Baltimore to Catonsville

The Catonsville Branch

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Baldwin #8170 is ready to pull empties away from the coal deck of the Spring Grove steam plant. Photo by David Earp, June 1966.

This branch line left the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline in the Baltimore area, and headed west a few miles to Catonsville. The line provided coal to the power plant of the Spring Grove State Mental Health Hospital, at the end of the branch. It also served St. Charles College, and other businesses in Catonsville. Passenger service was also offered along the line.

After the line was first built, the Catonsville Short Line Railroad leased the line to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad for a short time.

Reports on when it was abandoned conflict. One says it was abandoned prior to the PRR/NYC merger of Penn Central in 1968, another says it was in operation until at least 1973.

Today, little of the former right-of-way is evident. A few blocks east of the branch's endpoint, a segment of track has been paved over in a grade crossing. Another segment is still in place in a thicket of trees nearby, and is being used by a small stream, or possibly water runoff from irrigation. I-695 crosses under what would have been the former right-of-way, but there is no visible evidence of the bridge remaining. It is possible that the widening of the Interstate over the years might have obliterated any abutments or other remnants of the bridge. The area near where the branch ended is now a home for children, but it is marked as private property and there are no obvious track remnants near the street.

Thanks to Mike Palmer, Jeff Koester and Gary Haighley for contributing information about this route.

I lived a few blocks from the Catonsville Branch in Yale Heights (Baltimore) from 1964 to 1976. During the Summer of 1968 I got to ride with the friendly PRR crew from Beechfield Ave., where they were required to stop and flag the crossing, out to the yard in Catonsville every Saturday morning. They had to push the train caboose first because of a broken switch on a run around track that the railroad by the late '60s no longer had funds to repair. During the 1960s, the Spring Grove powerhouse provided a lion's share of the carloads, with 3 to 5 cars of coal delivered twice a week. Other customers were John S. Wilson lumber, Johnson Chemicals, and later Grinnell Sprinklers. Earlier in the '60s I understand DCA Food Industries used to do a large business with the railroad from talking to the crew. Their sign was still on the end of the long warehouse in Catonsville and up until early 1966 they were still receiving occasional insulated boxcars of food stuffs. Grinnell eventually took over their end of the warehouse while Johnson Chemical was housed in the other end. Once the hospital converted to oil around late 1970/early 1971 the handwriting was on the wall for the branch. Afterwards, a train would only go up the branch with a boxcar or two, about once-a-month. Then return a few days later to pick up the empty car(s). Foliage was already taking over the line while it was still in service, and it was hard to believe trains were still making the trip on occasion. I saw the next-to-the-last train in mid-April 1972, carrying two boxcars of lumber out to Wilson's on a Saturday morning. With the high growth of bushes and tree branches, it was all the crew could do to barely get those cars up the track. The following Wednesday (those had always been the two service days while I lived nearby) an engine went up one last time to retrieve the cars. I heard the train horn, but couldn't get to the Beechfield Ave. crossing in time. That was it for the branch! I know because I kept checking the track and hoping for signs of use, but it just kept getting rustier and more overgrown by the week. Not long afterwards, I walked the track down to the mainline connection. As I feared, the switch had been pulled out and then I knew the line was officially dead. I do have photos taken from 1966 to 1968 to keep memories of the branch alive.

David
Baltimore, MD
12/17/2008

[Thanks for providing the photos, David!  —Greg Harrison]

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Super site , appreciate THE work involved , composition of above . Lived in Catonsville , 50's & 60's , bittersweet memories , recall before B-way bridge was in & after .

PRR RS4/5 # 8444 ,( NC local regular ) went to Rockland Mills switch, stub switch next to old store , just before Jones Falls bridge , where they loaded . Believe Fire house on property now .

Green Spring branch was embargoed just beyond bridge , albeit , track still in through valley to just north of McDonogh on WM .

This was in ' 56 . Drop an email , will send along some recall of interesting moves , as heard from old heads back then PRR . Somewhere around here is a shot taken of WM 460 center headlight engine 130 on 2 car Passenger train enroute to Hillen St ., via NC , over Green Spring branch , circa ' 31 .

Your site , indeed a pleaure to stumble onto .

MANY THANKS, for your efforts . !!!!!!

Bob Hunter
Madison, NC
6/12/2009

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Hi I am working on the Catonsville Short Line Railroad History- I have completed the history and I now looking for photographs for the book- I would like to get a hold of all individiuals who have placed photographs on this web site so I can get there pictures for the book please contact me

Robert L. Williams
Lutherville Maryland
8/8/2009

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I have contacted the Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society and they have NO information in there records on the short line. The explanation was The Pennsylvania Railroad owned or leased a lot short line railroads and they don't have any information on the leased short lines. They just had the information on make and model on the engine on the picture. I have been researching the Catonsville short line for a while. By the way the short line was complete in 1884. I have read also that trains ran from Catonsville to The Calvert Street Station. I did happen to come across a t-shirt with a brief history of the railroad. But nothing else.

