A Railway Ran Through It
Uncovering the local trolley system’s past and potential future
by Matt Edens & photos by Turner Photography Studio
There’s little to distinguish the tan brick building at the corner of Summit and Lee from numerous old industrial buildings scattered around downtown Hagerstown, struggling to stay relevant in a post-industrial world. “It’s primarily a warehouse, but I do have a silk screener and a guy who does vinyl cutting,” says Pete Low, the building’s current owner. And there’s still space available, according to the big sign on the side of the building.
But step inside, and it’s easy to find indications of what an integral part this building once played in the city and region’s economy. “The work pit is still there and the wash bay, and there are still tracks in the building,” says Pete. And it was those tracks — and the Hagerstown and Frederick Railway trolleys that ran on them — that connected this downtown street corner to numerous other locations scattered around the city and throughout communities across Washington and Frederick counties.
“The city of Hagerstown passed an ordinance in 1891 to establish an electric railway,” says Randy Anderson, a rail historian and trolley enthusiast from Williamsport. “But it wasn’t until August of 1896 that the tracks were finally laid and trolleys running, using cars bought secondhand from Martinsburg, whose trolley company had gone bankrupt almost as soon as it started. They towed the trolley cars over from Martinsburg on the Cumberland Valley Railroad,” says Randy.
Later that same year, across South Mountain, trolleys also began running between Frederick and Middletown, stopping off midway at the new community of Braddock Heights, which was developed as a summer resort and amusement park by the Frederick and Middletown Railroad. “Virtually every trolley company around, in order to promote business, created some sort of amusement park at the end of the line,” says Alex Postpischil, president of the Hagerstown & Frederick Railway Historical Society.
Hagerstown’s answer to Braddock Heights was a similar amusement park in the shady bottom of Antietam Creek, across from Funkstown and known at different times as Watt’s Park, Willow Grove, and Electric Park. And both trolley companies were also quick to extend lines to their respective county fairgrounds — which along with the amusement parks, were cash cows (no pun intended). “Seventy-two percent of revenue is passenger service and most of that is hauling people to the county fair and the park,” says Alex.
Freight service, known as Railway Express, made up the rest of the revenue. “It wasn’t as glamorous, but the freight industry was a real vital link for the farmers in the country to get their produce to market,” says Alex. “You can imagine what it was like then to get a heavily loaded wagon over the mountain,” says Rueben Moss, vice president of the Hagerstown & Frederick Railway Historical Society.
Not that milk cans and bushels of corn were the only things shipped. “Railway Express was the FedEx or UPS of its day,” says Alex. “People would pay 10 cents or 35 cents to have a chair delivered from a retailer in Frederick out to Middletown.”
By 1898, the trolley had reached Myersville, and by 1907, trolleys were running down the Catoctin ridge from Braddock to Jefferson. And in 1909, after stringing electric lines along an older, steam-powered railway that had served Catoctin Furnace, the trolleys were hauling passengers and freight between Frederick and the Western Maryland Railroad depot in Thurmont. “Essentially the H&F was Western Maryland’s branch to Frederick,” says Randy.
Growth & Decline
Like Frederick’s, the Hagerstown trolley system soon reached out into other surrounding towns. Crossing Antietam Creek at Funkstown, the tracks extended to Boonsboro by 1902. And to the north, the trolley reached the crossroads of Shady Grove, just over the Pennsylvania state line. “They started going to all these places that had never had a railroad,” says Randy.
By 1904, the Hagerstown trolley had also reached Myersville, connecting with the Frederick system. The two railroads would be formally linked in 1913, thanks to the efforts of Emory Coblentz. “He was a banker in Middletown and he was the big organizer of the H&F,” says Randy. As the Frederick Railway’s president, Emory negotiated its purchase of the Hagerstown operation in 1912.
Reorganized as the Hagerstown & Frederick Railway, the trolley system boasted more than 87 miles of tracks. This included both interurban lines connecting Frederick and Hagerstown to various communities and streetcars within each city. “There were a lot of passengers that travelled in the city on the loop,” says Rueben. In Hagerstown, trolley tracks ran a long figure eight that covered much of the city. Frederick’s loop was smaller — along Market, Patrick, and South streets and out to 5th and Rosemont streets, through Hood College’s campus.
