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Memories of Thurmont:
Trains, The Station, and The Mill

Itís Thurmont in the Ď40s and Ď50s: what in the world does a kid do for fun? Yeah, I know what youíre thinking: there were no computer games, Little League, CYA football and soccer. No after-school programs, no municipal playgrounds, no dance lessons or day care. What on earth did we do to keep busy? Well, lots of things. For one, there was always something going on at the railroad station and its surrounding area, like:


"The magnificent whistle spilled and spread out its song upon the quiet countryside, at once lonely, lovely, and unforgettable."  ó Murry C. Faulkner, Jr.

Growing up, we always had the trains in Thurmont. Weíre talking about steam trains. Day and night; the great long freights lumbering through Westbound; and the long drags with coal hopper consists Eastbound for Port Covington; the busy local freights out of Union Bridge and Highfield switching cars on the freight sidings, spotting box cars on the back track; offloading freight in the old freight shed, and always dropping off a few cars for the trolley line to Frederick.

Freight trains, usually pulled by the huge eleven hundreds, waited for helpers backing down from Highfield. They took on sand, they took water from the one of the two water columns and the engine crews got good Thurmont drinking water for the hot trip across the mountain. They picked up (on the fly) operating orders that governed the movement of trains on the Hagerstown Division.

The passenger trains werenít near as exciting to watch for a kid, but there was something better about them; like Thurmont itself, there was a secure and steady regularity in their arrivals and departures. The Number 6, Eastbound, would arrive at 6:56 (Standard Time all year long on the railroad) in the morning with the Engineer squinting into the rising sun and the glistening rails down toward the shoe factory and Mr. and Mrs. Albert Zentzís Sunrise Cafeteria (known to all railroad men as the best eatery on the Hagerstown Division).

Number 3, Westbound, at 10:33 in the morning would drop off baggage and mail for Thurmont and a few Railway Express wagons full of freight for the passenger trolleys and for the freight trolley - same scene at 3:11 in the afternoon with the Number 2. Then, at supper time, Engineer Jesse Clem would spot the tender of Number 5 at the Carroll Street water column. Old Jesse had at least two claims to fame that I know of Ė he was No. 1 in seniority among all Western Maryland Engineers and the Government had confiscated his private plane for WWII service which, as a kid, I thought was pretty neat. Number 5 arrived at 4:57. The trains arrived when the timetable said they would arrive. They were never snowed in, iced down, delayed for fog or mechanical troubles. There werenít any computer crashes or overbookings. If the timetable said 10:33 or 4:57, thatís when the train would arrive (or, at least, it would be in sight).

Our four daily, weekday passenger trains were near the heart of day-to-day life in out little town: milk cans to Baltimore, mail from everywhere else, trunks for the kids going to Camp Airy, bottled spring water for the city folks, a mom and her kids going to visit grandma in the city, some snakes for the Snake Farm, and coins for he bank.

For the older folks, trains lifted the heart when a loved one returned or broke it when, sometimes during the war, a young man, proud in his new uniform and clutching the paper bag holding the lunch his Mom had packed, would pose by the tracks in front of the station for the very last picture he would ever have taken.

A typical summer evening would end when, as dusk settled slowly over town, we would watch an evening freight slowly work its way over the iron bridge and past the Catholic Church as the red markers would flicker out of sight by the time they passed the canning factory.

The Train Station

"We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Ė Henry David Thoreau

After the Civil War, the Western Maryland Railway pushed Westward from Union Bridge and by 1871, at Mile 59 from Hillen Station, it extended to Mechanicstown. They put together a few sheds and a wye up by Canning Factory Hill and then in the early 20th century they built a distinctive Victorian passenger/freight station and telegraph office Ė the one we all remember.

In George Wiremanís fine book, Gateway to the Mountains, there is an old photo of one of the agents sitting at the big desk by the bay window and, sure enough, there are some kids looking through the window. The old station was a kid magnet.

Station Agent "Barney" Barnhart

When I started my almost-daily visits to the station, it was presided over by the greatest, most friendly group of railroad men you could ever hope to meet. Thurmontís own Mr. Howard E. Danner would work the 3rd (Midnight to 8) trick; former Mayor S. E. "Barney" Barnhart was the agent; for a long time, Richard Valentine, another of Thurmontís own, was 2nd trick man (that was after Ed Mohler and before Bill Madison). Richard gave me a telegraph practice set and would patiently teach me Railroad Code (similar to Morse, but dots and spaces instead of dots and dashes). Iíd practice on the Message Telegraph Line (my identifier was "NA") and chat with Lynn Fisher down at Westminster who was learning code about the same time I was.