I did find a report of St. Charles College Chapel that two train cars did arrived at their siding on November 10, 1919, delivering their new organ.

Patrick Miller
Catonsville, PA
10/25/2010

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I spent 1967-1969 at the former St Charles Seminary on Maiden Choice lane in Catonsville. My first dorm room looked out into the woods, where the coal train to Spring Grove passed, I think it was every Saturday morning. There was something strangely reassuring about that weekly event.

"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance / Everybody thinks it's true"- Paul Simon

Walt
Robbinsville, NJ
1/21/2011

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To Anyone who may still be on this discussion:

Is anyone aware or have photographs of the Short Line bridge over I-695 before it was dismantled and of the tunnel that went under Bloombury Ave?

Thanks much.

--george brenneman

George Brenneman
Charlestown Retirement, Catonsville, MD
8/8/2011

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I have lived in the Catonsville area for 30 years and I'm a proud member of Catonsville Rails To Trails, a grassroots volunteer organization that restores abandoned rail lines into bike/hike trails. We have been clearing the Short Line Trail and the trail is now very walkable. The trail can be picked up at Garden Ridge Road and Maiden Choice Lane. The trail is gorgeous!

Maureen Sweeney Smith
Catonsville, MD
12/8/2011

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When the early '60s tv show, Route 66, came to town in late summer 1961 to film the episode "A Bridge Across Five Days", the opening scene was shot along Paradise Ave. where it intersects with South Prospect. As the camera pulls back, it takes in the shortline crossbucks, the street signs, and then pans over the tracks looking west along the line. The episode has some great shots of east Catonsville/Paradise, Spring Grove, and Baltimore at that time. I found it on Netflix: Route 66 - Season 2, Vol. 1, Disc 2.

Dave Ditman
Catonsville, MD
12/9/2011

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I have a fascination with picturing my area in historical (and future) perspective. I have explored a lot of the remnants of Catonsville's past that haven't been erased by 'progress.'

I'm 34 and have lived in Catonsville for 11 years. Years ago I saw a historical map either in Appelbee's or McDonald's (the new one on Frederick Rd) that showed a rail line other than the trolley trail running thru Catonsville. Just a few years ago I saw someone in the woods behind Baltimore National Cemetery and realized there was a trail there. Driving by I thought it might be an old railroad then later I put it together that it was the Shortline that I saw in the old map. I then did a few jogs on the newer trails and recently a few expeditions, if you will. I have hiked most of the Shortline...even most inaccessible parts. I was excited to still find rail in the section that runs along Loudon Park Cemetery and the little strip on the grounds of Spring Grove. Only now did I google for it and was happy to find your great page where people shared memories of the impact of that rail. Especially for the older folk who have posted...I want to let them know that the rail still remains part of Catonsville, a hidden remnant of the past, inspiring people to look back in time. And I appreciate their postings.

Driving down the outer loop the other day I spotted a track - you can actually spot a piece of rail on the right atop a hill. No remnants of the old bridge though.

Ed Tracy
Catonsville, MD
3/10/2012

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Rail for pic 9 sit exists!

Jonathan
Cupertino, CA
3/13/2012

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I was born in '61 and raised in Yale Heights a couple blocks from the short line. I remember the engineer telling me they wouldn't be running down this line anymore. Sure enough that was the last train I ever saw or heard on that track. I can't help but look down the line and think back on those days every time I pass a crossing.

Dennis G
Catonsville, MD
3/16/2012

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I moved to Catonsville when I was one years old and lived there from 1959 until 1978. I can remember as a young boy the sound of the train whistle on the short-line tracks when it crossed Maiden Choice lane or S paradice Ave. We lived to far from the tracks to ever see a train but over the years I must of heard hundreds of them. That all changed early one Saturday morning when I was about ten or eleven. I'm not sure of the exact date but I would guess it was around 1970.

My mother had signed me up for an art class that was held at 0800 Saturday morning in what was then Catonsville Junior High School on Bloomsberry Ave. The class was held in the school cafeteria which was in the rear of the building. Behind the school was a large warehouse and the tracks ran right by the loading docks. I have loved trains since I was a small boy so you can imagine my excitement and surprise when an engine and a couple of box cars rolled up and uncoupled at the loading docks. After all those years of hearing the whistle I had finally seen the elusive train on the Catonsville short-line. I still love trains to this day so I was glad when I stumbled across this site. My kids think I'm crazy because I will actually go out of my way to watch a train go by a crossing. Most people will speed up so they can beat a train to a RR crossing but unless I'm in a hurry I will usually slow down hoping the lights will flash and the gates will drop before I get there. I have even been known to pull over and wait on a side street or gas station just to watch a slow moving freight or coal train pass. Thanks for a very informative site and great pictures. You have certainly brought back some fond memories.

