The town, after the tragedy

Coping: Residents of Bloomington -- a tiny town born of railroad expansion -- reflect on last Sunday's train derailment that killed Eddie Lee Rogers, 15.

February 06, 2000|By HOWARD LIBIT | HOWARD LIBIT,SUN STAFF

BLOOMINGTON -- This town knows death -- usually by trucks.

Proof is found in 18 faded white crosses at the foot of Cemetery Hill, each marking the fatal crash of a truck whose brakes failed.

But today, this tight-knit community on the border of Garrett and Allegany counties and West Virginia is burying Eddie Lee Rogers, a 15-year-old who died in an unexpected way last Sunday, when an out-of-control coal train smashed through his house just yards away from the tracks.

"No one ever dreamed that the train would run off the track," says Alice Howard, Bloomington's historian and one of its oldest residents. "The trains have been coming through here for more than 100 years, right next to the houses, and never was there a train wreck in town."

Trains have always been part of life in Bloomington. Although a nearby settlement at the mouth of the Savage River near the Potomac River dates from the Revolutionary War, the town itself -- like many other small communities in this part of Maryland -- was built alongside the railroad during the 1850s.

Houses were raised just yards from the tracks -- even though the town sits at the bottom of Backbone Mountain and one of the longest steep downhill tracks east of the Mississippi River -- because the trains of that era were not very long or very fast.

For decades, Bloomington -- named for the early-blooming flowers in the area -- was a stop along the busy east-west route, spawning an almost bustling town with merchants, an ice-cream parlor and a hotel.

These days, the trains still pull through, but they never stop -- the Bloomington station is long gone. Every 24 hours, a half-dozen trains pass, often 80 cars filled with coal. Few people in Bloomington notice.

"The trains are here all the time, so it gets to the point where you don't pay any attention to them," says David Boal, 67, retired after 41 years working for the nearby Westvaco paper mill. "It's just part of our life, here along the tracks."

Like the trains, life in Bloomington has changed over the years.

The town was never an urban center, but it once was the second-largest community in Garrett County, with a population of 500 or more, residents estimate.

Now, it's down to 125 or so homes scattered above and below the train tracks along the bottom of Backbone Mountain, with about 350 residents. Most of the houses are small and neat, though an abandoned building can be seen here and there.

Before last weekend's accident, Bloomington was last in the spotlight in 1989, when international whitewater championships were held nearby on the Savage River.

Nearly everyone who lives here has a connection to one of three enterprises -- the Westvaco paper mill in the nearby town of Luke, coal mining or the trains.

Giant trailers filled with freshly cut trees for the paper mill jockey for space with pick-ups and cars along the area's narrow roads.

Over the years, 18 trucks coming down the steep, six-mile road off Backbone Mountain have crashed into the cement wall beneath Bloomington's Cemetery Hill, unable to slow down enough on the steep decline to make the sharp right turn required to stay on the road.

"The crosses just keep adding up down there, right beneath our town cemetery," says Howard, who has been retired for two decades after 38 years of teaching.

`Good-paying jobs are gone'

Retirees are plentiful here. Most of those with connections to the three big industries nearby are drawing pensions, not paychecks.

"Most of the good-paying jobs are gone out here," says Bill Welsh, 66, a Westvaco retiree. "There's a work force, but nowhere to work."

Bloomington's last store -- the Hav-A-Lot, a combined convenience store, gas station and restaurant -- closed about a month ago, forcing residents to drive three or four miles to Westernport to buy a candy bar or carton of milk.

A credit union remains open, but a bank sits empty across the street. Bloomington has a tiny elementary school, but the town is so isolated from the rest of Garrett County that most children in grades seven through 12 are sent to middle and high schools in Allegany County, which are closer. Even the weather in Bloomington is different from the rest of Garrett, with far less snow and ice than in communities farther west.

"Like Western Maryland is to Maryland, Bloomington is to Garrett County," says the town's postmaster, Johnny Baier. "The people on the other side of the mountain don't think about this town very much."

But for Baier, Bloomington is the kind of town you come to and never leave. He's been postmaster for 13 years, and though he might have moved on to better-paying posts, he's let them slip by to stay at this post office -- a converted two-story house -- where most people still pick up their mail and gather for conversation every morning.

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