The Electric Railway in Western Maryland

By Allison Luthern, Architectural Survey Administrator

A century ago, there were hundreds of miles of trolley (also known as electric railway) tracks that traversed the state of Maryland. One can easily imagine the prevalence of trolleys in the urban areas of Maryland around Baltimore, Annapolis, and Washington, DC. However, in the early twentieth century, trolleys also operated across the farmlands and mountains of western Maryland.

Trolley descending from Braddock Heights, 1919. Source: Blue Ridge Trolley: The Hagerstown and Frederick Railway
Trolley descending from Braddock Heights, 1919. Source: Blue Ridge Trolley: The Hagerstown and Frederick Railway

Options for the electric railway in western Maryland first began to be realized in Richmond, Virginia in 1888 when inventor Frank Sprague proved that electric traction could travel up and down steep grades. In fact, electric railway could climb steeper grades than conventional steam railway. Further, trolleys used a lighter track than steam-powered railway.

All electric railway enterprises in western Maryland were private (non-governmental) ventures. One of the first such companies, the Frederick and Middletown Railway, was motivated to provide faster transportation of farm produce to markets and to make money through passenger transport. Construction of the new railway line began at Patrick and Carroll Streets in Frederick. In addition to purchasing right-of-way, investors in the company also bought land on the ridge of Catoctin Mountain along the trolley’s future route to Middletown. They developed this area, known as Braddock Heights, into a summer resort village. In August 1896, the first trolleys began shuttling passengers between Frederick and Braddock Heights. This mountain resort contained an amusement park, observatory, dance pavilion, theater, carousel, slide, and casino, in addition to inns and private summer houses. By October of that year, the line extended to Middletown.

Braddock Heights slide, c. 1910s. Source: antiquesnavigator.com
Braddock Heights slide, c. 1910s. Source: antiquesnavigator.com

Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, various companies constructed lines connecting western Maryland. In 1904, a final passage constructed over South Mountain provided direct conveyance between Frederick and Hagerstown. This full trolley trip took 2 hours to traverse 29 miles with 3,000’ in elevation change.

In addition to linking cities, the electric railway in western Maryland also connected urban and suburban areas. For example, before the end of the nineteenth century, the Hagerstown Railway created a loop around the city of Hagerstown and lines into the heart of downtown on Washington and South Potomac Streets.

Hagerstown Public Square c. 1900. Source: Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org
Hagerstown Public Square c. 1900. Source: Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Also, the line connecting Hagerstown and Williamsport, which ran along US Route 11, had a high ridership as a suburban operation.  

The electric railway remained popular for several decades, but eventually several factors contributed to its decline in western Maryland. The companies who owned and operated the trolleys began to realize that they could make more money by selling the electricity that they produced to power their trains to homes and businesses instead. The Hagerstown and Frederick Railway company eventually became an electric utility business known as Potomac Edison. Through various consolidations and mergers, this company is known as FirstEnergy today.

Potomac Street, Williamsport c. 1910. Source: Library of Congress
Potomac Street, Williamsport c. 1910. Source: Library of Congress

The introduction of bus systems, including the Hagerstown city loop that passed the fairgrounds, and the improvement of roads for automobiles, including the reconstruction of US Route 40 over the mountains, also lead to the demise of electric railways. By the early 1950s, trolleys in Western Maryland ceased to provide passenger conveyance, and freight transportation lasted only several years longer.

Some of the places associated with the western Maryland electric railway systems have been retained and preserved. The Boonsboro Trolley Station was restored into a museum partly funded by MHT’s Historic Preservation Capital Grant Program. The Frederick Terminal and Office Building and the Washington and Frederick Railway Car Barn in Hagerstown also survive and are included in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (more information can be found here and here). Additionally, the Hagerstown and Frederick Trolley Trail Association is working to convert the old trolley line between Thurmont and Frederick into a multi-use trail, an effort that was recently awarded a Maryland Heritage Area Authority grant!

Boonsboro Trolley Station. Source: MHT photo

Sources:

Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., Blue Ridge Trolley: The Hagerstown and Frederick Railway. San Marino, CA: Golden West Books, 1970.

Janet L. Davis, “Braddock Heights Survey District,” Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form F-4-8. Crownsville, MD: Maryland Historical Trust, 1992.

Edie Wallace and Paula Reed, “Boonsboro Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 2004.

“Virtual Exhibit”, The Hagerstown and Frederick Railway Historical Society, Inc. https://hfrhs.org/visitor/virtual-exhibit/

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