Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad: Old Main Line

Westbound CSX train rolling by Ellicott City
The second most frequently asked question at Ellicott City Station is, “Do trains still come by here?” Yes, freight trains still do roll by just like they have for over 180 years.

Construction of the railroad began with a grand groundbreaking celebration in Baltimore on July 4, 1828. Since no one had built a railroad through such difficult territory before, construction proved very costly. Civil engineers had to invent new techniques as they built west, such as using wooden crossties instead of stone sills to lay the rails. The line reached Ellicott's Mills in  
                                                                                                        May 1830.

In 1835, the B&O opened the Washington Branch to provide service to the nation’s capital. The line being built to Wheeling then became known as the Main Stem. After 24½ years of difficult labor and litigation, the Main Stem finally opened for service to Wheeling on January 1, 1853.

In 1873, the B&O completed the Metropolitan Branch northwest from Washington to join the Main Stem at Point of Rocks, MD. The section of the Main Stem between Relay and Point of Rocks then became known as the Old Main Line. It is still in use today as the Old Main Line Subdivision by CSX Transportation freight trains.

The original route the line followed caused many operational issues later on. At the time the route was surveyed, steam power was still in its infancy. The directors of the B&O chose to go with horse drawn cars, which were small and lightweight. As the horses gave way to steam locomotives in the mid 1830’s, it became apparent that the tight curves of the line would be problematic. As traffic increased, locomotives and the cars they pulled became larger and unable to safely run on the line. Over the years, the track was relocated in many areas to allow higher speeds and safer operation.

In the early 1900’s, the B&O began a major reconstruction project. Several tunnels were bored through the granite hills of the Patapsco Valley to provide a modern track alignment. The section in Ellicott City is still in the original surveyed location.

CSX continues the traditions of the B&O railroad. Coal is still transported from mines in West Virginia to Baltimore to be loaded on ships for export. If you travel through Baltimore on I95 and I895, just outside of the north tunnel portals is one of the coal piers. Trains consisting of special cars called auto racks carry new automobiles and trucks from factories in the Midwest to distribution yards in Baltimore and Pennsylvania. Near the north side of the I895 steel bridge is one of the Baltimore auto unloading yards. And mixed freight trains carrying all kinds of products continue to pass through Ellicott City in both directions. Today, most freight trains do not operate on a fixed schedule. A train could appear at any time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The Pioneer outside the station
On display at Ellicott City Station is a replica of the Pioneer, a small wooden car that would be pulled by one horse at a time when the line first opened in back in 1830. If you’re lucky, you might get to see a 20,000 ton coal train pulled by several locomotives, producing over 12,000 horsepower rumbling by! Or one of the many other trains that pass thorough. We just don’t know when the next one might be.

(To answer the #1 FAQ, restrooms are in the Gift Shop!)

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