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The Last Train to Emmitsburg

Joe Ritz

After the Civil War, when the United States began the healing process caused by this five-year struggle, a boom in the railroad business occurred. As George Wireman affirms in the first part of his 'History of the Emmitsburg Railroad', "the once great railway network of the United States was at one time so vast that its overall dimensions were hard to comprehend, and even harder…to describe".

Yet, after the turn of the century, the prominence of railroads began to decline; new modes of transportation and technological advances crushed this once great network. Operating from 1875-1940, the Emmitsburg Railroad fits this pattern as well since it began life during this very boom of railroad construction and ended, along with other railways, during the first half of the twentieth century.

However, its collapse may be viewed as that one jigsaw piece that just will not fit into the puzzle, i.e., the Emmitsburg Railroad did not have to follow the rest of history. Simply stated, its demise could have been prevented. It was a community project and many times during its brief history, the citizens of Emmitsburg, including various individuals and large religious organizations, did all they could to keep it running. As it was nearing its "end", the Emmitsburg Railroad should have witnessed this same level of support from its community. With this realization, the Emmitsburg Railroad could have endured and continued serving the town with pride.

Emmitsburg, a town of approximately 2,000 individuals, is the northernmost community in Maryland's Frederick County. Although it is small in nature, Emmitsburg has an important historical past. Founded in 1808, Mount Saint Mary's College, the second-oldest Catholic college instituted in the United States, lies at the base of the mountain overlooking this town. 

The first native-born American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, lived and taught in this locale. Her remains are enshrined in the Basilica named in her honor and administered by the Daughters of Charity, remnants of a religious order she helped to establish.

Adjacent to the Basilica and St. Joseph's Provincial House is the National Emergency Training Center; its buildings were formerly part of Saint Joseph's College, a women's school operated by the Daughters of Charity. These three well-known entities- Mount Saint Mary's College, Saint Joseph's College, and the Daughters of Charity- all played a significant role in the history of the Emmitsburg Railroad.

The Emmitsburg Railroad had an important relationship with Mount Saint Mary's College. This is most evident through the efforts of Rev. John McCloskey, an individual instrumental in raising the funds necessary to complete the railroad. McCloskey was president of the Mount when the Emmitsburg Railroad was incorporated on March 28, 1868 by an act of the Maryland General Assembly. By connecting the railroad to the Western Maryland Railroad, located 7.3 miles south of Emmitsburg at the small junction of Rocky Ridge, the Mount would have an ideal way to receive both goods and students. With the Mount readily connected to large cities like Baltimore, McCloskey viewed the construction of the Emmitsburg Railroad as a vital asset to his college. Indeed, the station for the Mount was within easy access from campus as it was located off Dry Bridge Road, about a mile east from the present day Mount Knott Arena.

In addition to Mount Saint Mary's, both the Daughters of Charity and the institution they operated, Saint Joseph's College, benefited from the Emmitsburg Railroad. At the announcement of the project to connect Emmitsburg to the Western Maryland Railroad, the Sisters at St. Joseph's acted with enthusiasm. This is evident in that they "provided more than half the necessary capital and accordingly became the majority bond holders of the railroad… [likewise becoming] the only group of women to ever own a railroad". 

As with the Mount, St. Joseph's used the railroad to receive both supplies and students. More importantly, however, one becomes aware of how Mount Saint Mary's College, Saint Joseph's College, and the Daughters of Charity all played a decisive role in the embryonic stages of the Emmitsburg Railroad.

Still, what about the rest of the town? Were not the lay citizens of Emmitsburg just as distinguished in establishing the community's railroad? The answer is, "yes". Many lay citizens were included in the list of incorporators, a list containing many surnames associated with the history of Emmitsburg - Adelsberger, Annan, Eichelberger, Motter, and Zacharias

As W.R. Hicks justifies in his essay simply entitled "Emmitsburg Railroad", one "can recognize that the railroad was a community project…" The railroad was a project not only supported by the religious and academic communities of Emmitsburg, but of the common townspeople as well. Thus, it can truly be argued that this was an example of community support directed towards the town's railroad.

Although it was only 7.3 miles long, the Emmitsburg Railroad took seven years after its incorporation to reach completion. Finally, on November 22, 1875, the railroad began its operation with free rides for everyone. Five days later, November 27, 400 passengers purchased tickets to make the first excursion to Baltimore. One should understand that at first, the Emmitsburg Railroad was an arm/division of the Western Maryland and that it used engines and cars of the latter.

However, because of its increased success, the Emmitsburg Railroad Company, comprised of local individuals, took over its own operation in 1879 and purchased Engine No. 1 from Baldwin Locomotive Works. Again, it is obvious that the citizens of Emmitsburg pulled together as a community in support of their railroad.

