On a spring Saturday along the 20-mile-long ribbon of crushed stone that is the Northern Central Railroad trail, a groundhog meanders through skunk cabbage while a woodpecker measures out a steady rhythm. The Big Gunpowder Falls ripples over nearby rocks, and the tall oak, maple and birch trees that form a canopy over the trail sway gently.
Three twenty-somethings from Fells Point suddenly appear, training for an upcoming walkathon. As they walk the 10-foot-wide trail, they belt out Britney Spears songs. Then comes a set of parents gently nudging their child into his first bike ride sans training wheels. Then a pair of seasoned marathoners, checking their pace against the trail markers.
These folks probably know that trains making the journey from Calvert Station in Baltimore City all the way to Sodus Point, N.Y., once chugged along the track that lay here. But what many of them don’t know is the NCR trail’s more recent history— that just 20 years ago, it was quite literally a dump. And that the transformation from landfill to loveliness almost didn’t happen.
If someone had a load of tires to trash, the NCR was where they went,” says Rick Barton, superintendent of the state Forest and Park Service, who in the early 1980s was assistant manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Those not using the abandoned railroad bed as a trash heap were using it for recreation-— and not the wholesome variety park rangers like to promote. “Near Phoenix Road, there is a beautiful bridge crossing, which was being used as a shooting range. There were at least 10,000 spent rounds,” Barton recalls. “It was also a nighttime party spot where people drank beer and did drugs.”
Passenger service along the NCR had been curtailed in 1959, but freight service continued until 1972, when Hurricane Agnes swept through the area, destroying much of the track, as well as bridges and culverts. The track was completely removed soon afterward.
Then, in 1980, the Department of Natural Resources, which operates Maryland’s parks system, bought the NCR right-of-way through Program Open Space. The DNR’s initial goal was to protect the Gunpowder’s watershed and wildlife. But soon afterward, DNR staffers learned that the National Park Service was offering grants to fund the conversion of former railroad tracks to recreational areas. Working in partnership with Baltimore County’s Department of Recreation and Parks, the DNR applied for and received a $450,000 federal grant. That grant provided the funds to begin cleaning up and restoring a seven-mile stretch of the trail from Ashland to Monkton. DNR staffers and county officials figured area residents would welcome the rails-to-trails conversion.
But they were wrong. When news of the impending development broke out in the spring of 1984, homeowners in neighborhoods near the NCR rose up in anger. “Some believed that, with the railroad gone, the land under the tracks had reverted to them,” says Mac Wilkerson, then regional coordinator of Program Open Space. “Others were illegally using the trail for access. And others feared people trespassing on their property.”
At a public hearing, 150 people spoke passionately in opposition to the trail, and only one neighbor stood up in its support. “They wanted us to clean it, but not use it,” says then-DNR secretary Dr. Torrey Brown, who stepped down in 1995. “Some of the opponents were close, old friends and they couldn’t believe that I was doing this.”
Then the opposition got fiercer. Some residents put up fences along the trail, says Wilkerson. Some threatened legal action. And others organized into a vocal citizens group that eventually pressured the county into dropping out of the project.
“That left the DNR holding the bag,” says Wilkerson. “What were we going to do with this 20-mile strip of land? We didn’t have the money to operate it— we were already stretched.” At that point, the rails-to-trails conversion was almost scrapped, but then Brown made the decision to place the trail under the umbrella of the Gunpowder Falls State Park, and go for it. “Everyone tells me now that they were surprised I went forward with it despite the political opposition,” says Brown. “But I knew once it opened, and people saw it would be operated like all our parks, they’d support it.”
One weekend, hundreds of volunteers converged on the trail, filling 20 dump trucks 20 times each. That made 400 truckloads of appliances, roofing shingles, tires— even automobiles— carted off the abandoned track. “The neighbors were floored,” says Brown. “They had been trying to clean up the trail for years and we did it right away.”
That began turning the tide of public opinion. And when the first section of the NCR trail opened in December 1984, it did the rest— just as Brown had predicted. “We got raves,” says Wilkerson. “The same people who’d opposed the trail were now pressuring us to complete it. It was just a complete turnaround.”
With the support came state funds for parking lots, grading and restoration, and the trail’s final 12.7 miles were finished in 1989, connecting the NCR to Pennsylvania’s 21-mile York County Heritage Rail trail, up to York.
