Thomas Viaduct celebrates its 175th anniversary in July

Commemoration for the oldest curved stone arch railroad bridge in the world

June 19, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

On a recent impossibly humid and sun-splashed Sunday morning, John B. Slater, a landscape architect who is vice president of the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway Inc., was using a large stick to bushwhack his way up a long-forgotten, weed-choked and tree-grown service road that hadn't vibrated to a set of automobile tires since the administration of President Harry Truman.

Slater was joined by railroad and architectural historian Jim Dilts. Both men, who had made this stout climb many times before, were anxious to convey a visitor to one of American railroading's most historic and iconic sites, now impossibly overgrown with vegetation that overlooks the Patapsco River Valley far below.

The object of their veneration is the majestic Thomas Viaduct, the 704-foot-long, eight-arched, stone Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge that spans the Patapsco between Baltimore and Howard counties, and has been carrying trains since it opened for business in 1835.

A moment later, a heavy southbound freight train whistled in the narrowing distance and then several growling CSX diesel locomotives rolled by as squealing flanges from its mix of cars produced notes only found on the upper register of a violin, interrupting conversation.

For some time now, Slater and Dilts, with assistance from the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway and others, have been calling to the attention of CSX, owner of the Thomas Viaduct, its present condition while offering a design proposal for the historic site.

The two preservationists hope that necessary repairs will be completed or at least under way in time for its 175th anniversary celebration. The celebration will be held early next month in the Avalon Area of Patapsco Valley State Park, which is transected by the viaduct that soars overhead.

The Thomas Viaduct, which is the oldest continuously operating railroad span in North America, is also a National Historic Landmark and a Maryland Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. But time has left its mark. Fingerlike streaks of a white substance drip down the face of its stonework, mortar is missing from joints, and saplings have settled into and taken root in stone cracks.

Segments of original cast-iron railings that lined both sides at the top of the viaduct are missing in places.

Some of its stonework has been removed or has fallen off, while one large piece of stone lies in trackside weeds waiting for the day when it will to be restored to its rightful place.

"Structurally it is safe. CSX regularly inspects the viaduct for safety," said Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of "The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853," published in 1993.

Scores of CSX freight trains pass over the viaduct daily, as do MARC commuter trains hustling passengers between Baltimore's Camden Station and Union Station in Washington.

Slater and Dilts hope that the structure can be power-washed and that the missing cast-iron railing that dates to the time of Benjamin H. Latrobe Jr., the structure's designer, can be fitted with reproductions.

Their overall goal is the creation of Thomas Viaduct Park, which would allow additional parking for visitors and better lighting. The former overgrown B&O station road, which Slater and Dilts climbed, would be cleared and made passable once again for foot traffic.

At the top of the bridge, the area facing south provides visitors with a sweeping view of the viaduct as it gently curves away and crosses the river.

It would be fenced in as well as the area alongside the double set of railroad tracks for safety reasons. Vegetation and scrub trees would be cut back.

For years, this area was a popular staging area where B&O Railroad publicists staged passenger trains or new locomotives for publicity photos. For rail fans and photographers, it is indeed hallowed ground.

A 1906 batten-board passenger waiting shed and platform that once stood alongside the eastbound track and was torn down years ago would also be rebuilt as part of the proposed plans.

The Thomas Viaduct obelisk, which was built at the time of its completion and is now covered with spray paint graffiti courtesy of vandals, would also be cleaned and fenced as part of the proposed project.

The B&O, the nation's first common-carrier railroad, was chartered in 1827, with construction commencing at Mount Clare on July 4, 1828, when Charles Carroll of Carrollton, 91 and the sole surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned over the first spade of earth for the new enterprise.

Reaching Relay, the line, which is known as the "Old Main Line," turned west and followed the shoreline of the Patapsco through Ellicott City.

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