- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Trains still stop traffic in La Plata and Waldorf, but they disappeared decades ago through Lexington Park and Chesapeake Beach.
At the height of investors’ dreams in the last half of the 19th century, trains would have run from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., through Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties and beyond. In reality, the railways got no farther than the shores of Southern Maryland.
After the Civil War ended, several charters were issued in Maryland to companies hoping to connect outlying areas such as Southern Maryland to the District and Baltimore. But it took decades in some cases to build the rails, and once they were operational, it wasn’t long before they were killed off by economics and automobiles.
Only one railroad in Southern Maryland remains — the line running to the power plants at Chalk Point in southern Prince George’s and at Morgantown.
Once, there were lines running from cities to Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County, to Popes Creek and Indian Head in Charles County and to Mechanicsville and eventually to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary’s County. There were grander plans to run tracks to Point Lookout and Drum Port to convert them into deep-water ports.
The first and the last
The first railroad line to enter Southern Maryland was the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, which was chartered May 6, 1853.
“The farmers in Southern Maryland were crying for an outlet for their goods, and the Baltimore and Ohio [Railroad] kind of ignored them,” said Art Audley, member of the Popes Creek Railfans, a group of regional railroad enthusiasts.
The B&P line ran from Bowie through to Popes Creek on the Potomac, with plans to connect to Richmond. About 35 of 48 miles of grading a path were completed by the end of 1868, according to John Wearmouth’s book, “La Plata, Maryland 1888-1988.”
But after the Civil War it was too late to make the connection from Popes Creek, since there already was railroad access across the Potomac at Alexandria, Audley said.
The freight line of the B&P reached Popes Creek on Dec. 12, 1871, Wearmouth wrote, and the Port Tobacco Station opened in 1872, serving the old Charles County seat.
The first passenger train to come into La Plata was Jan. 1, 1872, Audley said, the year before it had a post office. The La Plata station house still is standing. It just moved across the railroad tracks for use as a museum and meeting place.
The Port Tobacco Times reported Jan. 17, 1873, the first railroad fatality in Charles County where a man got off the train at La Plata and started walking south toward Popes Creek. “Somewhere along the track he sampled a bit of alcoholic beverage and did not heed the warning whistle of the same train as it headed back north,” Wearmouth wrote in his 1986 history of the railroad.
Several new towns emerged along the railroad track, he wrote: Waldorf, White Plains, La Plata, Bel Alton and Faulkner. It was the railroad, along with other circumstances, that moved the county seat from Port Tobacco to La Plata in 1896.
For decades, the B&P line shipped passengers, seafood and tobacco north to the cities. Audley has receipts from the line showing in 1893 that 895 pounds of freight could be shipped from La Plata to Baltimore for $1.52.
The railroad line saved many lives, usually those of sick patients, but there was an instance where the track saved one man from a lynching. On Aug. 7, 1902, Walter D. Hammett of Scotland in St. Mary’s County was arrested in California on the charge of “abusing a female child under the age of 14 years,” reported the St. Mary’s Beacon on Aug. 14, 1902. “After Hammett was brought to jail the authorities were informed that an attempt would be made to take him out and lynch him,” the paper reported, so deputy sheriffs took him 32 miles by horse and buggy to Cox’s Station [now Bel Alton] and put him on the train to Baltimore to keep him safe. It was that year the line was renamed the Pennsylvania Railroad.
“The death knell for a lot of the railroads was the end of World War I,” Audley said. After the war, “it was a prosperous period, and that’s when the automobile really started gaining in popularity.”
The last single passenger railcar was taken off the 48-mile-long Popes Creek section of the Pennsylvania Railroad in late October 1949. The service had been available once a day in each direction. There only were three people there to protest the abandonment, reported The (Baltimore) Sun on Oct. 5, 1949, one of whom rode the train once a month.
In the mid-1960s, the line was extended to southern Prince George’s County to serve a new power plant there, and the line diverted from Popes Creek to Morgantown to serve another new power plant. The track down to Popes Creek was torn out. Those power plants keep the line active today, bringing in coal and hauling other materials.
Today in La Plata, “generally what we see is a loaded train heading south late at night or early in the morning, and a train that’s empty in the afternoon,” Audley said.
The railway to recreation
Chesapeake Beach nearly was named Colorado Beach. Before the town in northern Calvert was established, there was a dream of a seaside resort where the masses from Washington could escape the stagnant, muggy air of the city during the summer.
“The resort was the primary reason for the railroad to exist,” said Harriet Stout, curator of The Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum.
The Washington and Chesapeake Beach Railway was chartered in 1891 to run a railroad 28 miles from the southeast corner of the District to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
There were to be hundreds of cottages along and near the beach, amusements and two grand hotels overlooking the bay. Coupled with the land acquisition and railroad, it was expected to cost the investors $1.5 million, wrote Ames Williams in “Otto Mears Goes East: The Chesapeake Beach Railway,” written in 1975.
