Biking the Northern Central on the Tracks of Our Ancestors

In 1843, Johann and Catherine Hagemeyer left their native Germany on a three-masted sailing ship in search of freedom and opportunity. After 45 days and one cyclone at sea, they and 180 other immigrants arrived in Baltimore. With two young children and three heavy trunks, Johann and Catherine boarded a small, steam-powered train for the first leg of a 25-day journey by rail and canal to the farmland of Ohio.

Johann Hagemeyer was my great-great-grandfather. In researching his immigration, I made an unexpected discovery: The route of his train ride is now a scenic bike trail. Last March, my wife and I mounted our bikes and retraced his tracks.

The Northern Central Railroad Trail extends 20 wooded miles from Ashland, a northern suburb of Baltimore, to the Pennsylvania border. There it connects to the Heritage Rail Trail, which continues north another 20 miles to York. The Northern Central was the second oldest railroad in the United States. It originated in 1828, when the Maryland legislature chartered a railroad to transport passengers and goods from the port city of Baltimore to the Susquehanna River at York. It bore the name Baltimore & Susquehanna when Johann climbed aboard in 1843.

In 1855 it became part of the new Northern Central Railroad, which became part of Pennsylvania Railroad in 1914. Ernst Bohning, a nine-year old immigrant on the same 1843 voyage with Johann and Catherine, later recalled the railroad cars: "They were small, light, flat cars fitted with little wheels. We sat on rough-sawn benches, arranged crossways, half of the passengers riding forward, and the other half, backward. To protect us from the sun and rain, a board roof had been crudely knocked together." The children were excited by the "little iron horse" that pulled the railcars. It was "small and slight" but "had an unruly spirit for inside it rumbled and roared alot." It pulled the train at the speed of a "good trotting horse." My wife and I set off on our bikes from the south end of the Northern Central trail, where it starts at a parking lot in Ashland.

Our pace was leisurely, quite a bit less than a "good trotting horse." The train tracks were removed after Hurricane Agnes blew the railroad out of business in 1972. The rail bed is now surfaced with a ten-foot wide layer of finely crushed gravel. The smooth surface, gentle grade, and generous shade from a canopy of trees make for a pleasant bike ride.

The ride brought us through forest and farmland and past rock outcroppings festooned with ferns. We followed the meanderings of three lively streams which once provided water for the little steam locomotive pulling the immigrants' train. In 1843, only a few people had settled along the train track. So it remains today, despite the proximity of Baltimore. In only one place we heard the noise of I-83, today's high-speed connection between Baltimore and York.

The 1849 "List of Charges" for the Baltimore & Susquehanna shows that my great-great-grandfather probably paid one cent per mile for "Tolls and Motive Power." There were separate rates for a variety of freight, from anvils to anchovies, and livestock to kelp. Soon after leaving Ashland, we arrived at Sparks Station. Here we encountered the first of three old bank buildings, built solidly in stone to finance the commercial opportunities opened by the railroad. The bank in Sparks is now a nature center for the nearby Gunpowder Falls State Park. The next two -- in White Hall and Parkton -- are now private homes with names of forgotten financial institutions recorded impressively above their front doors.

We quickly stopped upon hearing a succession of heart-rending cries. Looking across Gunpowder Falls River, my wife spotted a red fox downing a fawn.

Seven and a half miles of biking brought us to the charming crossroads of Monkton. Here is the North Central trail’s visitor center, in a restored wooden train station from 1898. The visitor center has a small historical display with ticket books, tools, telegraph machines, and railroad stock certificates. It also sells Northern Central caps and other railroad paraphernalia. An exhibit at the visitor center answered our question about the white signs with black W’s posted along the trail. Did they mean water? Warning? No, we learned, W told the engineer to toot the train's whistle before crossing a road.

We also learned that the Northern Central Railroad featured in the Civil War, transporting thousands of Union troops and wounded Confederates. Twice Confederate troops tore up its tracks. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln took a train on this route to deliver his address at Gettysburg. Two years later, the same tracks bore his funeral train, bringing the assassinated President's body to his native Illinois for burial. We got back on our bikes and pedaled four more miles to White Hall.