As a privately owned company, the Emmitsburg Railroad grew in size and strength. It is no coincidence, then, that in 1890, Beaton Smith of York, Pennsylvania completed a survey to connect the railroad to Gettysburg . Previously stated, the period after the Civil War witnessed a growth in railroad development, especially with the construction of secondary lines. Completed during this time, the Emmitsburg Railroad was no exception to this phenomenon. Now with the project to connect to Gettysburg, it appeared that the Emmitsburg Railroad was unstoppable; if linked to Gettysburg, it could expand indefinitely.

As Thomas LeDuc writes, "the period after the Civil War was the classic age of railroad penetration of the economy and…[the railroads were] successful in finding new capital for innovation, expansion, standardization, and improvement". With a connection to Gettysburg, the Emmitsburg Railroad, then, is an ideal example of this theory since it sought both expansion and improvement.

Unfortunately, the Emmitsburg/Gettysburg project never materialized. It was found that the Emmitsburg Railroad Company was unable to pay the interest on its first mortgage bonds. Preparations were made for the company to be sold at a public auction in nearby Frederick, Maryland, on September 11, 1897. One may ask how could this event happen to a prosperous business entity like the Emmitsburg Railroad. The answer lies in the Panic of 1893.

Ironically, this economic crisis occurred "in March 1893, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads declared bankruptcy, unable to meet demands for payment by British banks from whom they had borrowed large sums". As with other depressions, a snowball effect took place after this event and other businesses were affected. Indeed, "the depression showed how dependent the economy was on the health of the railroads…when the railroads suffered…everything suffered".

Luckily, the Emmitsburg Railroad did not collapse from the devastation caused by the Panic of 1893. Local individuals again joined forces to preserve their railroad. Several citizens of Emmitsburg, including prominent men like James H. Elder and Vincent Sebold, as well as the Daughters of Charity, purchased the railroad, established another company, and, in turn, prevented its early demise. This clearly demonstrates that the citizens of Emmitsburg were fond of their railroad. To further strengthen this notion, the Emmitsburg Railroad was "revamped", i.e., heavier rail was laid, wooden bridges were replaced with iron ones, etc.

In addition, some businesses of Emmitsburg shared in this growth since "a new grain elevator and coal chutes were constructed at the south end of the community". The support of Emmitsburg's citizens, then, enabled the railroad and businesses associated with it to grow.

Two events that highlight this increased growth of the Emmitsburg Railroad are its amended charter in 1906 and the Homecoming Celebration in July of 1909. The former, amended by the Maryland State Legislature, "enabled the railroad to extend its line in any direction it wished…[and] gave railroad officials authority to buy, lease, or even consolidate with any other company it so desired". Now the line could extend past Rocky Ridge and merge with other railroads; the Emmitsburg Railroad was indeed an influential force. In addition, Emmitsburg's Homecoming Week, July 13-16, 1909, demonstrated the grand scale of its short line.

Special events occurred during this week and many outsiders took advantage of the railroad to take part in these happenings. In fact, "records show that during this week long celebration the railroad carried more passengers than at any other time in its history". The citizens of Emmitsburg could share a sense of pride in the accomplishments of their railroad.

One may incorporate Emmitsburg's Homecoming Week into the larger, national picture. The United States witnessed the so-called Country Life movement during the early part of the twentieth century. This movement grew to counter the rise of urbanization which put "old American values and institutions…at stake".

Although the railroad was a modern, technological marvel, it brought people to Emmitsburg during this week to celebrate old fashioned, small town life. Having various demonstrations, a firemen's parade, band contests, and a baseball game only emphasized the "greatness" of Emmitsburg's rural character. 

Discontented with the rise of urbanization, many individuals came to Emmitsburg to participate in the rural-oriented Homecoming Week because "after all, Americans had been taught that the United States was born in the country, that its most cherished institutions and ways of life were uniquely shaped in a rustic mold". Therefore, through its involvement during Homecoming Week, the small Emmitsburg Railroad contributed to the larger, national phenomenon known as the Country Life movement.

The Emmitsburg Railroad progressed through the early years of the twentieth century without facing many difficulties. However, when an increase in transportation technology occurred due to Henry Ford's concept of mass-producing automobiles, the need for passenger service trains greatly diminished. This obviously affected the railroad in Emmitsburg. In addition, the railroad had to cope with the bus service provided by Blue Ridge Bus Lines in 1931.

The official bus stop was at the Square in Emmitsburg. But the railroad wanted the bus stop to be at the railway station. A protest was filed with the Public Service Commission in an effort to get the buses to stop at the station and to set up a schedule that would meet the trains. This effort failed and it wasn't long before passengers riding the trains began to use the bus service.

The citizens of Emmitsburg and the railroad's directors tried to compete with the bus line, but the Public Service Commission did not respond to the protest. To make matters worse, the PSC declared that all passenger service on the Emmitsburg Railroad would end June 4, 1935 (Frederick Post). The railroad was now limited to only hauling freight. Still, the community, though unsuccessful, fought together to keep the railroad in operation.

