in some delicious smells, such as freshly mowed grass, and some nose-wrinkling smells, such as the occasional sewage plant.

Long before the valley was transformed into a park, long before the land around it became Baltimore's sprawling suburbs, trains connected Baltimore to the flourishing center of industry on the Patapsco River around Ellicott City and Elkridge.

People who work in the shops on Ellicott City's Main Street, or in the historic Oella Mill across the river, have become familiar with the sound of the horn and the metallic ring of the train as it slides along the tracks.

An engineer drives the train, surrounded by controls. Miller usually sits in a spare seat by a side window, where he can watch the tracks. It's his job to prepare the train for departure, throw the switches, call the signals along the track and check in with dispatchers at CSX headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Old Main Line, which closely follows the original Baltimore and Ohio Railroad route from Baltimore to the Ohio River, has been a part of the Patapsco Valley since 1830. It goes through West Baltimore, over the Patapsco River and the Beltway, through Relay and East Avalon and West Avalon. Then it hits Ellicott City, Daniels, East Davis, West Davis, Marriottsville, Henryton, Sykesville, East Hoods, West Hoods, Woodbine, Mount Airy, Monrovia, Ijamsville.

It passes many landmarks along the way, places the greenway planners want to celebrate and market. It goes by Thomas Viaduct, completed in 1835. When the telegraph was invented, it crossed the river at the viaduct, carrying the famous first message: "What hath God wrought?"

It goes by Relay, named because in the days before steam it was where the railway changed the relays of horses that pulled the train.

It goes by the Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station and Museum, site of the nation's first railroad terminus.

Then it goes north past Union Dam and into Carroll County, where the Patapsco River begins as a spring.

Miller doesn't care much about history, although he does marvel at the many tunnels on the route, created three or four decades before dynamite. Like many people who fall in love with Patapsco Valley State Park, he's attracted more by the peace and quiet -- or as much of it as he can get between ear-splitting toots of the train whistle intended to scare people or deer off the tracks.

His favorite part of the ride is in Carroll County, where people and the suburbs fall away and, as he puts it, "It's just nothing but nature and stream."

He measures the route not by time -- freight trains, unlike passenger trains, do not leave at the same time every day -- not by mileposts, and not by the roads and towns he passes.

He measures it by the animals he sees along the way.

A third-generation conductor, he is a big, tough-looking man, 6 feet 1 inch tall and 250 pounds, who goes to work wearing a T-shirt, jeans, scuffed work boots and a camouflage cap. He doesn't talk much, but when he does, it's almost always about the critters he sees on his daily rounds.

Just outside Baltimore, he points to pheasants foraging in the grass by the tracks. "There's been pheasants out here all over the place," he says.

As the train goes by Ellicott City, with its crowded streets and historic buildings, he starts to talk about a house, just north of the town, where two dogs with two unexpected personalities live.

"This is funny," he says. "The little dog barks at us and the Doberman gets scared." Sure enough, the fluffy dog chases the train, barking away, while the fierce-looking dog cowers. Miller watches, smiling.

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