At its peak in 1920, the H&F carried 3.8 million riders. But even so, the trolley operation was becoming a sideline to Emory’s main business. “He was ahead of his time. He realized that the future was in electric distribution,” says Randy. By 1923, the H&F was a mere subsidiary of a new, much larger power company that Emory organized: Potomac Edison.
The railway also faced some stiff competition. “As mass production of vehicles grew, it was easier for families to purchase cars,” says Randy. And for the transit companies, buses also provided a cost-efficient alternative. In 1923, Potomac Edison started its own bus line: Blue Ridge Transport. Initially intended to extend passenger service beyond the tracks, it wasn’t long before management saw the potential savings as a trolley replacement. “You don’t need to lay track, you don’t need to hang wire,” says Alex.
The service between Hagerstown and Frederick was among the first routes to go. In 1936, when the new U.S. 40 was built north of Myersville, the highway intersected the trolley line at the top of South Mountain and the H&F decided to sever the link between the two systems rather than pay for the new crossings. “It was a lot of money to be spent and not a lot of traffic to justify it,” says Randy. By 1940, ridership had plummeted to less than 500,000.
“There was a resurgence during WWII when there was rationing of virtually everything,” says Alex. But by the end of the war, the shutdown began in earnest. In August of 1947, the Hagerstown system ran its last trolley. “My mother and my aunt, when I was 1 year old, they took me on the last run,” says Randy. By September of that same year, the trolleys from Frederick stopped arriving in Middletown. And they stopped rumbling down Patrick Street the following year.
The Thurmont line limped along for a few more years, making its last run in 1954. And freight service carried on after that. “They put diesel locomotives on it when they got rid of the overhead lines,” says Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird. But by 1958, the trains had stopped running, with the tracks taken up and sold for scrap.
New Life For An Old Railway
More than half a century later, traces of the H&F still remain. In addition to the former car bar at the corner of Lee and Summit, there’s also the original 1896 power plant at Williamsport, adjacent to the C&O Canal Visitor’s Center, as well as the larger power plant northeast of Hagerstown at Security (now home to Allegheny Door and Hardware), built in 1912. “At that point there were still multiple power plants for the trolley system and that replaced all of them,” says Randy.
While the stations at Thurmont and Middletown are gone, others — Braddock Heights, Myersville, Jefferson, and Shady Grove — still remain in various uses.
The National Road Heritage Foundation has converted the station in Boonsboro into a small museum, something Mayor Kinnaird also hopes to do with an adjacent building that originally served as an electrical substation for the trolley line. “Potomac Edison still owns the substation, but the town owns the building and my dream is to eventually utilize that to make a display.”
The town’s already made a good start, too. Parked next to the substation, on the site of the old station, is one of only four H&F cars known to be in existence. Freight Motor #5, essentially a motorized boxcar, once hauled freight along the Thurmont line. “They built it in-house in their shops in Frederick,” says Kinnaird, who helped the town acquire the trolley from a Pennsylvania museum in 2006.
Another car is parked outside the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum.“It has the distinction of being the last trolley in Maryland to be involved in an automobile accident. A few years ago someone missed the turn on Burhans Boulevard and hit the trolley,” Randy says. Another trolley can be found north of the city of Frederick in Mountaindale and has been used as a private hunting and fishing cabin since it was purchased from the railway in the mid-1950s. “The company stripped them; they were sold as shells,” Randy says.
The fourth surviving car currently sits in a field outside Myersville. For years it was the centerpiece of an annual trolley festival, organized by the late Don Easterday. “That was his dream to own a trolley and hold a festival,” says Rueben. But after a successful 18-year run, the festival shut down amid Don’s ailing health. For now, the car remains on the Easterday farm, covered in tarps to protect it from the elements while the H&F Historical Society works to find it a more permanent home. “It may go to the town, they’re not sure yet,” says Rueben.