Probably the yearís busiest days were when a group of boys would leave Camp Airy. Over a hundred trunks would have to be prepared for shipment. The trunks would be loaded onto the green and red Railway Express wagons and labeled with the Express documents. Barney was ably assisted by daughters Jeanne and Dottie. I was the glue-pot man. We were paid with ice cream Ė delicious wages!

The station was configured with a ladiesí waiting on the right side, always spotless, with wooden theater-like seats along three sides. The ladiesí room ticket window was on the side toward the center Ė the door on that side remained closed. The menís room (on the left) was a different story. The center of the room contained a coal stove, coal buckets, mops, brooms, and odd pieces of small freight. Beneath the menís room lavatory was a spigot for filling the engine crewsí gallon water jugs which would be kept on a block of ice in a wooden box in the tender. Filling a jug with good High Run water and carrying it back to the waiting engines would earn you a dime and a visit to the cab. Over the years, I was probably in the cab of about every type of steam engine on the Western Maryland roster.

In the center of the station (as well it should be) was the telegraph office. Thatís where I tried to learn as much as I could about the station and the many wondrous things it contained. Telegraph keys and sounders, the railroad and the P. E. (the trolley company) telephones, control levers for the semaphores, tickets, keys, train order wyes and hoops, boxes for the waybills of cars on the sidings. There were always red and white kerosene lanterns at the ready in case the power to the electric signals failed. Right inside the door to the room were mail boxes for the three Section Foremen (C. V. Robertson, Clarence Shriner, and Jim OíConnor) as well as all things railroad that had gathered over the years.

Things would liven up when the telephone selector would ring to dictate a train order (Form 19). This was serious business because the Form 19 controlled the movement of trains. All names and numbers were spelled by the Dispatcher like, "Engine 1114, o-n-e, o-n-e, o-n-e, f-o-u-r run Extra from Thurmont, t-h-u-r ...etc.). The order would then be read back in the same manner to the dispatcher. With the motormen on the freight trolleys, it was a different story. After cranking the magneto phone, a typical call would be something like: "Number 5 ready to leave Thurmont." "OK boys, bring her in."

The station was quite the gathering place: Charlie Eby might come in to check his watch with clock on the wall. The time was sent over the Western Union telegraph daily at noon. Bill Foreman would wait to take the mail from Baltimore to the Post Office and bags of coins to the bank. The smells of the kerosene lanterns and the coal-burning pot-bellied stove in the menís waiting room are remembered to this day.

The Hobo Jungle Behind the Station

"Things I learned in a hobo jungle were things they never taught me in a classroom..." Merle Haggard

Back behind the station, between the Back Track and Carroll Street Extended, was a small wooded area that sprang from land which had been farmed until the early 20th century. This woods (located at the present site of that architectural marvel that houses a discount fabric warehouse) was a locust/oak grove that was typical of those that dotted the town in the forties and fifties. In the summer, hobos would eat and sleep in these woods; such places were often (but never derogatorily) called hobo jungles. Thurmontís was small, but had a great bunch of inhabitants. These men - gentle, peripatetic leftovers Great Depression Ė missed the economic boom of WWII and followed the nationís rails from town to town.

Iíd see lots of them come and go, slowly walking in and out of the woods like a scene from "Field of Dreams." I knew none of them by name (they preferred it that way) but I must have seen Marylandís enigmatic wood carver, Frank Feathers. Sometimes, one of them would come over to the station on a summer evening and sit with me on a Railway Express wagon and wait for a train to roll through. One guy played a harmonica Ė always "Home Sweet Home." I was so impressed that I saved my money and bought a Honer Chromatic harmonica and, to this day, I still canít play anything but the first eight notes of "Maryland My Maryland."

Thurmont and its citizens always got along well with the hobos. They didnít steal from or scam the locals and we treated them with kindness. Every summer the same one of these gentlemen would knock on the kitchen door and ask Mom if her knives and scissors needed sharpening. Mom would bring him the kitchen knives and sewing scissors and he would do an excellent job of honing them in return for some money or food. [I somehow have a hard time picturing that scenario in the present times].

