Written By Leslie Eckard
Community spirit and innovation run like parallel train tracks in Union Bridge. The area is a study in contrasts: a hard scrabble land of rock and swamp that inspires works of art; a town poised for a growth spurt while holding on fiercely to its heritage.
Located on the Piedmont Plateau in western Carroll County, Union Bridge has retained its population (approximately 1,000) and smalltown feel for generations. With its one stoplight and absence of fastfood restaurants, coffee bars, and strip malls–it is a throwback to a simpler time–“an undiscovered gem,” according to City Council Member and longtime resident Karen Kotarski.
Union Bridge is an unpretentious town of shady hills and century-old homes radiating from the town square, and its civic pride is evident in the details.
In Fall, 2004, stately Victorian lamps and new sidewalks of traditional gray slate were installed, thanks to the decade-long efforts of a Main Street Revitalization Committee.
Other improvements included the establishment of Little Pipe Creek Park, a wetlands preserve complete with a bicycle and walking trail. More than 100 species of birds and other wildlife can be found there, says Special Projects Manager James Shumacher. Mayor Bret Grossnickle says he would like to see the park extend eventually to New Windsor. For now, he is just glad that town renovations and new parking areas will attract much-needed small businesses and professionals.
Union Bridge has a long-standing tradition of community spirit. In 1820, early descendants of the original settler, William Farquhar, worked together to build a bridge that would span the swamp and join their lands together. When the postal service discovered the area to be a convenient midpoint between Frederick and Westminster, Union Bridge seemed the perfect name to honor their collaboration.
Between 1855 and 1862, with the coming of the Western Maryland Railroad, the population of the town exploded. During its heyday, the WMR track extended 1,280 miles from Pennsylvania to West Virginia. Union Bridge eventually served as the hub and western terminus of the railroad, employing hundreds of people as track workers and shopkeepers. During the Civil War, horse-drawn ambulances brought wounded soldiers here so they could be transported to Baltimore hospitals. A fire destroyed the station in 1868 and the main offices were relocated to Hagerstown.
Today, dedicated members of the Western Maryland Railroad Society preserve the history of the WMR in a museum near the original station. Erected in 1902 and renovated in 1968 entirely by volunteer dollars and muscle, the museum houses an extensive collection of “railroadiana.”
“For a railroad buff, there’s a considerable amount to see here,” notes photo archivist Bob Shives. The museum includes two buildings: a volunteer office and gift shop and a multi-use passenger depot. Visitors enjoy ringing the 200-pound brass bell and watching the replica of the WMR on the model layout. The Maryland Midland, a successful short line freight train, also passes by each day.
After the waning of the railroad trade, the cement industry found the rocky terrain ideal and set up shop, first as Tidewater Portland Cement and then Lehigh Portland Cement Co., which is now the town’s largest employer. Although effluents generated by the plant are a continuing concern, Grossnickle meets regularly with company officials on federal compliance issues. “I think it bears close inspection,” he adds.
Despite its small size, the town seems to have spawned more than its share of inventors and artists. The first reaping machine and the first knuckle coupler, a device that links train cars, were invented here. William Rinehart, a world-renowned sculptor, was born near here. His works can be found in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Rome. and elsewhere. A casting of one of his sculptures on exhibit in Baltimore will be made and erected in the town square sometime in fall 2005. Jo Israelson, a multitalented sculptor, painter, and award-winning filmmaker, came to Union Bridge after dreaming of a building that matched the town’s old firehouse–abandoned for more than 30 years–in almost every detail. When she discovered the town’s connection to Rinehart, she says, it was “Kismet.” Israelson has spent a decade gutting and remodeling the building, which had also served as the town hall, movie theater, and jail since the 1800s. She is currently organizing a show featuring work by local contemporary artists.
“I think it’s important that artist’s spaces are available to the public. What most people don’t know is that it’s hard work,” she says . She is working with the Bretheren Service Center on a major conference and film on Heifer International, a relief organization that has been providing livestock for families in need worldwide since WWII. Israelson likes what Union Bridge has to offer: “I like the fact that there are people who have been here for generations and new people coming in. I like the fact that I can step outside my building and see the stars.”
Another Union Bridge “import” and fan is Angelo Monteleone, whose restaurant, Original Pizza, is a must-see. In his small pizza parlor, redolent with the odor of garlic and tomato sauce, every wall and shelf from floor to ceiling is covered with vintage Union Bridge memorabilia, collected over a 15-year period. Monteleone, who understands and appreciates his customers’ great respect for their heritage, says he “got the fever” to collect when he learned that his restaurant had been the site of the first general store. “Everything here has been touched by someone from Union Bridge,” he says. “Everywhere they look, it all belongs to them.”