Here we met Kent Dixon, who was outside his antique shop refinishing a walnut dining table. He set down his sander and showed us his selection of Victorian furniture and other antiques from the Baltimore area. Continuing the ride, we startled a white-tailed deer and narrowly avoided a box turtle. A blue heron stood like a statue next to a stream. Near mile 12, we stopped to admire a boisterous waterfall on Little Falls River. Shortly afterwards at Parkton, the trail began a gradual ascent to New Freedom. We crossed and recrossed Beetree Run on old railroad bridges and pedaled by picturesque farms with horses grazing in open fields.

Crossing the Mason-Dixon line, we entered Pennsylvania. Here the trail -- now called the Heritage Rail-Trail -- parallels tracks of the old rail line. We suddenly encountered an astounding sight: a colorful, clanking procession of miniature railcars. It was an outing of the Northern Central Railcar Association, whose members ride the rails on home-built, gasoline-powered railcars. We dismounted our bikes at the New Freedom train station, which now houses a museum and charming cafe. Two red cabooses of the Pennsylvania Railroad sit alongside it.

The train with my great-great-grandfather and his family didn't stop until after nightfall. "When we did stop, we were in a clearing in the woods on a wonderful, moonlit summer night. There was no station in sight, but the train stopped and the iron horse drove on, leaving the train with us emigrants there in the woods." The passengers lit a big fire and prepared a dinner with German pancakes and brandy. They slept on the ground or propped against trees. The locomotive came back in the morning to continue the journey.

We were thankful that dining opportunities were more varied than in 1843. We saw a cafe, tavern, pizzeria, and family restaurant. Opting for character, we chose the Hodel Tavern, which advertised "Dining, Carry Out, Package Goods". One door was labeled "Restaurant" and the other "Bar." While the bar had more customers, the food in the restaurant was home-cooked and good. Our waiter explained that "Hodel" was colloquial for "hotel," a former function of this interesting establishment.

My great-great-grandfather could not stop at the Hodel when his little train passed in 1843. The New Freedom train station was not built until the mid 1860s, and the town itself was not established until 1872. And while New Freedom marked the turn-around point for my wife and me, Johann and Catherine faced many more days of difficult travel by train and canal boat. They also faced tragedy, when their one-year old daughter died of dysentery. They laid her to rest in homespun cloth along an Ohio canal.

Biking back toward Baltimore, we reflected on the hardships faced by our immigrant ancestors. But the difficulties they endured only seemed to increase their determination. And they were determined, above all, to bequeath their descendants a good life and new freedom. Johann Hagemeyer would be surprised -- but also pleased, I suspect -- that his ancestors can now enjoy a leisurely bike ride on the route where, in 1843, he encountered America.

NUTS AND BOLTS: The Northern Central Rail-Trail, also known as the Torrey C. Brown Rail-Trail, is a 19.7-mile crushed gravel bike path from Ashland, just north of Baltimore, to the Pennsylvania border, where it connects to the 21.1-mile Heritage Rail-Trail. Descriptions and maps of the trails are available. The Monkton Train Station Visitors Center also has maps and information. It is open Wednesday to Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on weekends in the spring and fall.

GETTING THERE: From Baltimore, take I-83 north to Exit 20A. Take Shawan Road east, York Road (Route 45) south, then Ashland Road (Route 145) east. Turn right into the Ashland housing development and continue straight to a small parking lot where the trail begins. If this lot is full, continue 2/3 mile on Ashland Road (which becomes Paper Mill Road) to a parking area on the left. The websites above provide directions to additional parking lots.

PLANNING A BIKE RIDE: From Ashland, you can duplicate our forty-mile circuit to New Freedom and back. This took us six hours with leisurely stops, including an hour for lunch. The ride is generally flat, with a slight uphill from Parkton to New Freedom. If you have less time or energy, park at Monkton (east from Exit 27 of I-83) and pedal a ten-mile circuit north to Parkton and back.