The Junk Cars

"...the war drum throbbed no longer...." Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

From what I gather, in December í44, Hitler unleashed the Ardennes Offensive - our Battle of the Bulge. We, the good guys, were caught by surprise and quite a few of our units were overrun. During this overrunning of our lines, lots of military hardware was destroyed, lost, or abandoned. After VE day, this equipment was gathered up, loaded on ships, and transported to Port Covington in the Baltimore harbor. From there, it was loaded onto the Western Marylandís open gondolas and flat cars for shipment to Pittsburgh to be processed as scrap into usable iron.

A usual consist would be about 75-80 cars which would be pulled by an 1100 to Thurmont. Because the grade from Thurmont to Highfield was the steepest on the Hagerstown Division, they would leave half the train on the Thurmont Siding and take the rest of the cars on up the mountain. The remaining cars would be there until another train with a helper could pick them up and take them on their way. The cars (flat cars would be used for tanks and gondolas for smaller stuff) were universally referred to as the "junk cars"). Just sitting there on the siding they were way too much temptation for the boys from Thurmont! Tanks and helmets, tracer bullets; flashlights (complete with colored lenses and blackout covers); prisms from tank turrets, hydraulic jacks, and machine guns Ė all there for the rooting around.

I guess the biggest item that I ever dragged away from the junk cars was an air-cooled machine gun (water-cooled ones were too heavy). One night, we had a big thrill at the Farm Shop (another story) when Bobby Knott put a 50-caliber tracer in a vise, took the projectile out with a pair of gas pliers, and ignited it Ė what a sight! As I recall, that was right before Mr. (Milton) Lawyer ask us all to leave.

My brother Jennings and I would have great war games in the back yard which, at the time, was a minor woods. [A word of explanation here: We had a big lot; there werenít any power mowers yet; Jennings and I were too young (or busy Ė what was it?) to push a mower through that jungle; Daddy carried mail 6 days a week, ran a small orchard with Grandpa; Mom would work at their little restaurant, on 15, down by the mine bank, so the back yard was more or less overgrown]. We would "shoot" at each other for hours, then, the next day go back to the junk cars for more ordnance. Ultimately, Daddy finally got tired of our whole arsenal and took it out to the dump. Later on, some adult junk car scavengers started filling trucks with usable stuff, the railroad detectives showed up, and that was the end of the junk cars - for the good and the bad.

The Mill, the Sand Piles, and the Good Germans

"The mill cannot grind with water thatís past." 17th century proverb

The mill, originally operated by A. W. Ecker was located by the railroad at the end of Walnut Street until 1930. At that time, it became the Thurmont Co-op presided over by the inimitable Daniel Saylor Weybright - Dan, Mary Ruth and Haroldís dad, Mayor, Fire Chief, Charter Member of the Thurmont Lions Club, and a great neighbor up on Summit Avenue.

To this day, I can see John Ogle and the other millers handling those gunny sacks of feed like they were playthings (they actually were hundred-pounders). Mr. Ogle was always nice to the boys from Summit Avenue and we more or less had the run of the place.

Beside the mill (down toward the shoe factory crossing) was a small shed with the lower level divided into bays for two different grades of sand which were unloaded from railroad sand hopper cars. Each of these sand piles would qualify for a kidsí dream-come-true play area.

Sometime during the war (I donít know when or which battles) our troops captured German soldiers who were sent to the States to perform agriculture work. There were a handful of these POWs who worked at the mill (they were housed at either Fort Detrick or Fort Ritchie, I donít know which). These guys had P O W stenciled on their fatigue uniforms and were quite friendly toward us kids. By and large, they probably had it better than some stateside POW camps which were quite harsh by comparison. I would assume that they all had better than if they had remained in the war until the spring of í45.

After the big mill fire in November of 1942, they trucked tons of burnt feed out to the dump where, after many rains and a winter snow, it still smoldered. They rebuilt the mill, bigger and better than ever and even built a frozen food locker. Itís there today, still milling the grains of our few area farms.


"Past and to come seem best. Things present worst." William Shakespeare

The POWís went back to what was left of their fatherland and families. Some of them even corresponded with Elizabeth Weddle who was the mill secretary. The trains and the trolley still rumbled through for a while. Then somehow, we got older and went on to different things. The mill, of course, is still here; but the trolley went away, the Western Maryland Railway died and they took down the water tower, the water columns, the semaphores and train order signal, then the freight shed.

Then, in the middle of a summer night they demolished the station. The next day, Thurmont realized the town and its day-to-day life would never be the same.

Sometimes, late at night through the wind, the rain, and the years, I think I can hear an eleven hundred lumbering through, blowing for the Carroll Street crossing. Still just another reminder that the past is truly gone.

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