George Wireman, a local amateur historian, rode the railroad when he was a young boy. He informs the reader in his study of the Emmitsburg Railroad that "trains were being run only when needed…[and] operating the railroad on a 'when needed basis' just wasn't considered good business economy" . This augmented the problems the tiny 7.3-mile line faced in the past. Nevertheless, the community of Emmitsburg always seemed to pull together and keep the railroad running no matter what the circumstances. Whether the railroad was "good business economy" or not, Emmitsburg would stand by her railroad.

It is unfortunate that this was not the case. Not only did the growth of roads, trucking, and buses cause problems for the railroad, but "snow was always a problem, [too]…". A recent article in a local newspaper claims that snow itself caused the end of the railroad: "The blizzard of 1936 caused the demise of operations. The company was too small to absorb the costs of repairs, nor did traffic warrant the continuation". Regardless of how one summarizes what exactly caused the demise of the Emmitsburg Railroad, a series of well-documented events sealed its fate.

A special meeting of the Board of Directors in February 1940 … decided to abandon the line as soon as possible…three months later, on May 15, 1940, operations of the Emmitsburg Railroad ceased…in August…the line was sold at a public sale…by May of the following year official authorization for abandonment was granted by the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the rails were promptly torn up and sold as scrap.

There is not much documentation regarding Emmitsburg citizens acting in such a way to prevent their railroad's demise. However, one source does tell of an F. J. Campbell, a local attorney and more importantly, the vice president of the Emmitsburg Railroad at the time of its demise. He claimed "that he had made strenuous efforts two years ago to get the business community to cooperate in putting the enterprise back on its feet, but that he had been unsuccessful".

If not regular townspeople, at least the aforementioned "business community" could have done something positive to prevent the railroad's dissolution. Nonetheless, they did nothing in this manner. In addition, not much has been said about the Daughters of Charity and Mount Saint Mary's. Perhaps they just abandoned the use of the railroad since both supplies and students could be brought in by other modes of transportation. Regardless, the railroad was sold because of this lack of community support. This transaction brought $11,000 for the rails alone and $14,600 for the entire property.

Thus, after 65 years, the whistle stop of trains ended in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Like other trains of the era, the Emmitsburg Railroad folded as well. This time, the small community lacked the mutual support to keep the railroad in operation. If only the citizens of Emmitsburg would have acted as they had in the past, then the railroad could have lasted, perhaps even to today. As an article in the Baltimore Sun stated a few months after the railroad ceased running: "a few Emmitsburg people appear to believe that the property, which was once highly profitable, might have been able to keep going indefinitely with full community cooperation". There was no full community cooperation, though. Emmitsburg turned her back on the railroad and likewise, "fatally damage whatever chance [it] had of acquiring manufacturing establishments in the future".

One may wonder if Emmitsburg would have become a great manufacturing center if the railroad remained. It is possible; however, one must also remember that the Western Maryland still runs through Rocky Ridge and Thurmont, Maryland. It is obvious that these towns are in no way justifiable manufacturing Mecca's. This could be the whole topic of another paper. Yet, the Emmitsburg Railroad, regardless if it created a boom in manufacturing, could have remained in operation with full community support.

Losing their jobs once operations ceased did not seriously hurt those who worked for the Emmitsburg Railroad. In fact, some of these individuals secured new occupations that possessed a connection to their previous employer. Engineer Guy Baker, Sr., father of Guy Baker, Jr., a former registrar for Mount Saint Mary's College, obtained a mail contract and used his truck to make "three daily trips to Thurmont to connect with the Western Maryland Railway".

On the site that used to be the train station, former railroad workers Leslie Fox and Murray Wantz established, respectively, a filling station and an automobile repair shop. Therefore, these individuals still held ties to the Emmitsburg Railroad. However, instead of helping to prevent the railroad's demise, they simply abandoned it and sought other sources of income. They lacked the willingness to support the railroad that their preceding Emmitsburgians maintained.

Today, there are hardly any visible traces that the Emmitsburg Railroad even existed. The town post office borders South Seton Avenue; the train station was located on this site. Traveling south on this road, one passes the Basilica and the National Emergency Training Center mentioned earlier. Then, before the road's terminus with U.S. Route 15, a bridge crosses Toms Creek. If, crossing south on the bridge, one looks to the left, one can see the remains of the Howe truss bridge that the railroad used. In addition, the Daughters of Charity, the chief stockholders of the railroad, are now the owners of a bell used on one of the railroad's engines. It was donated to the Sisters by a Mr. and Mrs. John B. O'Farrell in 1994, and is now proudly displayed on the grounds of the Provincial House.

The Emmitsburg Railroad was in operation from 1875-1940. Like many other railroads, it became a prominent force after the Civil War. It was born with full community support - support that lasted for most of its history. Although the railroad faced a few problems, the citizens of Emmitsburg banded together and chose to resolve those problems. They wanted their line to remain in operation. However, when the community ceased this mutual support, the railroad ended all operations. When full community cooperation was not realized, the Emmitsburg Railroad was unable to continue to serve the town with pride.

Read other stories by Joe Ritz

Read William Hays' memories of the Emmitsburg railroad