BIKE RENTAL AND REPAIR: You can rent bikes at Hunt Valley Village, 1235 Paper Mill Road, Hunt Valley, MD (410-527-9997) and Monkton Bike Rental, 1900 Monkton Road, Monkton, MD (410-771-4058). These shops can help with bicycle repairs, as can the Whistle Stop Bike Shop, 2 East Franklin Street, New Freedom, PA (717-227-0737).

FOOD AND FACILITIES: There are toilets and potable water at the train stations in Monkton and New Freedom. Picnic tables and portable toilets can be found at various points along the trail. Vegetarian sandwiches and fruit smoothies are for sale at the Monkton Village Market, but the only restaurants we found were in New Freedom. We ate a good lunch at the Hodel Tavern at 106 North Front Street (717-235-2221). The Hodel only serves diners over 21 years of age because of state smoking laws. Across the street in the train station is the New Freedom Railroad Cafe (717-227-0299) serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you are hungry after putting your bike back on your car in Ashland, drive to Andy Nelson’s (410-527-1226) on 11007 York Road in Cockeysville for some great southern pit barbecue.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: The trail is also ideal for hiking, jogging, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Pets are welcome but must be leashed. Sparks Nature Center has loads of turtles, snakes, and toads. It is open on summer weekends from 10 to 4. Hunt Valley Village and Monkton Bike Rental rent inner tubes for on the Gunpowder; the latter also rents kayaks and provides a shuttle service for them. Collectors of American Victorian furniture should stop in White Hall at Dixon's Antiques (410-357-5161). Note: The historic recollections are from "The Immigration Story of Ernst Bohning, 1843.”

Get more information about bike overnights.

7 responses so far ↓

Anita - Sep 7, 2011 at 1:53 PM

This trip is on my to-do list for an bike overnighter. I've biked the North Central Trail dozens of times, but not the PA section. Where did you spend the night? Did you notice any campgrounds?

Greg Schulte - Sep 8, 2011 at 8:51 AM

While this blog is for overnight bike trips, I did this bike trip in a day. It was my great-great-grandfather who slept in a field along the tracks!

I didn't encounter any hotels or campsites on the section I rode, which was almost entirely in Maryland. However, if you bike just 1.5 miles north of New Freedom (my northern turnaround point) there is the Jackson House B&B in Railroad, Pennsylvania. I have not stayed there, but there is a charming description on its website (www.jacksonhousebandb.com) and it is well reviewed by TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g53511-d81614-Reviews-Jackson_House_Bed_and_Breakfast-Railroad_Pennsylvania.html).

doc - Sep 9, 2011 at 7:08 AM

This great trail is in my "backyard." The PA side is a county park, and they don't allow any camping, however there are a few excellent stealth sites in the remote parts, particularly between New Freedom and Glen Rock. I don't think you'd have any problem with asking a landowner/farmer adjoining the trail to bed down for the night in a quiet corner.

judy - Sep 14, 2011 at 5:46 AM

@Anita: this is on my overnight list as well. I'll take the lightrail to Pepper Rd, and it's a short walk to Ashland trailhead. There is a campsite in Freeland, MD (http://www.morrismeadows.us/newcampsites&rates.htm) and again in Glen Rock, PA and in York. For a list:
http://www.trailsfromrails.com/ncr_trail_info.htm#Freeland Campgrounds

Sharry Miller - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:53 PM

What a great story - thanks!

Activities for Seniors - Jan 2, 2012 at 5:38 AM

what a gorgeous nature :)

oh, Happy New Year 2012! :)))

Jane Clarke - Apr 26, 2012 at 12:07 PM

We have taken overnight trips on the NCRR/Heritage trail from Cockeysville MD to York PA several times. You can contact nearby businesses about parking overnight in Cockeysville (we've used the Comfort Inn). There are several B&B in York, the high-end Yorktowne Hotel, and a few moderate motels. The Rodeway Inn was sufficient for us last year and very close to a variety of restaurants. It's a great ride!

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