History Lesson

Inaugural race between the horse and the locomotive - Ellicott Mills, August 28, 1830. Less than one year later, every horse on the B&O Railroad had been replaced by steam locomotives (photo courtesy US DOT Federal Highway Administration)

Growing up in Howard County, it was pounded into my head as early as elementary school that we had deep historical significance in the rail and shipping industries.  In fact, it’s mandated by the Maryland Department of Education that our children understand that significance.

With the recent talk surrounding a “new” CSX facility to go somewhere in Maryland – possibly Howard County – I was curious just how deep those roots went.  What I found was astounding: Howard County is, in fact, the cradle of the American rail industry, and a birthplace of the modern transport industries that changed the course of history – beginning with shipping from our small port (Elkridge Landing) out to the world, to the genesis of the railroad.

Given the history of this community, what’s even more astounding is the level of opposition a handful of people around here have against supporting a thriving port and rail industry – especially with the added advantages, today, of also being a crossroads for air transport and travel, I-95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and for the MARC train.

But let’s go back to where we started:

The Thomas Viaduct

The Thomas Viaduct, Elkridge’s community centerpiece (the longtime community newspaper was called The Viaduct), is along the original main line for the B&O Railroad through the Patapsco Valley.  As the only railroad into and out of Washington at the time, the viaduct was a critical entry point in the north during the Civil War, and was heavily guarded by Union troops.  It’s also the oldest stone bridge built on a curve in the world.  And, as you can see, it’s beautiful (by the way, those are CSX tracks).

The Tom Thumb

The Tom Thumb, a railcar which used to go between Ellicott City and Baltimore right along the Thomas Viaduct, was the first American-built steam locomotive used on a railroad.  It was built as the prototype for the steam locomotive, and was used in the very first races that took place between horse and train.  Relay Station in Ellicott City was named after those races, which took place between there and Baltimore.

Morse's original telegraph machine at B&O Railroad in Ellicott City

In 1844, that viaduct also hosted the first

public demonstration of the telegraph in the United States, when Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought?” from The Supreme Court Chamber in Washington, DC, along the B&O line, to the B&O Railroad depot (now the museum) in Baltimore.  I’m sure County Executive Ken Ulman, now pushing a statewide effort for broadband, has an appreciation for that earlier, incredibly significant effort that connected people.

Elkridge is actually the oldest settlement in Howard County. Elkridge Landing was the seaport founded to support Elkridge’s sea trade in the 1730s, starting out as the place where American tobacco was loaded onto English ships.  Later, the B&O provided employment for many of its residents.

All this flows into and out of the Port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay.  The Port, of course, was for centuries one of the single most significant points on the East Coast, not just for international trade, but to American history, all the way back to when the British were repelled by the critical holding of Fort McHenry in the war of 1812 and the Star-Spangled Banner was written off its coast.

The Patapsco River valley: the watershed flowing to the Port of Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay

All of these things are connected and inter-dependent: the Patapsco River, the Port of Baltimore, the modern rail industry, I-95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and goods shipped all over the United States from around the world.  With all of these connection points converging right in Howard County – if not Courtney Watson’s own councilmanic district – is it any surprise that the railroad that’s been operating here for 200 years would look to locate an intermodal facility in our jurisdiction?

Howard County, in the grand scheme of things, played a pivotal role in shaping the America we know today.  When we’re thinking about where to go, it’s good to know where we began.

– Brian Dunn


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Columbia 2.0 is a thriving grass-roots organization whose mission is to support the Next Generation of Columbia Town Center.

5 responses to “History Lesson”

  1. Nicoline says :

    It’s good to see the connection between past and present, but let’s not forget that much of the economic miracle that made the U.S. came at the expense of the environment, the rights of native peoples and the health and safety of its citizens. The economy is, or should be, everyone’s priority right now, but let’s try to find a balance this time. Is it absolutely necessary to have a railroad run through residential areas?

    • columbia2.0 says :

      Hi Nicoline,

      Thank you for reading and for your comment. But I think you have the question in reverse. Based on the history, the railroad line was there long before people built homes. I would ask, is really necessary for people to build homes so close to the existing railroad lines? Just a thought….


    • Anonymous says :

      A railroad is cleaner, safer, and less noisy than the alternatives. We have to move this stuff somehow somewhere, and railroads are the best land option.

      Nice Read.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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