The Western Maryland Rail Trail covers about 20 miles of the Western Maryland Railway’s (WM) former main line through its home state west of Hagerstown. The WM was once an important carrier to the regions it served, with a history dating back to the late 19th century. It competed with the Baltimore & Ohio for lucrative coal traffic between West Virginia and Baltimore while also offering an important through-connection at Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Eventually, the B&O acquired control of the WM, and it was later included under the Chessie System banner during the early 1970s. Unfortunately, its routes were considered redundant, and over time, large portions of the WM were abandoned in favor of the B&O’s parallel lines. Today, only small sections of its original system still runs trains.
What became known as the Western Maryland Railway dates to the Baltimore, Carroll & Frederick Railroad, chartered by the Maryland General Assembly in 1852 to provide Baltimore with direct rail service to the growing city of Hagerstown. Only a year later, the name was amended to the Western Maryland Rail Road Company (WMRR). Construction was relatively slow and had reached only Union Bridge by 1862. Further expansion was halted by the Civil War but picked up in 1868 and proceeded quickly, reaching Hagerstown by 1872. A year later, a short extension to Williamsport provided the WMRR with a connection to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
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During the rest of the 19th century, most of the railroad’s expansion concentrated east of Hagerstown, reaching such locations as Hanover, Gettysburg, and Shippensburg in Pennsylvania. It was able to reach Cherry Run, West Virginia, west of Hagerstown, along the banks of the Potomac River for an important interchange with the Baltimore & Ohio. The WMRR’s greatest growth, however, came following its 1902 takeover by the Fuller Syndicate, led by George Gould the son of notorious tycoon Jay Gould. Gould’s interest in the system was to link it with other properties under his control, thereby offering the first true transcontinental railroad serving both of America’s coastlines. His plan involved pushing rails west to the important commercial center of Cumberland, Maryland, opening lines into West Virginia to take advantage of its lucrative seams of bituminous coal. Plans were to extend into western Pennsylvania to interchange with other railroads.
Gould would accomplish his task of reaching Cumberland by 1906, but the line (known as the Cumberland Extension) proved so expensive because of the numerous tunnels and bridges, that the company fell into bankruptcy in 1908, emerging in 1910 as the Western Maryland Railway. According to Ross Grenard and John Krause’s book “Steam In The Alleghenies, Western Maryland” it had cost just under $12,000 per mile, with an overall price tag of around $7 million to complete the route. Today’s Western Maryland Rail Trail follows this section of the WM system.
Despite reorganization (causing Gould to lose control of the WM), during the next few years the railroad continued pushing west and south. By 1912, it had opened its Connellsville Extension to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, where interchanges were established with the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie and later the Pittsburgh & West Virginia. A few years before, it had gained access into southcentral West Virginia at Elkins largely by acquiring the West Virginia Central & Pittsburg Railway.
While the WM closely paralleled the nearby B&O, and built a route between Cumberland and Baltimore that was arguably superior, it was only a fraction the B&O’s size at less than 1,000 miles. By comparison, the B&O operated a roughly 10,000-mile system. The WM, on the other hand, reached no farther west than Connellsville or Elkins. But the railroad did carry a great deal of pride, and despite its obscure nature, is fondly remembered for maintaining its locomotives, other rolling stock, right-of-way, and structures to immaculate standards.
As part of its main line, the Hagerstown–Cumberland route (officially regarded as the Hagerstown Division) witnessed a diverse range of trains plying its rails daily, from passenger consists led by 4-6-2 “Pacific” type locomotives during the steam era to various types of freight (coal, merchandise, perishables, agriculture, lumber) powered by hefty 2-10-0 “Decapods.” In later years, massive 4-8-4 “Potomacs,” the largest and newest steam locomotives the railroad ever owned, moved such freight.
The Western Maryland became known as “The Fast Freight Line” for its speedy, timed freights. Beginning in the early 1930s, it teamed with a consortium of other smaller railroads to provide through-service from Boston/New York to St. Louis/Chicago. These included the Nickel Plate Road, New Haven, Lehigh & Hudson River, Jersey Central, Reading, Pittsburgh & West Virginia, and Wheeling & Lake Erie. The purpose of this arrangement, which came to be known as the “Alphabet Route,” was to give shippers an alternative to the major eastern trunk lines like the Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York Central.
In 1964, the B&O acquired formal control of the WM, ending its independence (the B&O had held an interest in the property for many years). Unfortunately, this proved the beginning of the end for the carrier. In 1972, the B&O, WM, and Chesapeake & Ohio (which controlled the B&O) were placed under the Chessie System banner. The result caused many sections of the WM to be shed in favor of nearby B&O lines. The Connellsville Extension was abandoned during the mid-1970s, and around the same time the former Hagerstown Division ended service as a through-route. During the next decade, much of the line was abandoned entirely, allowing the formation of today’s Western Maryland Rail Trail.
Railroad attractions in Maryland include the popular Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum and Baltimore Streetcar Museum in Baltimore; 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.