Thursday, August 7, 2014

Torrey Brown/ North Central Railroad Rail-Trail: What Are You Going To Do?

After I finished some agricultural history research nearby, I decided to bike the lower half of the Torrey Brown/ North Central Railroad Hike and Bike Trail in Baltimore County, Maryland, north of Baltimore City. Full disclosure: I was once a seasonal ranger in this area, working for Gunpowder Fall State Park, which administers and maintains the NCR. Back then in the mid-80s the trail was still under construction and no one really knew about it. That was then. This now. Crowded!

The southern terminus of the trail is at Ashland.

I started at the mid-point in White Hall, Mile Marker 11, and rode south, dodging wobbly people in bathing suits walking bare foot on the crushed gravel surface  carrying humongous inner tubes for float rides along the Gunpowder River that parallels the trail. The North Central Railroad was laid through the Gunpowder River Valley for this entire section south to Ashland, my turn-around point. Not much in terms of nature observation even though I was surrounded by deep forest and cool mist rising from the very cold river. I was too busy dodging wobbly people.

A beneficiary of the trail traffic: Hunt Valley Bike Rentals, near the southern terminus on Paper Mill Road.

Now, I apologize for this post. It might sound a little grumpy from my first mile to my 11th. But I promise that coming back to White Hall, I got a little happier. I actually heard a wood thrush so everything was right with the world later. There were so many people that for the stretch to Monkton Station, a very popular starting point for walkers and families with children and leisure bikers, that I was getting not a little annoyed. I'm not a speed racer (though there were a few club teams on the trail whizzing by in full team garb), and I did announce myself every time I approached someone from behind, which was all the time. But when a person hears "Passing on your left," or "Bike passing," or "HEY, STAY TO THE RIGHT!" do you think maybe they should maybe not jump to the left, stick their foot out to scare the biker, 'pretend' to push their kid into the path of the bike, or simply ignore?  So I took the hint of an another biker ahead of me, who was patiently walking her bike behind a large group that refused to move over. I dismounted and walked with her for over a mile. "What are you gonna do?" she asked calmly.

The Gunpowder River enters the Loch Raven Reservoir, spreads out, slows down, is flat.

Note that these pictures are not in any particular order, so back to my story. We both walked up to the Monkton Station, where I once worked as a seasonal to help ready the interior for renovation (read: tear out dusty, moldy, gross stuff so the renovation crew could work without hazardous materials to bother them). Now it is a busy place with exhibits, an information desk, the meeting point for many activities and programs. We slid our bikes into the racks and sat on a nearby bench to do some people watching. My new friend Hilda (from Germany) has lived in the States for the past ten years and works for NSA. If you don't know what that means then I can't tell you because it is a top secret.  A nice but very serious biker walked up and asked about my bike (a Novara 'Buzz' Expedition Touring Bike). I asked him about his bike and though he never told me what make or model he did mention the price. $15,000. Hilda gasped. I gasped. He said "Have a nice day!" We got up and walked through the parking lot (which you are supposed to do anyway) and almost got run over by said biker and his whiz-bang racing team. "What are you going to do?" said Hilda, calmly.

Snow balls by Kathy are highly recommended.

Onward we walked until safely across the busy Monkton Road. Hilda described how on Monday mornings no one is out here. She lives in Phoenix and prefers early morning rides or jogs. Alas, I realized my mistake! It was a Saturday afternoon on a day forecast to be rainy but instead it was sunny and people were out like flies, which weren't out, thank goodness. As the crowd thinned I was able to say goodbye to Hilda and get up to speed so that I was puff-puff-gasp-gasping along, a good speed for cardio. A nice man with a dog let his pooch off leash just as I was about to announce my passing. Pooch crosses trail in front of me and, well, what are you going to do?  Just a little scrape. No real blood to speak of.

Hilda sits on the bench at Monkton Station.

Biking for me, like hiking, is a sort of zen-ish activity and therefore anything that happens along the way is part of the path, part of the journey. Approaching my turn-around at Mile 1 (actually my 11th mile) I decided to climb the hill at the bike and organic produce stand and visit with a few goats, the owners, a turtle in a pond, and Kathy the snow ball maker. I sat for over an hour nursing a cherry snowball with marshmallow topping and considered my impatience with the crowds.  The light was getting low - I'd been out since mid-afternoon. Maybe, I hoped the crowds are gone and I could enjoy my return ride back to White Hall without flipping over somebody's dog.

Across from Monkton Station, the source of the giant tubes and wobbly people.

Ahhhhh. The ride to White Hall was as delicious as a cherry snowball with marshmallow!  The crowds were gone, the river was casting a cold mist across the trail, a few joggers, and mostly nothing else but me and the trail. I quickly found my cadence and cruised past my boss's house in Lower Glencoe, past the Spark's Nature Center and big steel span bridge, and on to Monkton. I stopped again at Monkton Station, sat, and admired the empty trail, empty parking lot, quiet road, and locked station. Just ahhhhh.

An exposure of basaltic dome.

Now for that nature stuff. Probably not noticed (due to the flat trail) is the geology that one passes over as you traverse the trail from White Hall to Ashland. Baltimore County contains several basaltic domes that are the remains of volcanic terranes (broken bits of ancient continental crust) overthrust and tumbled into the Piedmont region by an earlier mountain-building event. One of the largest domes is the area from Sparks to Whitehall, though you really can't see or feel it for the flatness of the trail. In one area however, between Whitehall and Monkton the slick rock face of an exposed surface of basalt is seen along the trail. These domes represent volcanic activity caused by friction and thus igneous intrusion of magma, as continental plates subducted.

Once a bank, the massive stone structure now houses Sparks Nature Center.

Many of the buildings constructed along the railway were built of massive stone: limestone from the valleys, marbles and dolomites from the quarries, basalts from the domes. Stone laying is all but a lost art now, but as these small railroad communities replaced the tiny crossroad towns along the river, good stonemasons and their apprentices were in demand. As the North Central grew in freight-carrying capacity, all manner of agricultural produce, timber, stone, and other goods flowed south into the city. If buildings downtown along the former NCR track resemble the buildings of the rural north country area, that's no accident!

Steel bridge over the Gunpowder River on Sparks Road.

The railroad was critical to the economic life of the north county up until the mid-1950s. The NCR 'Locals' - short commuter hops between small villages ended in the 1959. Little by little, cars and trucks replaced the trains. And then in 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes hit hard wiping out bridges and track along the river. It was a storm that ended it all for the struggling NCR. It was a storm that is still remembered with a humble stories by folks around here, including me!  Our family lived in the Deer Creek Valley about ten miles west of White Hall in northern Harford County. It was a terrifying experience that lasted a week and required the National Guard help to deliver food, medical supplies, clean water, and mail to our stranded farm communities. Our bridges and railroad were gone, but thankfully no lives were lost.

Signal Post near Lower Glencoe.

My ride ended back at White Hall after a blissful five miles of wood thrushes, tree frogs calling, the sound of tire on crushed gravel, and the river gurgling alongside. The parking lot at the old maintenance shop was empty save for my car. I'll pick up the northern half of the NCR, White Hall to the Maryland Line, some autumn day. Preferably a Monday morning, otherwise, what are you going to do?


More information about the trail can be found here:

This is a good place to start to learn more about North Central Railroad history:

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