Joan Bittner Fry
The railroad through Sabillasville has always been a part of my life. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, we would pick up Uncle Ned at the state sanatorium station, where he would visit our family from Baltimore. I recall a time when the train was stopped at Manahan’s Store. We were on our way home from school. The engineer said we could get on and see inside. I was the only kid who wouldn’t get on. It was so big!
The Western Maryland Railroad had been transforming Western Maryland since the 1830s. The Baltimore and Ohio connected Frederick City and points west to Baltimore, creating tremendous economic opportunity; but the area north of Frederick City had to wait over forty years to connect with the railroad. The challenges of building in mountainous areas slowed progress.
On May 17, 1862, the builders of the Western Maryland Railroad caused “quite a stir” in Graceham by laying track near the outskirts of town, but the Civil War slowed all progress. It was not until later in the decade that the railroad pushed into Graceham. Not until 1871 did the railroad finally arrive in Mechanicstown (now Thurmont) and press through the rest of Frederick County. Its arrival brought monumental changes to Mechanicstown, according to the local newspaper:
“The sound of steam whistle twice a day in the suburbs of our hitherto quiet little town has awakened everything up to newness of life and a spirit of ‘go-aheadativeness’ which is quite refreshing. We begin to put on city airs and learn city fashions; Baltimore is brought close to our doors and oysters and cav-back (canvasback) ducks and fresh fish can be produced and eaten daily as at one of the largest restaurants in the Monumental City (Baltimore).”
After its expansion to Mechanicstown, railroad workers began laying tracks westward to Sabillasville. The brand new Mechanicstown newspaper, The Catoctin Clarion, predicted that the new railroad would “whistle the inhabitants of Sabillasville from the Rip Van Winkle sleep into a new and creative existence.” Once completed, the railroad took a leisurely semi-circular route around Sabillasville, a ride that quickly became known as “Horseshoe Curve.”
The entire Horseshoe Curve could be seen from many vantage points around Sabillasville, especially the State Sanatorium TB Hospital. My siblings and neighbors crossed the tracks of Horseshoe Curve every day to and from the former Sabillasville Elementary School. The road is now the treacherous Fort Ritchie Road from Sabillasville to Route 491. My biggest fear in those days was a train being parked on the track getting water from the tank. I can still remember those huge wheels as we crawled beneath or between the cars to get to the other side. A first grader’s legs are pretty short. I guess my brother Jim’s legs were even shorter than mine.
The Western Maryland main line pushed west across South Mountain from Union Bridge, and by August 28, 1871, it had reached Sabillasville. At Blue Ridge Summit, engineers encountered very hard rock and found it necessary to run the line into Pennsylvania. Rather than go through the time-consuming process of getting the Pennsylvania Legislature to grant a charter, the company purchased the land and laid the tracks on its own property. This amounted to several hundred yards of line at the station at Blue Ridge Summit and again at Pen Mar at the highway bridge.
In the spring of 1871, a strike by workers, demanding $1.75 per day and a ten-hour day, temporarily halted plans to extend the railroad to Smithsburg; but, soon, labor and management settled the strike and the new railroad was pressing onward toward Hagerstown. It reached Hagerstown in August of 1872.
On March 24, 1874, John Mifflin Hood became president of Western Maryland Railroad, a position he held until he resigned on February 27, 1902. When Hood became president, the railroad had but 90 miles of track, a basically muddy roadbed, worn-out rusting rail, and 12 mechanically exhausted locomotives that were inadequate for freight and passenger trade. During Hood’s presidency, the Western Maryland track grew to 270 miles of steel track. From Baltimore, the Pen Mar Express train left Hillen Station at 9:15 a.m. and reached Pen Mar Park before noon, with the trip returning at 9:15 p.m. It was said that the passengers would cheer when they reached the curve. After circling Sabillasville, the railroad briefly went into Pennsylvania at the top of the grade at Blue Ridge Summit.
Passenger stations along the line were also telegraph offices that provided communication over wires owned and maintained by the railroad. My late neighbor, Charles E. Shields, was a telegraph operator at Blue Ridge Summit.
The first Blue Ridge Station was built in 1871. From 1872 to 1957, passenger service was provided to Blue Ridge Summit. The second station was built in 1891. Later, a train shed was constructed at Blue Ridge Summit, along the station side of the track, to protect boarding and alighting passengers from the weather. Pen Mar Station had a similar shed.
In 1958, the railroad presented the deed to this station and one and one-half acres of land to Mrs. Robert Hearne, president of the board of directors of the library at that time, with the following statement:
“In the tradition of the good neighbor, the Western Maryland family deeds to all the families of Blue Ridge Summit this familiar community meeting place to be used as a free public library, thus continuing in a cultural sense, the close relationship between the railroad and the people.” This quaint library serves two states: Maryland and Pennsylvania; and four counties: Frederick and Washington in Maryland and Adams and Franklin in Pennsylvania.
Water service for steam locomotives was a very important requirement, particularly on a mountain railroad. There were water tanks at Thurmont, one on the Horseshoe Curve above Sabillasville, and two at Highfield. Most small stations had local boarding houses available at the time.
Boarding Houses at Sabillasville
Horse Shoe Bend — Mrs. W. Frank Birely (25 guests); Williar House — Mrs. Charles Williar (15 guests); Curve House — Mrs. S. W. Harbaugh (15 guests); Meadow Brook — Mrs. Linnie Crist (20 guests); Silver Springs Farm — Mrs. Wm. H. Naylor (35 guests); Fair View Farm — Mrs. Samuel West (30 guests); Mountain View Cottage — R. A. Harbaugh (not given); *Harbaugh Cottage — Thos. H. Harbaugh (not given); Anders House — Mrs. Maud Anders (not given); The Eyler Cottage — Mrs. Bertha Eyler (not given). *The author now owns this house.
Boarding house rates were from $1.00 to $2.00 per day and $5.00 to $6.00 or $10.00 per week. The charge for children and servants was $3.00 to $5.00.
Throughout the country, as was the case on Catoctin Mountain, the railroad reached and transformed formerly remote areas. In northern Frederick and Washington Counties, the railroad opened tourism to the mountain area and revived agriculture and industry in the region. During the summer on Sundays and holidays, crowds jammed Hillen Station in Baltimore and spilled into the street, with lines sometimes stretching several blocks. City people were headed for vacation resorts at Braddock Heights, Pen Mar, Blue Ridge Summit, and other locations, which were built and prospered because of rail transportation.
Unfortunately, all of this cost money, and by May 1902, the railroad owed over $9,000,000 to the City of Baltimore. After Hood resigned, the city sold its interest in the Western Maryland Railroad to the Fuller Syndicate.
The WMRR Now
Since 2007, the Maryland Midland (MMID) Railroad in Union Bridge, Maryland, has been owned by Genesee & Wyoming Industries, a U.S.-based corporation that owns multiple railroad shortlines in the United States and Australia. The railroad is shaped like a giant cross, with the east-west lines longer than the north-south lines. The western end of the cross, the former Western Maryland main line, goes to the CSX interchange at Highfield. The train sometimes runs twenty to thirty cars, with as many as four locomotives often leading.
This view of Horseshoe Curve at Sabillasville is from a period image (c. late 1800s), according to WMRR Historical Society in Union Bridge. It is not a postcard but an early sketch issued in a small booklet entitled “Western Maryland R. R. Scenery,” measuring 3 x 5 inches.