On an uneventful afternoon for most people in northern Cecil County, 7-year-old Catherine Kirk waited excitedly at the Rising Sun Train Station. As the appointed time approached and anticipation grew, a shrill steam whistle coming from somewhere down the line toward Colora pierced the quiet of the town. The whistle of the local passenger train bound for Oxford and points north was a welcomed sound for young Catherine whose mother had just dropped her off at the depot. She was taking her first ride on the rails, the 94-year-old Rising Sun resident recently recalled.
The steam engine came into sight as billowing puffs of smoke drifted up into the sky. As it hissed and rattled to a stop, the conductor swung down onto the platform and hollered “all aboard, all aboard.” Catherine climbed on and settled into a seat as the locomotive eased out of the station. Gently it rolled and swayed toward Sylmar while the conductor came around and took her ticket. About sixteen minutes later she met her aunt Miss Mary Ashby at Oxford Station. It was 1919.
That same year, the Rising Sun town newspaper, the Midland Journal, carried worrisome news for the railroad company. A new concrete roadway between Philadelphia and Baltimore passed through town making the “Rising Sun trail an ideal route for autoists.” Strings of cars came and went, so much so that one resident reported he “counted one hundred and three autos and one buggy” passing his house in an hour one evening.
But for decades to come, the blast of the whistle, bouncing off granite cliffs and reverberating through fields and woods, alerted countians that a freight or passenger train was making its runs through towns and villages along the Octoraro Branch in western Cecil. Despite the competition, a 1927 timetable listed eight weekday trains serving commuters in Rising Sun, Colora, Liberty Grove and Rowlandsville.
Mobility provided by the automobile clearly signaled the demise of the line by April 1930 when the Public Service Commission authorized the company to take two runs off the line. Lamenting the loss, the Midland Journal said “this already one hoss road won’t even be a pony thereafter,” since the line would only have two runs a day, southbound at 6:02 a.m. and northbound at 5:05 p.m. What’s more steam engines had been pulled off the road, those powerful workhorses being replaced by the “toonerville” gasoline car. “In railroad service we are surely progressing, but in a backward direction.” The sad day finally arrived on April 13, 1935. On that Saturday in early spring, right in the middle of the Great Depression, “Gilligan’s train,” (named for the conductor) rolled into history as the last regularly scheduled passenger run on the line.
So what’s the history behind this once important line? On Christmas Day 1865, a passenger train disturbed the tranquility of the holiday when a special excursion ran from Rising Sun to Oxford. Cars were not routinely traveling the route though because the terminus did not have a turntable, depot, or water station, the Cecil Whig reported. But by March 1866, a writer informed the paper that an “important era” had arrived. “From being a quiet, old-fashioned finished Maryland Village, we have been changed into an important railroad terminus, having daily connections with Philadelphia.” Consequently, the writer observed, property was in demand and prices climbed. Improvements occurred in town for a new sidewalk was put down to accommodate the additional pedestrians, and John A. Thompson added a livery service for his hotel’s patrons.
Work on down the line toward the Susquehanna progressed slowly. “At the present rate of construction, the engine which reaches Columbia from Port by this route will sound its whistle there precisely when Gabriel sounds his trumpet,” a disgruntled Port Deposit correspondent informed newspapers. Finally by 1868, Elkton papers reported that a locomotive ran from Port Deposit to Rowlandsville.
By April 1869 correspondents reported that the Philadelphia and Baltimore Central had finally fulfilled its name since there was now service to Baltimore. Noting the economic advantage the Whig said that the cost of transporting Lumber to Oxford from Port Deposit used to between $3.00 to $3.50 per 1000 feet, but with rail it dropped to a $1.12. The freight business must have been good, for a “long freight train” passed through Rising Sun at 10:28 a.m. each morning.
Freight traffic continued after passenger service stopped. Rising Sun’s Sally McKee recalled recently that her uncle, Thomas McKee, spent winters in Florida. While basking in the seasonal warmth of the sunshine, he annually shipped an order of oranges to her father for Christmas, and her father, a rural mail carrier, would go to the depot to pick up the gift. According to the High Line, a railroad history publication, the Pennsylvania Railroad abandoned the Octoraro Branch south of Colora in 1961.
Railroading days slipped quietly away along the Octoraro Branch and it’s been a long time since a familiar sound, the lonely whistle of a locomotive, pierced the quiet of this farming region at depots and crossings. For most of that era, steam locomotives carrying freight and passengers came through on a regular schedule and conductors stepped off trains to holler all aboard and call out next stop Rowlandsville, Liberty Grove, Colora, or Rising Sun as the cars swayed slowly along. Now, the road-bed through these places is silent visited only by weeds, amateur railroad buffs, and strollers and there are only a few artifacts, rusting old bridges or a structure here or there, to remind us of this important era that once rolled by on rails.