The Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail follows about 20 miles of a once-important Pennsylvania Railroad route between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, Maryland. The line’s history can be traced back to the earliest years of the industry when trains were still a relatively new technology in America. Interestingly, the company that constructed the route predated the mighty PRR by nearly 20 years! Under the latter’s control, the property was used as its primary east-west connection to Baltimore and northern link to Buffalo. The route was hurt by new Interstate construction, although the coming of the disastrous Penn Central merger and heavy flooding during the early 1970s doomed its future. Most of the corridor was later abandoned south of York, Pennsylvania, creating trails such as the Torrey C. Brown.
The earliest history of the rail corridor connecting Baltimore and Harrisburg dates back to the Buffalo & Susquehanna Railroad’s (B&S) chartering by the Maryland state legislature on February 27, 1828, to link Baltimore with the mighty Susquehanna River. This was only a year after the Baltimore & Ohio was chartered on February 28, 1827, our country’s first common-carrier. Construction proceeded relatively quickly, and the B&S had reached the state line by 1832, bringing rail service to such towns as Cockeysville and Monkton. This southern section is now the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail. From here, the road connected with the York & Maryland Line Railroad chartered during March of 1832 to continue pushing rails northward into York, Pennsylvania, a task that was completed six years later in 1838.
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Since the U.S. rail industry was still in its infancy during the 1830s, the B&S had its first locomotive, the “Herald,” shipped over from England, an uncommon practice during those early days. In time there were two northern extensions completed via York. The first was opened in April 1840; known as the Wrightsville, York & Gettysburg, it had built northeast toward Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Susquehanna, eventually interchanging there with the Pennsylvania Railroad. The other was the York & Cumberland Railroad chartered during April 1846. After five years of construction, it had reached Lemoyne across the river from Harrisburg.
In December 1854, the properties merged into the newly formed Northern Central Railway. This company would become famous for the various roles it played in American history. It was used as a major supply route by the Union during the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln traveled via the railroad to deliver his iconic Gettysburg Address in November 1863. It also hosted at least two presidential funeral trains, including President Lincoln’s in 1865 and President Warren G. Harding’s in 1923. The corridor’s busiest period was during PRR ownership. The railroad had held an interest in the property since the Civil War era, acquired control in 1900, and formally leased it in 1914, although the Northern Central always remained a PRR subsidiary. The route saw considerable upgrades during the 20th century, including block signals and double-tracking thanks to the many trains using the line daily.
Along with being one of the PRR’s through-routes, freight was also once quite heavy, ranging from milk, agriculture, and flour to paper, coal, and various less-than-carload movements. It also became an important connection for those either traveling north to Buffalo or various points throughout the Midwest. The Great Depression was hard on the line, but it continued playing a principal role within PRR’s system. For instance, during the streamliner era such notable trains as the “Spirit of St. Louis” and “Liberty Limited” both used the Northern Central. These trains were part of what the railroad coined its “Fleet of Modernism” that originally debuted on June 15, 1938, when streamliners were first being introduced to the public across the nation.
The World War II era witnessed the final years of prosperity on the Northern Central. Both freight and passenger traffic was again heavy to aid in the war effort; however, in stark contrast, the 1950s were tough times and service rapidly declined in the face of growing competition from automobiles, trucks, and the new Interstate highway system. In particular, the opening of the Baltimore-Harrisburg Expressway (I-83) closely paralleled the line and helped lead to its demise. In 1956, the Baltimore–Washington leg of the Spirit of St. Louiswas discontinued. Shortly thereafter the Liberty Limited was canceled entirely. With less demand there was no need for a second track, which was removed during 1957.
In 1959, commuter service ended when the Parkton Local serving Baltimore and the community of Parkton (near the Maryland border) was discontinued. The PRR itself was experiencing increasing financial difficulties during the decade, which left a single unnamed passenger train running daily along the length of the route. It remained until the inception of Amtrak during the spring of 1971. Following the PRR’s merger with the New York Central in early 1968, forming Penn Central, service along the Northern Central steadily declined and the carrier headed toward bankruptcy. Only a few trains still used the line. Severe flooding after Hurricane Agnes in 1972 doomed its future south of York. The railroad sought for abandonment but found pushback from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PDOT) and a Maryland congressman, both of who saw importance in the corridor as a strategic artery connecting Baltimore and Washington with Harrisburg. PDOT went purchased the line from York to North Freedom to preserve its future. Meanwhile, when Conrail was formed in 1976 to save rail service in the Northeast (following Penn Central’s collapse), it did not retain the rest of the Northern Central in Maryland. The tracks were removed that same year, and the Northern Central Railroad Trail was created in 1984 north of Cockeysville.
In Pennsylvania the right-of-way was also converted for trail use, known as the Heritage Rail Trail County Park. However, since rails were left in place, recently the section from Hanover Junction to New Freedom began running excursion train rides once more. Operated by Steam Into History, it is regarded as the Northern Central Railway playing to the line’s heritage and uses a beautiful replica 4-4-0 “American” type steam locomotive recently manufactured by the Kloke Locomotive Works.
Railroad attractions in Maryland include the popular Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore and the Baltimore Streetcar Museum; Bowie Railroad Station Museum in Old Bowie; Brunswick Museum in Brunswick; Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum in Chesapeake Beach; Ellicott City Station in Ellicott City (the oldest railroad depot still standing in the country); Gaithersburg Community Museum in Gaithersburg; Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum in Hagerstown; National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville; Walkersville Southern Railroad in Walkersville; and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Cumberland. Other nearby attractions in Pennsylvania include the West Chester Railroad in West Chester; Strasburg Railroad and Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg; and the Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad in Middletown.