Financial reality intervened, though, and the company had to be reorganized with new investors. Its name was changed to Chesapeake Beach Railway Co. in 1896, two years after the fledgling hamlet was incorporated.
Two Colorado railroad tycoons — Otto Mears and David Moffat — got involved in the project “with the notion that they could make themselves a fortune. These guys were high fliers and big spenders. Their notion was to have the biggest, fanciest place on the Eastern Seaboard,” Stout said.
Construction on the railway began in October 1897, Williams wrote, and in December, Mears told a Denver newspaper that he was going to call the resort Colorado Beach, but that never happened.
The track was finished in 1899, but the Chesapeake Beach resort didn’t open until June 9, 1900. Newspaper advertisements bragged it was “created at the cost of $1,000,000 by the men who made Colorado famous,” Williams wrote.
There was an almost a mile-long boardwalk 300 feet offshore with a carousel, dance pavilion, a roller coaster and other entertainments, as well as a long pier to accommodate ships bringing visitors by water from Baltimore.
On that opening day, The Sun reported that more than 4,000 people came by train and another 1,000 by boat. A horse racing track and a casino were built, but no race was ever run, and no dice ever rolled, Stout said. “The local government wouldn’t allow this high-stakes gambling,” she said.
“Several things were wrong with the business plan,” she said. The resort was to be open year-round with the gambling and racing sustaining operations during the colder months, but in the end, the gambling wasn’t permitted.
The railway was to be used to carry freight when not hauling resort visitors, but it wasn’t long enough, she said. It made just as much sense to deliver by truck, even though the roads were bad.
The resort was temporarily successful as up to 10,000 people came a day during the summer, Stout said, bringing in the middle and working classes during the 1910s and 1920s. “It was a crush of people from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but the other nine months of the year, the place was dead,” she said.
The worst known accident along the railroad line came Sept. 10, 1922, when a car with three men tried to race the locomotive across the tracks at the Owings station. The collision tossed the car onto the train station’s platform where it was consumed by fire, trapping the three men inside. “It was not known whether the occupants of the automobile were killed in the crash or burnt to death,” reported The Sun.
The Great Depression in the 1930s, the years of deficits and the rise of the automobile spelled the demise for the railroad. The last train pulled out of Chesapeake Beach on April 15, 1935, and the track was removed shortly thereafter. The amusement park remained open until 1972.
“If it wasn’t for the railroad, this town wouldn’t be here,” said Mike Sweeney, volunteer at the railway museum, which sees between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors annually. Chesapeake Beach recently made a walkway along the railroad bed within the confines of the town.
There was another railway dream that would have traversed the length of Calvert County. Chartered in 1867, the Baltimore and Drum Point Railroad was supposed to have trains running within 10 years, funded by the state, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, Baltimore and private investors, wrote John Riedesel, another volunteer of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum.
The line was to establish Drum Point as a deep-water, ice-free port that would feed Baltimore. By 1889, the 34-mile section through Calvert had a railbed laid out with trestles built over Hunting and St. Leonard creeks. But money ran out before the rail line was built, Riedesel wrote.
In 1911, the railroad’s name changed to the Baltimore and Virginia Railroad as part of a grander plan to link Washington, Baltimore and Richmond, Williams wrote.
“World War I broke out, and they couldn’t get steel,” to install the track, Sweeney said, “and it just died.”
There was one more attempt in 1924 that required $500,000 from Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. “Calvert agreed, but her neighbor to the north declined, and the dream of a railroad to Drum Point died for all time,” Riedesel wrote.
“You can still see some fill and cut” in sections of Calvert, Stout said. “There’s little bits of it in people’s fields.”
Farmers’ railroad becomes the Navy’s
The Southern Maryland Railroad was chartered in March 1868 to build a railroad from Washington all the way to Point Lookout — 77 miles — at an estimated cost of $1.2 million. The line would connect at the Popes Creek branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Brandywine.
After starts and stops in litigation and name changes, a ceremony was held March 10, 1881, in Brandywine to lay the first rail of the track, called The Point Lookout Railroad at first. The company said the line would be completed down to Point Lookout by Aug. 1, The Sun reported. More than three months later after that targeted date, the line only reached as far as Charlotte Hall, 16 miles from Brandywine.
A resident wrote to the St. Mary’s Beacon on Nov. 14, 1881, “Eureka! The railroad has reached here at least; and daily may the ‘iron horse’ be seen and heard, snorting along, on the glistening iron bands … revivifying the once forlorn hopes of ye ancient hamlet of Charlotte Hall.”
The unnamed resident continued that “natives’ mouths and eyes have been stretched since its first appearance … taking in the monster, the very pictures of wonderment, mixed with a goodly proportion of genuine fear in some cases.”
