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RISING SUN, Jan 2, 1885 — A passenger train that was making its way through the gloom of a winter night was robbed outside Rising Sun 131 years ago. Admittedly, it was not a great holdup, for it only involved a watch or two and small sums of money. Nevertheless, a raid on the rails in Cecil County, one causing fear as highwaymen cleaned passengers out of valuables, was a singular occurrence in this area.
The scene could have been straight out of the Wild, Wild West. Two young crooks, guns hidden away, quietly boarded a local train. Once the cars rumbled away from the station, however, they drew their revolvers and one of them began racing down the aisle, robbing terrified passengers. Within a couple of minutes, as quickly as it had begun, it was over, with the holdup men jumping off the train.
Newspapers throughout the region covered the crime. City papers “brought out their big type” to dish it up in the “liveliest style,” the Cecil Democrat, an Elkton newspaper, observed. Locally, journalists said they would try not to present a sensational story, but the most correct version possible.
Here are the details drawn from the local press. As the shade of winter darkness began settling on the Chesapeake, the evening accommodation out of Baltimore started its Jan. 2, 1885, run on time at 5:10 p.m. Scheduled to terminate in Oxford, Pa., the trip rolled uneventfully along until the locomotive shrieked to a stop in Rising Sun, where two young men with tickets for Sylmar boarded.
As the cars shook and rumbled, rolling slowly up the dark tracks toward the Mason-Dixon Line, the men handed their tickets to Capt. Ed Gilligan, the conductor. Just outside town, the two abruptly jumped from their seats. One of them pointed a derringer at head of a brakeman E.H. Tarring. The other robber started down the aisle, threatening passengers and demanding their money, watches and jewelry. One man handed over a dollar. The editor of the North East Star, G.A. Garey, “bought the desperadoes off with a watch.” An “old Quaker, named Passmore, slid his gold watch and chain worth $150 and $500 in money into the top of one of his boots. ‘I haven’t anything for thee,’” was his quiet remark, the Star reported. Passengers were holding up their hands in terror, but upon their declaring that they had nothing, they were left unmolested.
As soon as the robber had gone through the car to the rear, where his comrade was holding the brakeman, the two opened the door and disappeared into the darkness. The whole affair had lasted but a moment or two.The brakeman notified the conductor, who ran back as the robbers jumped from the train. The cars continued to Oxford, where news of the offense was telegraphed to Philadelphia.
Officials there speedily dispatched a special train with a posse of Philadelphia detectives. It reached the crime scene about 2 a.m. Saturday and pursuit was begun at once. The detectives scoured the neighborhood. There was a rumor that this was the work of a notorious bunch that terrorized Lancaster County, Pa., the Abe Buzzard gang. But the trail lead them to Calvert, and there the two suspects, Bud Griffith and William Trainor, were captured, the Wilmington Morning News reported.
On Saturday evening, they were put on a special train to Elkton, where they were lodged in jail. One of the city papers reported that at stations along the route crowds collected to get a glimpse of them and they were greeted everywhere with howls and shouts of “How are you, Abe Buzzard?” and “Hello, Jesse James.”
With the desperadoes secured away in the county jail, Cecil’s association with a great wave of train robberies that reached its height in the 1870s had passed. But county scribes had a little more to say about the subject. Philadelphia newspapermen set up a howl about the holdup as if there “was danger that Jesse James and all the western highwaymen … were advancing on the City of Brotherly Love,” the Cecil Democrat reported.
These highwaymen were wanting in every essential trait requisite to make successful train robbers was the reality, observed the editor. That “two callow youths” had no better sense than to rob passengers on the Oxford train out of Rising Sun and that they chose to commit the robbery in a thickly settled part of the country within four miles of where they lived was the proof. The final evidence, having no better sense than to rob an editor and a printer: “Printers and editors rarely have any money, and never have any about them when riding on railroad trains. Jesse James knew this and he would not have tackled one of them under any circumstances,” the Democrat noted.
As for the cause of the startling crime, it was reading “the abominable trash with which the country was flooded, yellow back literature, which was doing so much to demoralize our youth,” the Elkton Appeal observed.
From a Facebook note, The Great Rising Sun Train Robbery, which has additional photos.
In an era when women across the nation crusaded to gain voting rights, Rising Sun led the way locally in 1916, allowing ladies to cast ballots in a county election for the first time in Cecil’s history, the Midland Journal reported.
The question that faced taxpayers heading to the polls was whether the town board could refinance a $16,000 debt with the issuance of 20-year bonds. These instruments would replace short-term loans, which paid for the waterworks installed two years earlier, sidewalks already laid, and apparatus for fire protection already purchased.