Randy

Waldorf Md

Randy Bowen
Waldorf Md, MD
4/30/2012

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I USE TO RIDE THE TRAIN ALMOST EVERY SATURDAY MORNING FROM SEPTEMBER OF 1967 THRU APRIL 1972. I WOULD RIDE IN THE CABOOSE ON THE WAY UP TO CATONSVILLE AND RIDE IN THE LOCO COMING BACK. IT WOULD STRUGGLE PUSHING THE COAL HOPPERS UP THE LINE ESPECIALLY DURING THE SUMMER MONTHS WITH THE WEEDS GROWING OVER THE TRACKS CAUSING THE LOCO TO SLIP. I KEPT A LOG OF WHAT WENT UP AND DOWN THE LINE. I STILL HAVE THE LOG SOMEWHERE IN MY HOUSE. THE ENGINEER'S NAME WAS OTTO PAUL. HE ALSO LIVED IN CATONSVILLE. THE TRAIN EITHER USED CABOOSE 478888 OR 477052. THE 3 CREW MEMBERS WOULD ALWAYS TAKE A LUNCH BREAK IN CATONSVILLE AFTER SWITCHING. THE TRAIN WOULD USUALLY COME UP THE LINE ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOONS AND AGAIN ON SATURDAY MORNINGS. THERE USED TO BE A STUB SIDING ON THE WEST SIDE OF THE MAIDEN CHOICE LANE CROSSING. THE SWITCH MUST HAVE BE TAKEN OUT PRIOR TO 1967 BUT THE SIDING REMAINED ALTHOUGH IT WAS HARD TO SPOT DUE TO HEAVY OVERGROWTH WEEDS AND SMALL TREES. IT MUST HAVE BEEN USED, POSSIBLY, BY THE LONGWOOD DAIRY DOWN AT MAIDEN CHOICE LANE AND WILKENS AVENUE.

GEORGE KNARR
CATONSVILLE, MD
1/31/2013

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George, you must have taken a break from train riding on this line from June to August 1968. During those few months I was the only non-employee rider on the Saturday Catonsville run. Wish I had the opportunity to meet you during that Summer. I photographed the Catonsville trains between 1966 and 1968 and still watched them go by Beechfield Ave. from 1968 until regular twice-a-week runs ceased after Spring Grove converted to oil in late 1970. During that last year or so the line was being used, it was very hard to catch the train because it could be 4 to 5 weeks between trips.

I do remember the remains of that siding you mentioned being in the weeds and brush just west of Maiden Choice Lane, on the north side of the track. That's a good thought about it's possible use by the dairy farm. There was also an abandoned roadbed with track removed just west of the second curve west of Beechfield Ave. which went over to St. Charles College. Some of the switch point tie plates were still on the ties which led me to find the abandoned spur. I believe it served a small steam plant with coal. At any rate, that steam plant(?) building is still there being used for other purposes today. A few old ties were still in the roadbed along that spur. There was also an unused siding at Spring Grove just east of the coal trestle siding switch. Not sure if it was once used as a hospital team track for receiving supplies, or for RR MOW equipment storage. It was still in very good condition with a Hayes bumper at the end.

In either June or July 1968, the RR ran weed sprayer equipment up the line when wheel slippage was really getting bad and it was taking the crew 2 hours to get up the line with only 4 cars! Homeowners along the track complained about it because some spray got on their shrubbery and gardens growing near the track and caused them to shrivel up.

Though there was evidence of derailments in various locations along the line in the form of flange cut marks going up several ties, I actually only saw one derailment and it wasn't attributed to bad track. In January or February 1968, someone dumped wood debris on the track just east of the Shady Nook Ave. crossing. We then had a snowstorm which covered the debris and made it look like plowed snow to the crew. When they came up that Saturday with loaded coal hoppers, they hit the debris, derailed the caboose, and the train nearly went down a hill just before the I-695 Beltway bridge. I was still waiting at Beechfield for them to come back down the line. It seemed like forever while standing out in the cold and snow. Finally, they returned sans caboose and still having the same loaded hoppers in tow. I caught a bus out to Catonsville and found the caboose at Shady Nook still on the ground despite the crew's efforts to see-saw it back and forth, obviously trying to use the crossing as a rerailer of sorts. I have photos of that particular train coming and going, plus a photo in May showing the debris they hit a few months earlier. Didn't take my camera with me while trying to find the caboose, unfortunately.