Eighteen years after the NCR trail became the first rails-to-trails conversion in Maryland, and one of the first nationwide, it remains one of the most successful. Some 1 million visitors hit the trail on foot, horse or bicycle each year, and trail developers from around the United States visit it before embarking on their own conversions back home.
The NCR “really spurred the whole notion of rails to trails in the state and in the country,” Brown says. “The opposition was so violent, and doing it in spite of it made it all the more worthwhile.”
Ashland and Paper Mill Road
The NCR trail actually begins in Cockeysville behind an Ashland Road subdivision, with an unassuming 10-car parking lot. But half a mile north, where the trail crosses Paper Mill Road, you’ll find a much more auspicious start, chock-full of amenities. On one side of the road is a 110-car parking lot, often full on weekends. Across the road is a snoball stand/bike shop that sits on the property of Bob and Martha Mays. The couple has lived along the trail for 35 years. Walk up a short hill and you’ll come face to face with their 12-year-old long-haired goat, Snowflake. The Mays’ menagerie also includes two newly born kids, rabbits and African Blue Guinea hens.
“When the trail first opened, the animals attracted people off the trail,” says one of the Mays’ five daughters, Kate Wright. “My parents have had animals for 30 years. Now they just get more attention.”
All the foot traffic from the NCR trail gave another Mays daughter, Sally, the idea to open Sally’s Shack Snoballs, which offers coffee, teas, popcorn, bottles of water and energy bars, in addition to 50 flavors of snoballs. After so many people who came to the snoball stand inquired about bike rentals, sister Kate decided to start Chakra Station Cycles with her husband, Ken, a retired World Cup mountain bike racer. Chakra, which is Sanskrit for “circle” or “wheel,” offers what the Wrights call “full service for the trail,” including a sales and rental inventory of about 50 bikes, minor bike tuneups and full-scale repairs, plus custom mountain-biking tours through Maryland’s state parks.
Kate, who remembers playing in the woods and on the tracks as a girl, admits that her family initially was very opposed to the idea of a trail. “But a symbiotic relationship developed over time through the snoball stand,” she says. “Now we’re the place where people gravitate to and share stories.”
Chakra Station Cycles and Sally’s Shack Snoballs. Seasonal hours: March through December, weekdays 10 a.m. to dusk, closed Wednesday. Weekends, 9:30 a.m. to dusk. 410-527-0593, http://www.chakracycles.com
Walter Massey’s title, DNR naturalist, is far too clinical to describe the wonders he works at the Sparks Bank Nature Center. He’s part Pied Piper, part snake charmer, and part hero when it comes to getting kids closer to nature. With an affable manner and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife, Massey coaxes reluctant kids to wade up to their necks in the nearby Gunpowder Falls to seine for fish, hold a harmless black snake in their own hands, or cradle the center’s resident tarantula.
“I want kids to have less fear,” Massey explains. “By coming here, I hope they have a little bit more understanding of the animals. I want them to appreciate how beautiful nature is and how we’re a part of it.”
At the nature center, which is located in the former Sparks National Bank right beside the NCR parking lot, Massey offers impromptu tours, 40-minute “Creature Feature” programs that explore a particular animal, and a range of special programs.
Typically, 10 to 15 live animals— among them turtles, snakes, frogs and toads— are in residence at the center. In the off-season, this inventory lives with Massey and his son, finding homes in their bookcases and on dresser tops. “My son’s friends now know not to dig below the third level in the freezer,” says a laughing Massey, citing the location of the frozen critters that feed his winter houseguests.
On a Sunday in early April, visitors wander in and out while Massey works the room. A girl in a Barbie bike helmet shows interest in a toad, and, in a flash, Massey has the toad on the carpet, comparing it to a frog. (Toads hop. Frogs jump.) An older couple in Harley-Davidson T-shirts asks about the large black rat snake in a tank near the microscope table. Massey gently returns the toad to its terrarium and walks over to the snake. The crowd, now numbering nearly 20 adults and children, watches the snake languidly twist and turn on Massey’s arm while he rattles off the reptilian details: a full-grown rat snake is 6 feet 5 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, eats field mice and sprays a pungent musk as part of its defense.
“I don’t want anyone to come in, look around and walk out,” says Massey. “I want them to leave knowing something new, whether it’s the length of a beaver’s tooth, the size of a hummingbird’s nest, or the difference between a snapping and a box turtle.” (For the record, the answers are, respectively: 3 to 4 inches, the size of a quarter, and a snapping turtle’s bottom shell covers only its vital organs.)
