Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Monumental Inconvenience

The hot summer of 1830 saw the end in sight for the final stretches of track being laid between Mt. Clare and Ellicott’s Mills. Great stone viaducts had been constructed and earth carefully moved to perch the railroad’s right of way on a shelf above the meandering Patapsco River. Immediately beyond Ellicott’s Mills, where the Oliver Viaduct crossed the Frederick Turnpike (Main Street) and construction had begun on the B&O’s first purpose built depot (Ellicott City Station), lay a giant rock.

Considering the incredible tasks performed by teams of laborers to get the railroad this far one might consider getting past an outcropping of rock might not be too much of a challenge. This steep incline leading down to the river bed, however, had a virtual wall of hard granite protruding nearly perpendicular to the face of the hillside, blocking the right of way with no way around. We can only imagine the schemes plotted to remove this obstacle. In the end the engineers and laborers chose to get through the great rock by excavating a vertical slice out of it leaving a monumental tower of granite on the river side of the tracks. The result was a curious spectacle that attracted much attention and even became a tourist attraction of sorts for many years.

This unusual piece of engineering handiwork was named Tarpeian Rock after a steep cliff on the southern summit of Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Forum in Ancient Rome. The Roman rock was used as an execution site. Murderers and traitors, if convicted by the courts were flung from the cliff to their deaths and many who had a mental or significant physical disability also suffered the same fate as they were thought to have been cursed by the gods. While, hopefully, no one was ever flung to their death off this rock it was a notable feature of the landscape on the B&O described in some mid-19th century travelogues and depicted in the accompanying engraving. It stood for almost thirty years before the railroad removed the entire granite pillar to make way for a wider track bed.

At about 2:00 o’clock PM on August 28, 1830 a group of the B&O Railroad’s luminaries were poised to watch director Robert Oliver ceremoniously lay the keystone of the viaduct about to be named for him. Attending were Philip E. Thomas, president; John H. B. Latrobe, counsel; a reporter and Peter Cooper who had transported the dignitaries from Baltimore behind his little steam locomotive that, on this day, set record breaking speed at 18 miles per hour. Philip E. Thomas presided over the ceremonies congratulating the contractor for his performance and the town citizens for their patience. What Thomas failed to mention that day was that a several laborers had been killed three days earlier when a car full of excavated stone from the Tarpeian Rock rolled off the end of temporary track onto the workmen below.
Courtney B. Wilson
Executive Director