Short term notes carried this public debt, so the issuance would not increase the tax rate, the town commissioners assured residents. In fact, lower interest rates would give the municipality a way to minimize cash outlays, giving the budget a bonus savings of $140 a year, if the voters approved.
This was a “good practical business proposition, and one which those who have the interest of our town at heart” should endorse the town newspaper, the Midland Journal, editorialized. This savings was “an item of no small consideration.”
The Legislature’s authorized all municipal taxpayers of legal age to vote on the question, which was decided favorably. Seventy-four voters approved, while two opposed the matter. The town’s newspaper editor said he didn’t know if the increased franchise affected the results, but the near unanimous count suggests that practically all the citizens favored the action.
This happened as Maryland and national women’s suffrage associations waged campaigns for the franchise. It was unsuccessful in Maryland, the lawmakers failing to amend the state constitution or to approve the 19th amendment. But on August 26, 1920, the position of Maryland politicians was irrelevant, after a sufficient number of states ratified the amendment, giving all women the right to vote.
As ladies across the country struggled with the national campaign, Rising Sun had held a historic vote, allowing women to go to the polls four years before the ratification of the 19th amendment created a more universal franchise. The presidential election of 1920, where Warren G. Harding, Republican, and James M. Cox, Democrat, were the nominees, was the first time most female voters in Cecil County and the nation exercised the power of the ballot box. It was old news by that time in the northern Cecil County town.
The Battleship Maine steamed from Key West, Florida to Havana on January 24, 1898, arriving in the Cuban harbor the next day. Orders took her there as the United States wanted to show the flag and protect interest since a struggle for independence from Spain was rippling across the country, resulting in the spread of urban violence.
One of the crew members, John A. Kay, was from Cecil County. The 24-year-old Rising Sun man had joined the Navy as an assistant machinist on the Maine in August 1895. His enlistment was scheduled to expire in August, when it was anticipated that he would return home. He was the son of Alexander B. Kay.
In Havana, one evening, a sudden explosion ripped through the calm of the tropical darkness on February 15, 1898, sending panicked residents streaming toward the waterfront to see what had happened. There they saw the big U.S. warship sinking quickly. the blast rocking the anchored vessel while ripping apart a portion of the thick, steel hull. About 268 of the 347 crew members perished, ten of them from Maryland.
When the early train chugged into Rising Sun the next morning, Rising Sun residents received the first word about the ill-fated battleship in the headlines of the city papers. On the same train was a letter from young Kay to his parents, the Cecil Star reported.
Residents anxiously waited for the arrival of subsequent editions, hoping for better news from Cuba. But it never came for in about a week Navy Secretary John Davis Long telegraphed the family, reporting that “the body . . . . . . was recovered and identified. It was interred at Havana with the other unfortunate victims.”
When the Brookview Cemetery Company met in May, they voted to donate a double lot for the erection of “an imposing monument in memory of the victim of Spanish treachery.” The Kay Monument Association, headed by Hanson H. Haines, the President of the Rising Sun National Bank, was also formed to raise funds for the dead sailor.
HIs father, A. B. Kay, wrote to express his gratitude. “If the people of Cecil County erect a monument in the memory of my dear son who lost his life for the country they shall have my heartfelt gratitude. . . . I admire the situation of your beautiful cemetery and it will grow more beautiful in my sight should such a monument be erected there.”
The mission was accomplished, and on Independence Day 1900 a crowd of several hundred people gathered on the town square in Rising Sun for the dedication. Headed by the Nottingham PA Cornet Band, the musicians escorted the townspeople marching out to the hilltop burial ground. Family members, the Daughters of Liberty, Garfield G.A.R. Post, and the Harmony Lodge marched behind the musicians, on the sweltering Maryland day.
It was an inspiring ceremony with music and speeches, newspapers reported. Mr. Haines presented the monument to the family in a speech, remembering the young man who lost his life serving the nation. The Rev. David E. Shaw, of the West Nottingham Presbyterians Church accepted the monument for the family, while one of his sisters unveiled the memorial.
The monument was quarried and finished by the Pennsylvania Marble and Granite Company of West Grove, PA. “A handsome bound book inscribed with the names of the donors was placed in the chapel,” the Midland Journal reported.
Today the white marble monument standing 16-1/2 feet high continues to remind visitors to the Brookview Cemetery of this loss so long ago. It is inscribed with: “In memory of John A. Kay, machinist, who was lost with the United States Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Erected by the citizens of Cecil and nearby counties as a tribute to his heroism.”
In a time when horses, carriages, and bicycles provided transportation, the sight of an automobile could cause a commotion, but little did anyone know how unsettling that first view could be for “Poor Excuse.”
