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, 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, 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.
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.
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