The line made it to Mechanicsville a few days later. The path for the rest of the line already had been graded all the way to Point Lookout. However, the train service for both passengers and freight would soon be interrupted as the company defaulted and became the Washington and Potomac Railroad Co. in 1886.
“Through the years there followed a succession of reorganizations and failures. But the appeal and the hope of success did not die,” wrote Gen. Robert Hogaboom in the August 1962 Chronicles of St. Mary’s.
Train service stopped in 1889 and resumed in 1891 from Brandywine to Mechanicsville, wrote Regina Hammett in “History of St. Mary’s County, 1634-1990.”
From 1901 to 1918 the railroad was known as the Washington, Potomac and Chesapeake Railroad Co. In 1902 the railbed was graded from Mechanicsville as far south to today’s San Souci development in California. However, the railroad line still went no farther than Mechanicsville.
At a Maryland Public Service Commission meeting on Sept. 11, 1913, in Hughesville, the St. Mary’s Beacon reported a number of citizens “told of the inconvenience and loss to the communities along the line, owing to inadequate service. Three days and two nights being required for a business trip to either Baltimore or Washington, and that the freight service is so inadequate that they deprive that part of Southern Maryland … of reaching the market promptly.”
Then in 1918 during World War I, after another business failure, the railroad became a local venture called the Washington, Brandywine and Point Lookout Railroad, otherwise known as the farmers’ railroad by 1924, Hammett wrote.
Passenger and freight service were combined to two round trips a week under general manager William F. Chesley of Charlotte Hall, who owned a farm next to the track. The rest of the week, railroad employees worked their farms for income.
Passenger service ceased again in 1928 as local roads were improved, Hogaboom wrote.
The farmers’ railroad survived the Great Depression by hauling freight in and out of St. Mary’s. “Since most of the 375 stockholders are shippers, they profit from cheap rail transportation rather than dividends of stock,” wrote Frank Donovan Jr. in Railroad Magazine in March 1939.
Then in 1942, the U.S. Navy moved into Cedar Point, condemning 6,412 acres for $712,287 for a new $6.3 million military base. To bring in construction supplies, the Navy bought the farmers’ railroad in 1942 for $127,500 and renamed it U.S. Naval Air Station Railroad, Patuxent River, Maryland.
The Navy extended the line from Mechanicsville by 22 miles to Millstone Landing at the under-construction base. On Christmas Eve 1942, the first train arrived at the installation, wrote John Long in the March 1953 edition of Trains Magazine. William Chesley was kept on as the railroad manager for the Navy.
Born in 1930, his son, Jim Chesley of Mechanicsville, remembers the train coming down the railroad past the family farm. “He loved to watch. If he heard it coming, he would come out just to watch it roll by,” said Marie Chesley, Jim’s wife.
Before the Navy took over the line, Jim Chesley said his father had to pay money out of his pocket to keep operations going. “At first, he made it all financially with his own money,” he said, with money made from the farm. “He loved the railroad, not the farm,” Marie Chesley said of her father-in-law.
“He always said he had the best people on the railroad, to keep it running on time. He always gave the credit to the people who worked on the train,” she said.
By 1953 it was too costly to keep the train running as the rails continued to break, so the secretary of the Navy ordered its operations ceased by July 1, 1954. Estimates were put at $1 million for new tracks and $100,000 in annual maintenance, The Sun reported Jan. 13, 1954.
The Patuxent River line was 55 miles long, with 22 freight cars making four round trips a week, sometimes carrying civilian goods for a freight fee.
The Navy made a last ceremonial railroad trip north from the base to Hollywood on June 30, 1954. William Chesley rode the train, something he rarely did, for the occasion. The Navy kept ownership of the line, while the Pennsylvania Railroad ran a weekly train until 1965.
St. Mary’s County government and the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative entered into an agreement to buy 28 miles of the Navy’s railroad from Lexington Park to Hughesville. St. Mary’s County government bought the line for $225,000 in 1970 and SMECO brought its utilities down the line. Today, the northern portion of the old railroad is the Three Notch Trail for hikers and bikers from Laurel Grove up to the county line.
The Maryland State Highway Administration also used the railroad path from Laurel Grove south to Hollywood to dualize Route 235 starting in the late 1960s to the mid-1980s.
The railroad path south of Chancellor’s Run Road to Pegg Road is to become a new county road — FDR Boulevard.
The railroad bed can still be seen at Pax River’s Gate 1, and its cut can be seen in Ridge where the track never came through. Its tracks are still within the pavement at the warehouses at the Navy base.
The Navy once operated another railroad in Southern Maryland, extending a line from White Plains to the ordnance plant at Indian Head. A contract was let for $582,407 in July 1918 to build the 14-mile line within 120 days “so that it will be available when cold weather sets in and the Potomac River freezes,” The Sun reported.
The line was used until fairly recently and in 2006, the Navy turned over the corridor to Charles County government, which built a hiking and biking trail on it.