It was Friday, April 13, 1900, a day for bad luck, when the Adams Express delivery horse trotted up to the corner of Main and North streets. A quick glance up the street caused the normally mild-mannered animal to take his owner, B. M. Wells, on a mad dash through the center of Elkton. The spectacle of a strange machine breezing along had proved too much for the animal.
The driver of the contraption, the first “horseless carriage” seen in the county seat, was making his way between New York and Washington, D.C. Curious people rushed to the curb to catch a glimpse of the member of the “locomobile Club of America” rolling along.
Mr. & Mrs. Harry Decker pulled up to the Howard House in their automobile in August of that year. After spending Saturday night there, they got an early start the next morning as the New Yorkers continued on, heading to the Texas oil fields.
These new-fangled machines sometimes were temperamental. A big red “Panhard (Paris) driven by a 20-horse power gasoline engine” passed through in 1902, but ran out of oil on the outskirts of Elkton. The tank was refilled at the store of John E. Gonce, the Elkton Appeal reported.
Automobiles were here to stay, and it wasn’t too many more years before passing cars no longer caused a stir. By August 1905, Harvey Rowland and Lewis Abrahams rode from Port Deposit to Atlantic City in their vehicle in five hours and twenty minutes. Charles R. Ford owned the first one in Elkton, a fine Pope Runabout in November 1905. As Ford was learning the “tricks of his new stead”, the Cecil County News wrote, “Good luck to you, Charlie, and may you never slip a cog or run out of gasoline.” Mr. Carter of Singerly had a fine runabout in August 1906.
Local automobilists became common. D. J. Ayerst, Dr. H. A. Mitchell and Frank B. Evans turned out in their vehicles for the Elkton Halloween parade in 1911. A striking feature was “Ayersts’ Cadillac Motor Car, elegantly and strikingly decorated,” according to the Cecil Whig. Edward W. Taylor bought a new Ford touring car to add to his livery fleet in 1913.
With the auto here to stay, the State of Maryland enacted a registration and licensing law, the first one in Cecil going to Lewis Abrahams of Port Deposit. “My great uncle Lewis Abrahams who lived till his 84th year in 1964 at Port Deposit . . . was very proud of holding the first license issued for an automobile in the county”, the Rev John J. Abrahams noted several years ago. “He and my grandfather began the first car dealership in Port.” Lewis owned a 4 horse-power Locomobile and was issued license no. 502. In Fair Hill, Edward H. Strahorn owned a Thomas B. Jeffery 7 ½ horsepower vehicle, issued license 537. John E. Good in Perryville had a Peerless Motor Car, holding registration 656
Duyckinch, Sterret & Co. of Rising Sun established the first dealership in Cecil County in 1909, handling Hupmobiles, Invincible Schachts, and Oakland Machines. They had a fine section of Regal Automobile and “everyone was invited to call at the garage to inspect these beauties and see their efficiency demonstrated,” the Midland Journal reported the next year.
Warren Boulden Sr., built a 3-car garage in Elkton, opening his business in May 1911. Carrying a full line of automobile supplies, the Whig added that “Mr. Boulden has given this business a study, and is a competent mechanician.”
“Poor Excuse” wasn’t the only one appalled by these contraptions. In Elkton, Council’s hackles had been raised by speeding automobilist frightening horses and endangering pedestrians so the commissioners adopted an eight MPH speed limit. Rising Sun decided that 10 MPH was a safe and posted signs reading “automobiles blow your horn at dangerous crossing and curves,” in 1911.
Within days of the new law going on the books, the vigilant town officer, Bailiff George Potts issued Elkton’s first speeding ticket, arresting a Baltimorean. In Chesapeake City in 1915, the authorities were determined to break up reckless driving, and Bailiff Samuel Biggs arrested five automobilists for failing to sound horns at cross streets. One of those arrested was Philip L. Garrett, Wilmington attorney for the Delaware Automobile Club.
About this time, the Cecil Whig observed that the reason Port Deposit had far more vehicles than the Elkton was simple economics. Everyone knew that you didn’t make much money practicing law, as wealth came from enterprises, such as manufacturing and transportation.
The automobile age was on in Cecil. Click here for additional photos
Announcing the Annual Rising Sun Civil War Re-enactment brought to you by the Rising Sun Historic Preservation Commission.
The re-enactment this year runs Friday, October 3rd to the Sunday, October 5th. The Friday session is reserved for local school students, with over 500 registered to attend this year.
The public hours are as follows:
11am to 4pm – Camp open to the public. Battle re-enactment is scheduled for 2pm.
7pm to 11pm – Dance with period attire and music. The public is invited to attend.
9am to 3pm – Camp open to the public.
9am – Ceremony in the cemetery adjacent to the park with a Church service to follow.
1pm – Battle re-enactment
3pm – Break Camp and Clean-up
Location: Veterans Community Park of Rising Sun