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Fort Meade Rail
by Art House
This article first appeared in Fort Meade's SoundOff! newspaper, July 25, 1974.
Digital version courtesy Tim Moriarty

Several times each day, veteran locomotive engineer Kyle Singleton cranks up Fort Meade's lone diesel engine and heads out over the weed-grown right-of-way to switch freight cars. Mr. Singleton, together with brakeman Walter Sperling and yardmaster George Weisman, staff the Fort Meade descendent of a railroad operation which is over twice the age of the installation itself.

The railroad tracks, which run through Fort Meade, lie along the route of the former Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad. The A&ER was chartered in 1837 by an act of the Maryland General Assembly. In those early railroad days, cities and towns gambled their commercial futures upon railroads. Annapolis, far from the existing main line of the Baltimore and Ohio, wanted a railroad of its own. The Annapolis and Elk Ridge, running from the capital city to the Baltimore and Ohio at a point north of Laurel (now Annapolis Junction), provided the desired link.

The first trains ran from Annapolis, through what is now Fort Meade, on Christmas Day, 1840. Two steam locomotives, weighing just eight tons, each provided the motive power for the line.

The A&ER suffered some early, though not extensive, damage during the Civil War. Just a week after the firing on Fort Sumter, southern sympathizers among the railroad's own employees took up some track and pulled down portions of the line's telegraph wires. This was an attempt to frustrate the use of the line by Union authorities. The disruption did not last for long, however, and the line was first seized, and then operated, by Federal officers.

In the summer of 1872 the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad (now the Penn Central mainline) reached Odenton and crossed the A&ER there. There was at least one altercation at the Odenton crossing in those early days when a B&P track smacked into an A&ER train attempting to cross the former's tracks.

In 1886 the A&ER went broke and was reorganized by a new company, which renamed it the Annapolis, Washington and Baltimore Railroad.

Soon after a new form of railroad "hysteria" began to sweep the nation. A young naval engineer named Frank Sprague had developed a commercially practical electric railroad motor in the 1880s, and trolley lines were soon springing up all over the nation. The power was cheap, and because trolley cars were much lighter than steam locomotives, construction of an electric railway was simpler and less expensive than that of a steam road.

The AW&B strung trolley wire of its own, in 1907, from Annapolis to a point just east of Odenton, where it connected with a new high-speed electric railway with a very similar name. The new line, the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Railway, soon took over the old AW&B. Before long, trolley wires were strung from the junction at east Odenton, called Naval Academy Junction by the railroad, through what is now Fort Meade, to the B&O north of Laurel. Trolley cars and heavy electric interurban cars replaced the steam trains.

Traffic over this west end of the line was sparse until 1917, when the government selected the area around WB&A stations at Harmans, Disney, and Portland as a site for a new military post. Camp Meade resulted, and proved to be a boom for the railroad business. In 1917 and 1918 the WB&A hauled nearly nine million passengers to and from the new installation. They extended several new tracks onto post, including a line which ran up Mapes Road, terminating in a loop just southwest of the present Officer's Club location. The loop site was then in the middle of the troop unit areas and was the main gateway for soldiers arriving and departing the post.

Despite rigorous training schedules, the soldiers got some time off on weekends, and according to one veteran, the WB&A trolleys were used for off-duty trips to Baltimore.

The WB&A folded up during the Depression. The railroad was sold at foreclosure in August of 1935, and much of it was junked. The line's main Baltimore-Washington route was scrapped, as was the route from Odenton east to Annapolis.

The railroad on Fort Meade was kept in operation, largely because of Army traffic to and from the installation. The Pennsylvania (now Penn Central) took over a portion of the line from Odenton onto post, and the Baltimore and Ohio assumed the portion west of Fort Meade to its main line at Annapolis Junction. The Army continued to perform local switching chores with a government crew and engines, and this pattern remains the same today.

World War II and the Korean conflict brought another booming period to Fort Meade rail operations, with troop trains and freight being constantly shuttled.

All three men of the present rail crew arrived during the Korean War. A typical day for the crew, then, would see them switch coal hoppers into the various post coal yards, and move freight cars loaded with war material to the warehouse sidings. According to yardmaster Weisman, things didn't stop with the end of the business day. In the evening, the men would spend hours switching kitchen cars being readied for troop trains, shoving them up to watering plugs. The crew would head home by about 11 p.m. and be back on the job by 7:30 the next morning.

