“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”


Train Spotting in Patapsco Valley: A "Rail" Good Time

by Steven Hanlon

train coming out of a tunnel The Patapsco Valley, named for the river that runs through the heart of it, has drawn people for all manner of activities since colonial times. Running the length of the Baltimore-Howard County line, the valley was once home to numerous mills that made use of the Patapsco River’s swift currents to power water wheels. Although the mills have since vanished, the valley still attracts visitors as a destination for fishing, camping, hiking, biking, canoeing and picnicking within the boundaries of Patapsco Valley State Park. The park has five separately developed recreational areas and several undeveloped sections with river access.

CSX Transportation, the largest railroad in the eastern United States, also occupies the Valley and travels the 32-mile length of the park. The railroad begins its westward run through the park at Relay, near the entrance to the Avalon/Orange Grove areas in Elkridge and continues northwest to the headwaters of the Patapsco at Parr’s Ridge in Mount Airy.

The rugged, remote valley is as much an attraction to train buffs as it is to the park’s hikers and bikers. Little has changed in the 175 years since the first rails were laid and the sight of trains slowly winding their way through the valley is a timeless one. While the technology used to convey the freight has progressed (massive steam locomotives were replaced with diesels in the mid-1950s) the action is just as dramatic. Heavy loaded trains bring coal to Baltimore from West Virginia, and freights hauling hundreds of goods to market use the rails through the Valley daily.


Originally built as the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, the line was first chartered in February 1827, becoming the first railroad in the nation. Baltimore was the young nation’s second largest city then and a small group of wealthy merchants hoped to compete with New York City’s access to the Midwest via the Erie Canal. The Main Stem as it was called would be built from Baltimore’s harbor to Wheeling, in what was then Virginia, on the Ohio River, traversing Maryland’s rolling hills and rugged mountains.

A photo of a CSX train roaring east on the Old Main Line after exiting Davis Tunnel. The first 13 miles to Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City) were opened on May 22, 1830, using horse drawn carriages to provide passenger and freight service. The horses were changed out at Relay House, on the hill above the entrance to the Avalon/Orange Grove Area. It was here that the railroad built a hotel and in 1835, an extension to Washington over the Thomas Viaduct, the world’s largest curved multiple stone arch bridge. It is said that the steam engine Tom Thumb raced a horse drawn carriage in this area of the park and lost.

Patapsco’s Grist Mill Trail follows the river just below the railroad from Lost Lake to Bloedes Dam. Here the trail uses the original right of way that was abandoned in 1903 when the Ilchester Tunnel was opened. The trail ends at the ruins of the Patterson Viaduct, the first multiple stone arch railroad bridge in the world. Originally constructed using a sequence of several stone arches, floods in 1866 and 1868 devastated the structure, leaving only a single stone arch intact on the western shore.

The original rail bed was a cumbersome system using stone stringers as the foundation with wood and iron straps as rails. As railroad technology progressed, this stone system was replaced with an iron rail supported by wooden ties that would ultimately evolve into the modern image of railroad tracks. Examples of these original stone stringers can still be found along the Grist Mill Trail near Bloedes Dam, where the iron pegs used to hold the wood and iron strap rails remain visible.


Ilchester Tunnel’s west portal can be accessed by hiking along the river from the Orange Grove area to Ilchester Road. The railroad tunnel opens to a truss bridge serving as an excellent setting for pictures from a variety of angles. This area is best photographed in the afternoon as several freights make their way west.

A train emerging from Davis Tunnel near Woodstock.In the Daniels Area, the original right of way is now a trail that follows the river to Davis Tunnel. The railroad was realigned through the area on more than one occasion and several stone bridge piers mark the various routes. Davis Tunnel is the most remote area of the railroad and is quite picturesque, but reaching it requires a two-mile hike from the Daniels Area parking lot. The trail wraps around the ridge that was tunneled in 1903, allowing easy access to both portals, and a trail over the top allows for photos from above the west portal. This section of the park is great for canoeing and fishing while waiting for the trains to roll through.

In the Hollofield Area, the B&O railroad built the Union Dam Tunnel to help straighten the line. The original right of way is used by hikers and sunbathers to access the ruins of the Union Dam. In 1972, floods from Tropical Storm Agnes breached the dam, believed to have once powered Union Mill, located some 1.5 miles downstream at Oella. Along the trail, there are still remains of the original stone roadbed visible in many locations. Access to this area of the railroad is available via the Union Dam Trail off the main entrance to the Hollofield Area. The Hollofield Area’s campground sites are high above the railroad. In the fall visitors can look down upon the serpentine route as trains make their way through the Valley.

In the McKeldin Area, the railroad is visible just above the rapids. This extremely scenic area offers great fishing, and its trails are fun to hike or bike while offering views of the railroad in several locations.

For those who enjoy the outdoors and appreciate the allure of trains, a visit to Patapsco Valley State Park is a wonderful adventure. The lulls between trains can easily be filled with fishing, hiking or just relaxing in the beautiful river valley. The seemingly remote location offers terrific trails just waiting to be explored with several vistas that overlook the river and rail bed making for exciting photo opportunities. In the fall, the valley’s grandeur of colors creates a vibrant background, enhancing the scenic display as trains slowly ply through, transporting all manner of goods to markets east and west.

While visitors to Patapsco Valley State Park are encouraged to enjoy the passing of trains through the park, they are reminded that the rail lines are the private property of the CSX Corporation. Not only is it quite dangerous to walk along the rail bed, it is also considered trespassing and violators will be prosecuted.

Steven Hanlon has had numerous railroad photographs published in national rail fan magazines. This is his first by-line. Steven previously worked in the scale model railroad industry before coming to DNR in 2002 where he is currently a Computer Network Specialist. When Steven is not trackside with his wife and son, he enjoys backpacking in Maryland's State Parks and Forests, which he feels provides him with a greater connection to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources. Steven graduated from Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA in 1996.

Note:  This article first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of The Maryland Natural Resource...Your guide to recreation and conservation in Maryland.