Train Spotting in Patapsco Valley: A "Rail" Good Time
by Steven Hanlon
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
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.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE AMERICAN RAILROAD
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.
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
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
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
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
Note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of The Maryland Natural Resource...Your guide to recreation and conservation in Maryland.