By Photos by: Phil Grout
Tucked away in a river gorge in an almost forgotten corner of southeast Carroll County, the village of Patapsco is remote enough to remind some folks of a slice of West Virginia.
Early 19th Century land records designated it “Paradise,”and one old timer has wistfully said, “We always called this place ‘the heart of the world.’” But according to the record, in 1878 the place was officially called Patapsco by the U.S. Postal Service, which no longer called it Carrollton.
There was a time in the early 1900’s when Patapsco was off limits to “outsiders”, some of whom lost their horses and buggies to a band of men called “the dirty dozen” who turned them back at the edge of town. In 1905 the worst train accident in Western Maryland Railroad history occurred just outside of town. And 70 years later several tropical storms took out buildings and bridges along the Patapsco River, which cuts through the village.
To clear up any misunderstanding, natives of this hamlet still call it “Pa-tap-SI-co” because they say it’s easier to pronounce than the way they officially spell it: Patapsco. Some historians believe that the Indians, who were perhaps the first inhabitants of the area, actually pronounced their tribal name, “Pa-tap-Si-co.” In any event, the area, was known for its abundance of flint used in arrowheads and spear points. Farmers still unearth arrowheads today during spring plowing.
By the mid 1700s, the bands of Indians had gradually moved out of the area and the first “English” settlers moved in. The first stone houses were built in the 1780s, according to the late Clarence “Corky” Leppo, who chronicled some of the town history in a newspaper article in 1971.
Leppo reported that at one time there were as many eight general stores in Patapsco, but the main store remained what has recently been called “The Whistle Stop,” which in the early days was a general store, the post office and a small warehouse for the railroad.
The large frame building has seven cellars in which grain was stored awaiting shipment by rail. And “the store” was also a gathering place for folks to swap stories and the news of the day. Today it is a collection of upscale apartments and a suite of professional offices.
Probably the biggest news of any day in the life of Patapsco was Saturday, June 17, 1905. Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon an eastbound Western Maryland Railroad freight out of Union Bridge sped past “the store” and within moments collided with a westbound express passenger train from Baltimore. The collision reportedly rocked the town. People said it could be heard nearly two miles away.
Right there on the first curve heading east out of town lay the two crumpled engines of the freight train and the one engine of the passenger. Twenty three railroad workers were instantly killed. Most of them were aboard the freight train, having just finished cleaning up a derailment at Mount Hope in western Maryland.
The late Emil Caple, who was 13 years old at the time of what came to be called the “Ransom Wreck,” reported in 1977 he was at “the store” watching some older boys play baseball when the double engine freight train passed through town heading to Baltimore. Caple said folks thought it was strange because they knew the No. 5 passenger train was due any minute from Baltimore.
Within an instant the two trains met and young Caple took off running down the tracks along with the rest of the townsfolk. The accident scene was draped in heavy steam from the three boilers, which had burst upon impact. Caple was told he’d have to leave if he wasn’t going to help in the rescue. He chose to stay and was given the task of collecting body parts of slain railroad workers. Several days the train wreck claimed the lives of three more workers.
Caple explained that an extra passenger train was put on the line at the last minute to carry tourists up to the Penn Mar resort in the mountains. The freight train out of Union Bridge “put in” at the switch over siding outside Westminster at Tannery waiting for the passenger train to pass by. Apparently when the special Blue Mountain Express passed, The freight engineer mistakenly thought the track was clear to Baltimore.
The freight pulled back onto the main track and headed for Patapsco and Baltimore. Most of the crew would never see that stretch of track again.
Despite the disaster, Patapsco remained a railroad town throughout much of the 20th Century. Eighty-four year old Edgar Taylor started out on the railroad like his father, Grover, and his uncles, Dud, Norris and Kitts. In fact, Taylor’s father was on a section gang at the time of the Ransom Wreck.
“But Daddy had to work overtime down in Baltimore oilin’ switches. He was supposed to be on that passenger train, but he never made it,” Taylor said.
That was in 1905. Almost 35 years later, young Edgar Taylor signed up with the railroad and joined a section gang maintaining the tracks from Union Bridge to Baltimore. It was backbreaking work laying track, straightening rails or taking on the lonely job of inspecting track for defects and walking the line carrying nearly 100 pounds of claw bar, rail jack and shovel.
But back then in Patapsco, Taylor said, it was either work for the railroad or Congoleum in Cedarhurst. He lasted almost three years, and then went with the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant building B-26’s for the War. After World War II Taylor got a break and was able to buy his first dump truck hauling asphalt. Since that first rig in 1945, Taylor has built a successful paving business with his sons.
And during many of those years, Taylor entertained thousands with the music that he and his Patapsco River Valley Boys created. Taylor, Maurice Stephan, Bud Sykes and “Pudge” Knight were later known as the Covered Wagon Boys.
Another group of Patapsco musicians is also making a name for itself with a different kind of sound. Ken Koons, his wife, Stephanie and their son Ryan play traditional Celtic and Scandinavian music under the name of Wherligig.
Koons, who is a photojournalist for the Carroll County Times, is also a gifted instrument maker. He makes most of the instruments played by Wherligig, and can trace his Patapsco roots back to his great great grandfather, Edward E. Koons, who owned a sawmill along the East Branch of the Patapsco just outside of town in the late 1800’s.
But probably the best known craft in Patapsco are the quilts produced by The Women’s Society of Christian Service of the Patapsco United Methodist Church.
The women and their quilts acquired a bit of fame in Maryland in the 1960s and Ô70s when the ladies’ quilting bees drew fans from around the region. Visitors to Patapsco and the church social hall could also enjoy a honest noon meal prepared by other women of the church. The tradition is still carried on today with quilts and luncheons during the fall and spring.
Times have changed since Edgar Taylor and his mates fashioned a double-decker sleigh out of old lumber and wagon rims for a wild ride in the snow from Bethel Church all the way down into Patapsco a mile away. The blast of a steam train whistle has been replaced with the honk from a diesel engine.
But the woods in this river gorge still echo with the songs of a hundred wood thrushes, beginning in the fourth week of April. And come September, the ladies of the Methodist Church will still lay out their spread of roast beef and mashed potatoes and 30 feet of seven kinds of cakes and pies just as they have every fall since the mid-1930s. Shirley Barrick and her crew will be there, too, to spread around an ancient quilt frame, squeaking out 10 stitches to the inch for another wedding ring quilt. This is Patapsco.