David

David
Baltimore, MD
2/8/2013

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I am pulling together a dataset detailing the history of all the railroad lines in MD/DC/PA - in order to answer a question like "why are those 2 different rail lines located there?" In wandering around Baltimore, I found an old girder bridge crossing over S Caton Ave, with Baltimore & Potomac lettering still on it (I believe); wouldn't this be part of Catonsville Line? BTW, love the abandoned rails sites - has helped immensely with filling in gaps of railroad history

Jeff Akers
Middletown, MD
12/31/2013

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Jeff,

The bridge you speak of crossing over Caton Ave. is actually the old PRR Claremont Branch. It also crosses over Wilkens Ave. on a girder bridge. The branch left the east side of the electrified main line almost right across where the Catonsville Branch connected to the main line on the west side. The Claremont Branch once served several industries between the main line and the B&O yard near Washington Blvd. The line is no longer used today.

David Earp
Mechanicsville, MD
1/19/2014

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Dave - Thanks for the insight and correction; makes sense now. I found a good map for Claremont Branch for PRR OpenStreet maps.

Jeff Akers
Middletown, MD
1/21/2014

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I like to walk railroads, abandoned or otherwise. On January 20, 2014 I tried to walk as much of the Short Line as possible. Due to time constraints, I missed the part near Spring Grove, but I managed most of the remaining rail bed. I took 18 pictures. I've put my walk up on Everytrail here: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=2630433

Cham Green
Baltimore, MD
1/21/2014

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Jeff & Cham,

Jeff, when I first moved to Yale Heights in 1964 in my early teens, I also used to think the Catonsville line continued across the main line somehow and then continued on to cross Caton and Wilkens Aves. When I finally bought a Baltimore street map showing rail lines I could see the Catonsville and Claremont branches in no way connected together, though they were both worked by crews out of Gwynns Run. I always enjoyed studying rail maps and used to go down to the main Pratt Library Maryland Section to look at old street atlases of the Baltimore area. I also learned a lot of the CSL history from viewing newspaper articles in their vertical file archives. The old Catonsville station still existed back then behind a liquor store just north of Wilson's lumber store.

Cham, thank you very much for the link to your photos taken along the line. They bring back memories of when the line was still active and I had the opportunity to view the right of way while riding on the rear of a PRR caboose or in the cab of a Baldwin switcher engine. Looking back, I wish I had taken more photos at various road crossings while trains were running, along with places where remains of abandoned sidings once existed, such as the St. Charles College spur which would be located at the west end of the present day Charlesmont property. I do have more photos to add to this site, taken at Beechfield and Shady Nook Aves., and Spring Grove, as soon as I get my scanner up and running again.

David

David
Baltimore, MD
2/9/2014

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It was my pleasure to provide the pictures. I tend to poke around on local railroad beds. Here is my walk on the Gwynns Falls line: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=1476301

And here is my travels over on the East Baltimore beds: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=1489692

If I lived in Beechfield I would probably quietly cut some of that brush back on the Short line bed and mark the trail just so people could continue to ambulate past that Catonsville trail to Beechfield Road. I find it suspicious that the new trail stops at the county line, they must be afraid of the city.

Cham Green
Baltimore, MD
2/9/2014

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Cham, the Gwynns Falls ex-Western Maryland Rwy line you walked was my first exposure to trains at pre-school age. I lived on Poplar Grove St. when I was born and remember always wanting my mom to pause on the street bridge over the tracks, as shown in one of your photos, to see if a train was coming. We had to cross the bridge when going to the Acme market which was at the northwest corner of the bridge.

While walking the Catonsville line, if you saw the large corrugated pipe going under the trail east of Maiden Choice Lane, I was on the scene when RR maintenance workers were putting that pipe in. They had to remove a few lengths of rail and ties to excavate down to where the drain pipe needed to be placed. Then the roadbed was back filled with dirt and crushed stone, and new ties and spikes were used to replace the existing rails. So the ties at that location were the newest ones on the whole line that were removed by the rails-to-trails group. That work took place in 1967. Before the Penn Central merger in 1968, the line actually still received maintenance in the form of new ties and ballast here and there, so under Pennsylvania RR control up through the mid-1960s, the company still seemed to consider the line to be a valuable enough revenue source to maintain even if only marginally so.

David
Baltimore, MD
2/9/2014

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Charlestown did an excellent 17 minute video on the Catonsville Short Line Trail. It is on the Catonsville Rails To Trails' Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Catonsville-Rails-to-Trails-Inc/100341186715149?ref=hl

Maureen Sweeney Smith
Catonsville, MD
3/5/2014

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I moved to Beechfield 1958. I remember walking on the tracks in the early 60's. I remember about a 1/2 mile from Beechfield Avenue going west on the South Side of the track an old abandoned stone swimming pool or pond right in the middle of woods I always wondered how old that was and why that was built there. I also remember a little further up on the south side where Charlestown now stands in a clearing there was a hot springs. Does anyone remember any of these things or have any information on them. Never saw a train but had some great memories.

Clint

clinton hare
marriottsville, MD
8/2/2014

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