According to Mr. Weisman, activity settled down after Korea, though the Berlin and Cuban missile crises stimulated much overtime work for the Meade rail crews. During these tense days of the early sixties, he recalls, active Army railroaders were brought up from Fort Eustis to handle some of the overload.

Both Mr. Weisman and Mr. Walter Sperling, the crew's brakeman, are former civilian railroaders. Mr. Weisman was employed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and by the shortline Baltimore and Annapolis, prior to coming to Fort Meade in August, 1950. Mr. Sperling, also an ex-B&A man, came to Meade a few months later.

The Baltimore and Annapolis, another area railroad, was also once a part of the WB&A system which operated Fort Meade trackage through 1935. The B&A survived the junking of the larger system, however, when local bondholders bought the line during foreclosure hearings.

Mr. Kyle Singleton, the crew's engineer came to work for the government in 1952 and has operated engines both on Fort Meade and at the Curtis Bay Ordnance Depot.

Things have settled down into a regular routine since the hectic days of the early sixties. When the Army converted its heading plant to fuel oil, much of the freight switching disappeared forever. When the 1st Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment departed the post, taking with them the tanks and artillery which were annually shipped by rail to training sites, another health chunk of the business disappeared. Most Meade freight is handled by trucks these days, but according to Mr. Weisman, an average of 25 to 30 carloads of rail freight is still moved on and off post each month.

Not all of it is Army freight. Several civilian firms load cars at the site of the Penn Central's Fort Meade depot, off Rock Avenue. The Pennsy once occupied a former one-room school house near the tracks, but that was vacated and demolished some years ago.

Fort Meade's present rail operations are directed from the small depot which sites just south of the main commissary. The building was, until 1972, operated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. When the B&O closed up its Fort Meade agency, the government rail crews took over the building. B&O markings still can be seen on the station's front door, and on the main desk in the waiting room. The interior of the depot is decorated with traditional railroad calendars and posters.

The post rail operation runs a single locomotive an 80-ton diesel built by General Electric in 1952. Numbered 1684, the engine has seen service over other military rail lines, but is a relative newcomer to Fort Meade. It arrived here in 1972.

The railhead also maintains one government-owned box car and four flat cars. These cars are used to teach loading procedures and other rail operations to reservists, civilians and other active duty transportation specialists.

The Meade railroad operation is part of the Transportation Division of the post-level Directorate of Industrial Operations.

While it isn't as busy as it once was, Meade's 134-year-old service, which dates back to that Christmas of 1840, when Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad crews dispatched the first train over their new line. In the interim, the route has seen steam locomotives and Civil War sabotage, trolley cars, doughboys and troop trains. It remains today one of Fort Meade's most visible and enduring links with the past. 1LT Art House/Fort Meade SOUNDOFF!, July 25, 1974

Tim's comments: (After three years as an Army railroader, your editor returned to civilian life and joined an Army Reserve Airborne unit at Fort Meade in early 1978, going out there each month for drill weekends. The rail system was still active; however, the condition of the track, with its wobbly, uneven rails and rotting ties, gave the appearance that it was on its last legs. The lone GE 80-ton locomotive (1684), a box car and a flat car were stored on the wye track at the Odenton interchange when not in use. A photographer snapped a picture of USA 1684 in transit in Baltimore in December 1982 on its own wheels, not on a flat car, as is the norm, and this can be determined as the definitive end of rail service on the post. Leaving the area again in October 1982 to go on active duty with the Air Force, I returned to Fort Meade in September 1990 to make a final parachute jump with my old unit, which was being inactivated. Unfortunately the post's rail line was just a memory by then, replaced by a bare right-of-way. A few years ago a post employee said a Reserve engineer unit, looking for something to do during its two weeks of active duty one summer, had pulled up the line at the post's request. Segments of it, however, still exist, mainly around the warehouse area on the east end of the post. Being more difficult to remove because of their location behind warehouses, these rails seem to have been forgotten. The ex-B&O depot on post remains, although it is used simply for office space now. The Curtis Bay depot, mentioned in the article, closed long ago, leaving behind abandoned rails leading to collapsing ammo storage buildings standing on contaminated soil. Fort Meade's last locomotive, USA 1684, went on to work at McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma.)

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