Local images of national fame

Railroading: America's first railroad - the B&O - led to the creation in the mid-19th century of three structures that still stand in Howard County and are nationally as recognized historic landmarks.

September 26, 2000|By Paul S. Bridge | Paul S. Bridge,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Howard County is home to two nonprivate National Historic Landmarks and shares a third with Baltimore County.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station in historic Ellicott City and the Bollman Truss Bridge on Foundry Road at Savage Mill are in Howard County, while the Thomas Viaduct crosses the Patapsco River between Relay in Baltimore County and Elkridge in Howard County.

All three have a common origin: the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, America's first.

The B&O station, now a museum, was completed in 1831. Placed at the intersection of the B&O and the eastern end of the National Road, the depot was busy from the start. The freight agent was quartered in the station to allow for around-the-clock service.

The station was designed by Jacob Small Jr. (1772-1851), once the mayor of Baltimore and the middle link in a three-generation family of architects. The Ellicott City station, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, is his only surviving architectural work, according to John Dorsey and James Dilts in their 1981 "Guide to Baltimore Architecture."

In June 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes accomplished what 141 years of progress in railroading had not - forcing the shutdown of the station. The floodwaters from Agnes swelled the Patapsco River and devastated miles of B&O tracks. The station survived the storm, but the B&O decided not to reopen it after the tracks were repaired. Historic Ellicott City Inc. opened the museum in 1976 and remains as its nonprofit caretaker. The site is owned by Howard County.

The Thomas Viaduct, completed in 1835 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, was certainly one of the most notable of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's earliest engineering successes. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe Jr., the granite structure was built to carry the B&O Railroad over the Patapsco River on the way to Washington. The 612-foot-long bridge is used today by CSX, the B&O's successor, and MARC, Maryland's commuter rail line.

According to Edward Hungerford, author of a 1927 Centennial history, idle-minded folk called it "Latrobe's Folly." These skeptics claimed that the structure - in a flood-prone river, built with 63,000 tons of granite and needing to support moving trains with weights yet to be determined- would never survive more than a few months. Today, devoted train spotters report that as many as 60 trains a day, many weighing more than 10,000 tons, use the Thomas Viaduct.

Latrobe, the B&O's chief engineer for many years, was, in a sense, directly responsible for the third of Howard County's crown jewels, the Bollman Truss Bridge. The bridge, the last known patented Bollman suspension truss left in the world, is in front of historic Savage Mill in Savage. It is also the newest of the national landmarks, having joined the list this year.

Wendel Bollman, born in Baltimore in 1814, began work on the B&O as a carpenter's apprentice at age 17. He eventually became Latrobe's assistant, and from him learned the fundamental properties of truss bridges. Bollman also experimented on his own, in some cases by collecting iron scraps from the shop floors and building models.

The Bollman Truss Bridge became popular with railroads in the middle of the 19th century. A bit of a mystery developed as to how the suspension bridge was moved from its original site to Savage Mill. However, from National Park Service inventories, it is nearly certain that the bridge is the only survivor of its type in the world.

Vistor information

The B&O Railroad Station Museum is on Main Street at Maryland Avenue in Ellicott City. Information: 410-461-1944.

The Thomas Viaduct is best seen by entering the Patapsco Valley State Park Orange Grove/Avalon Area. The entrance is in Elkridge, on South Street off U.S. 1. Savage Mill is in Savage, on Foundry Road, west of U.S. 1 and south of Route 32.

Paul S. Bridge is a native Baltimorean and has been a Howard County resident for 17 years. He is a volunteer docent at both B&O Railroad museums, in Baltimore and Ellicott City.

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