Hours: April to June, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.; June to September, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and weekends, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; September through October, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 410-472-0196.
Feel free to ask Bill Schmalzer anything about the NCR’s heyday. As honorary “station master” of the Monkton Train Station, he’ll guide you through the artifacts displayed in the museum— ticket books, railroad spikes and old telegraph machines— and describe how the buildings of the Village of Monkton were used during pre-Civil War days.
Since retiring seven years ago after 30 years in the classroom, 22 of them spent at Hereford High School, he’s spent April to October at the station, teaching others about the history of the region and the railroad. “What I’m teaching kids as local history, I lived as current events,” says Schmalzer, who has lived in the area for more than a half-century. As a boy, he heard the NCR’s steam engines pounding up nearby Freeland hill.
Monkton Station can safely be called the epicenter of the NCR trail, with its full-service visitors’ center, gift shop, flush toilets and water fountains. The building first opened for railroad business in 1898, and fell into disrepair once the NCR ceased passenger travel. A team of DNR employees renovated it as accurately as possible, using all the authentic materials they could and restoring original elements, such as the pressed tin on the ceiling and walls.
Across the parking lot from the station, the former Monkton Hotel, built in the 1850s, now houses several businesses. At the Monkton General Store, owners A.D. and Cristi Barry offer an assortment of snacks, ice cream and sandwiches, plus 20 flavors of snoballs. Next door, Monkton Bike Rental rents canoes, kayaks, inner tubes and a wide assortment of bikes. Owner Jim White will even hold your keys, purse and cell phone while you ride the trail.
Monkton Train Station Visitors’ Center is open weekends April through May, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; June through August, Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 410-472-3144.
Monkton General Store operates seasonally, weekends, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., weather permitting. 410-472-4084.
Monkton Bike Rental operates year-round, weather permitting: Mid-May through mid-October, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week; out of season, most weekends, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 410-771-4058.
The trail’s entrance at White Hall rates high for scenic charm and small-town character. Though residents no longer pick up their mail at the original White Hall post office— a large white building circa 1840 after which the town was named— they still gather at the newer brick one nearby. The original White Hall building, now a private home, also served the railroad as the station master’s house, livery stable and boardinghouse. In the buildings across from the trail, including an old gas station, Dixon’s Antiques has sold American Victorian furniture for 25 years.
Architectural clues to White Hall’s agricultural roots abound. The NCR trail maintenance shop, a utilitarian cinder-block building, used to be part of the White Hall feed mill, and in the trail’s new parking lot, you’ll find the remains of a scale on a concrete loading dock. “The dock was part of a grain elevator and water tank that was built along the railroad,” explains Lance Langrehr, the trail’s maintenance chief for the past five years.
When Langrehr, who worked for Gunpowder Falls State Park for 29 years, took the position as the trail’s maintenance chief, the DNR wanted him to live in White Hall for security and on-call purposes, he explains. The department had purchased the former White Hall bank, a brick structure built in 1909, but it was in bad shape, even for someone with Langrehr’s facilities experience. “It wasn’t livable,” he says. “But I’ve always loved old buildings, especially if they’ve got character like this place does.” He and friend Robin Reed completed and paid for all the restoration work on the bank. Langrehr’s home office is now housed in what’s left of the bank vault, a 5-foot-by-6-foot steel box surrounded by 2 feet of brick.
From 1909 to the 1970s, the bank was a popular place for deposits by local farmers and withdrawals by bank robbers. “It was robbed 27 times. I’ve been told it was the most robbed bank in Baltimore County,” says Langrehr, who recalls a photograph of the bank’s 1940s security system: a sheriff sitting on the front steps with a loaded shotgun.
The last run of the Parkton Local was on June 27, 1959, and if the buildings surrounding the Parkton entrance to the NCR are any indication, it was a bustling stop. Visitors could stay at the Parkton Hotel, a gracious brick building (now a home) with a wrap-around porch and balconies. A short walk away is a wooden, two-story building built around 1870 and used as a general store for most of its history. Today, it’s where Stella and Pat O’Brien run Gunpowder Falls Outfitters, selling mid- to high-end supplies for hunting, fly-fishing and archery.
The O’Briens make a bike pump available for bikers to borrow, and offer a most indispensable service through their selection of ice cream in the corner freezer. “Parents use the store and the ice cream as the carrot on the stick,” explains Stella O’Brien.
Gunpowder Falls Outfitters: open year-round, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 410-343-2328.
