Written By Evan Balkan

It was a hot June day. In the dusty yard of the Maryland Midland Railroad (MMR), train cars sat at jaunty angles. Most were slick, freshly painted machines. Others had seen better days but retained a certain stateliness; they exuded an air of honest work. So, it turns out, do the men in the yard. “This railroad is run by heart. The others are run by computers,” said Joe Himes, a carman for the MMR.

In such a place, where the ground is littered with gravel and spare parts, one might expect a certain amount of grit. Instead, the climate is one of genial respect. Paul Denton, president and CEO of the line, and the workers, men in grease-stained t-shirts and jeans, swapped good-natured ribs. “You gonna be in another magazine?” they asked. “One of them dirty ones?”

Denton smiled. “We have good people here,” he said. Even in talking about his customers, he muses that a “great majority of them are friends, too.” Indeed, some major deals with companies like Lehigh Cement and Laurel Sand and Gravel are done without contracts. It is, instead, a “your word is good” arrangement.

Perhaps it is something in the air, something in all that dust that makes people so kind to one another in the yards. Perhaps it is the inevitable result of working at a job that is a pleasing paradox: at once a system that seems a nostalgic throwback, and yet is a modern, efficient operation that gives every promise of being around for a good long while. Just look around: sleek new engines ready to roll. Then turn your head – nothing but rail, rock, and a line of trees. You could easily be back a century.

These days, Denton, 64, does not spend as much time down at the rail yard as he used to. He is beginning to wind down, looking forward to his retirement next June. He shows a visitor around the place with the obvious pride of a father. It is clear that he will miss it, but railroads are not his entire life, he said. He doesn’t have a model railroad running around his basement; he puts one up “only for the grandkids at Christmas.” Nevertheless, it is clear: railroads are in his blood. But it is not so much the cold steel and smell of tar and diesel that he will miss. It is the people of MMR.

Denton has been in the railroading business for more than 40 years. A native of Towson, he earned a B.A. in Business Administration from Duke University and joined the Armstrong Cork Company in 1962 because, as he said, “I was out of college and a job presented itself. So I took it.”

Unfortunately, the job as plant traffic supervisor was in Millville, New Jersey, a place Denton describes as “the middle of nowhere.” Eager to escape, he jumped at the opportunity to work in the marketing department at the B&O Railroad in Baltimore the following year.

Once in at a railroad, a place that fascinated him, he never left. Before MMR, Denton enjoyed stints at Chessie and CSX. Now it’s even become a family affair; his wife Barbara works at MMR as well. Parents of two grown daughters and three grandchildren, the couple make their home in Westminster.

When Denton talks about railroads, he removes his glasses and fixes on you as if he’s going to tell you something very important. Of course, he is. Railroading enjoys a storied history in many places throughout the United States; the same is true right here in Carroll County. From Union Bridge, Maryland Midland, so named because of its location in the geographic middle of the state, operates on the same spot as the first railroad that set up shop in the location – the Western Maryland, built in 1863. Then, cars filled with wounded Civil War soldiers bound for treatment in Baltimore earned the rail line the nickname, “the hospital track.”

By the mid-20th century, railroads began a slow decline, eclipsed first by the automobile, then by the airplane. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes sounded what appeared to be the death knell for the industry in central Maryland. Lines were reluctantly rebuilt, only to have another “one-hundred-year” hurricane wreak damage just two years later.

So why would a group of local men attempt to start up a short line railroad at that time? With massive federal subsidies pouring into air and highway transport, the notion of a privately owned railroad even today seems quaint at best – but in the mid-1970s? Call it crazy, but it actually worked, a product of good timing and good business sense.

The story of the modern MMR begins in 1974, when local railroad enthusiasts and businessmen tried to purchase a portion of the Frederick & Pennsylvania Line Railroad. Efforts were unsuccessful. A group of five from the original group, operating under the name Maryland Midland Railway, bought a locomotive – the “Old 102” – purchased even before the railroad owned any track on which to run the 65-ton diesel electric. When the state decided not to renew a contract to operate a portion of the Ma & Pa (Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad), MMR’s backers saw their opportunity.

According to Denton, deregulation in the early 1980s saved the industry. The improved business climate gave MMR a fighting chance. By 1983, the company was able to buy operable lines from Chessie Rail. Still, things were not all wonderful. When Denton arrived in 1986 after running CSX’s mineral market, MMR was technically bankrupt. He set about building up the existing customer base and concentrated on landing new
contracts. Along the way, he made some tough decisions, such as selling off the beloved Old 102. It was a somewhat sad fate for the “little engine that could.” The 102 wound up in an Ohio quarry. But to achieve profitability, the company had to dump unproductive equipment.

In 1987, a grant from the state of Maryland helped MMR tremendously. The process of buying more equipment and more track sped up. In the years that followed, MMR obtained more of each. In February of this year, the railroad finally bought all of the remaining right-of-way land still owned by the state. According to Denton, the state has been a wonderful broker and partner for MMR.

Fortunately, even the federal government has begun funneling some money into the nation’s small freight railroads, the so-called “short lines.”

Such lines, including MMR, make up roughly a quarter of all freight traffic in the United States and Canada. Although passenger rail has been left to die a slow death, freight-only lines like MMR are relatively healthy.

Nowadays, MMR, a private company with some 150 stockholders, runs a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation over 67 miles of track, running from Emory Grove in the east to Highfield in the west, and from Taneytown in the north to Woodsboro in the south.

Looming on the hill above the small MMR headquarters are the stacks of Lehigh Cement. MMR’s fate is inextricably linked with Lehigh. It was fortuitous that in 1904, Lehigh set up a plant right next to MMR’s current location. A major plant extension in 2001 has proven a boon to both businesses. These days, MMR cars roll right up to the plant and leave loaded with cement. As Denton said, “As Lehigh goes, so goes Maryland Midland.”

Although cement remains the number one hauling commodity, MMR will move anything its customers wish: stone, lumber, rock salt, used clothing, brick, latex, soybeans, paper, wood pulp. Most building material hauls are from the Laurel Sand and Gravel Company.

These partnerships, coupled with increased hauls from Northern Virginia Ryan (builders of modular homes) and Perdue soybeans, assure MMR’s fiscal health. Last year was the railroad’s best to date. MMR moved more than 14,000 carloads of material through Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, and Washington Counties in 2004, totaling over $6.5 million in gross operating revenues.

Such numbers allow the railroad to provide “favorable freight rates” for the cars of used clothing that go every year to the New Windsor Brethren Center, which packages the clothes and sends them off to needy people in the Third World. Such charity would have been impossible in the early years. But now, things move smoothly at MMR. And the future looks even brighter. The 10 locomotives that fill MMR’s rail yard include seven that are among the most modern fleet of trains in the nation – a far cry from the days of lonely Old 102.

Not bad for a place run by heart.