You won’t find any snoball stands in Bentley Springs. There’s no visitors’ center either— just a parking lot and a pay phone. What you will find is unsurpassed natural beauty. Ferns grow out of crevices in silvery-gray sedimentary rock walls that frame the trail. Wild mountain laurel, roses, violets and even irises crowd against the path and tumble over a few rotted railroad ties. The trail crosses an old railroad bridge at Bee Tree Run, and its rusted rivets and stacked brown stones the size of coffee tables contrast with the natural beauty.
Waxing poetic about Bentley Springs is a centuries-old tradition. In an 1878 Baltimore County Directory, mixed in with the facts-only recitations of the population count and the number of saw and grist mills, an unknown author dubbed Bentley Springs “one of the most beautiful and romantic spots in Baltimore County.”
The last stop on Maryland’s NCR trail is quiet. Other than the parking lot, pay phone, water spigot and waste-composting restroom, it’s pretty much trail for the last 1.3 miles until the Pennsylvania line. Sandy McCann, a Freeland resident and one of the original members of the 5-year-old Gunpowder Falls State Park’s Volunteer Mounted Patrol, knows every inch of the trail in this section— and every mile south. The NCR trail cuts through her property, near her house and horse-boarding business, the Wintree Farms Stables.
McCann is one of a dozen mounted volunteers in the park, and one of three who rides the NCR almost exclusively. She and Manny, her Tennessee Walker, patrol the trail nearly every weekend year-round. Most of her duties fall into the public relations category, answering questions and handing out maps— though McCann and her colleagues are trained in first aid, too.
“I joined the VMP because I felt I could help educate people about how they should act around horses and how horse people should act around bikers and joggers,” says McCann, who advises that when you see a horse and rider coming, talk to the rider and stay visible— don’t stand off in the woods. Horses need to hear people and have them in their sight, she explains.
McCann credits the trail’s popularity among horse riders to its smooth and safe terrain. “When other trails are hidden by snow or are muddy, the NCR stays nice,” she says— mostly as a result of the crushed stone advocated early on by area residents, instead of the asphalt that was originally planned.
While bikers and joggers remain the trail’s most frequent users, McCann and other riders can be found— and heard— clopping along the path, especially in the less-crowded northern section. “Every season, every month, there’s something new coming out,” she says. “Every trip, there’s something different.” n
History on the Rails
The NCR trail was first blazed in 1828 by the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad to carry passengers and freight between Baltimore’s Calvert Station and Harrisburg, Pa. The B&S, the second oldest railway charter in the country (after the Baltimore & Ohio), later merged with several other lines to form the Northern Central Railway Company, which ran all the way to Sodus Point, N.Y. Maryland’s NCR rails were twice destroyed to prevent troop movements during the Civil War. Repaired, they carried Abraham Lincoln on two solemn journeys— to Gettysburg for his famous address, and home to Illinois in a black-draped coffin.
The Maryland portion of the NCR continued to operate for nearly 100 more years under the ownership of the Pennsylvania Railroad, carrying passengers as late as 1959, and hauling freight until Hurricane Agnes blasted through the area in June of ‘72, washing out railroad bridges, tracks and trestles. The trail still retains vestiges of its train history:
The “W” signs placed a quarter-mile each way before a road crossing signaled the engineman to sound the whistle as a warning.
Black numbers on white mileposts mark the distance to certain destinations. As you travel north, each number represents the mileage to the train station in Sunbury, Pa., an interchange point with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Southbound, it’s the number of miles to Calvert Station in Baltimore, which was torn down in 1948. The numbers on bridges also indicate the distance to Calvert Station, which once stood where the Baltimore Sun building now stands. For example, the number “18” over the number “75” means there are 18.75 miles to Baltimore.
The numbers engraved on natural wood markers are a modern-day Park Service addition that note each mile of the trail from Ashland to the Pennsylvania line.
Volunteering on the NCR
The DNR depends on volunteers to help maintain the NCR and the greater Gunpowder Falls State Park. Volunteer activities include the Mounted Patrol (bike or horse- back), Volunteer Rangers, and one-time activities such as Earth Day cleanups. Contact volunteer coordinator Susanne Bates, 410-329-6809.
What to Know Before You Go
You won’t find any trash cans on the trail, so B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bag) and be sure to take it with you when you leave.
Feel free to bring Fido, but make sure he’s on a leash at all times. And clean up after him.
NCR rules of the road dictate that bikers yield to pedestrians and horses, and pedestrians yield to horses. Stay to the right and pass on the left.