**ATTENTION**This is an ongoing project. I continue to add photographs and historic items of interest as I come across them. If anyone has old photos, interesting facts, or stories relating to the Thomas Viaduct, the Viaduct Hotel, or the surrounding area of Relay I would be very interested in them. My e-mail address is neutronfan@yahoo.com. Thanks.


June 20, 2014

Relay, Maryland Railroad History & Historic Photographs

 In May of 1830, the first Baltimore & Ohio railroad track had its debut from Mount Claire Station in Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills (Ellicott City today) which ran for a total of 13 miles.  The first trains were originally drawn by horses on tracks. Since the distance between the two towns was considered too long for one horses to complete, a fresh horse known as a "relay" was secured at the halfway point of the trip. The town of Relay was given its name at the spot where the first horses were exchanged.

 Relay was the first town created by a US railroad and officially became a town in 1830. It originally consisted of only a few residences and was better described as a small rural hamlet until after the Civil War. 

  The first hotel used by the B&O Railroad was the Relay House in 1830. Prior to the advent of railroads in the first quarter of the 19th century, horse-drawn coaches carried passengers between Baltimore and Washington.When horse drawn train cars were introduced a local politician named Denis Smith found out where the B&O railroad was going to switch out their horses and quickly purchased the land in that area and built a roadhouse and tavern there. He contacted the railroad and told them that they could sell tickets there if the railroad gave him a percentage. The B&O agreed and the roadhouse at the tracks was chosen to be the place where the exhausted horses were changed out for fresh ones to finish the final 6 miles to Ellicott's Mills. Since the horses were changed out at that location the building became known as the Relay House. Round trip tickets originally cost 75 cents. This was rather expensive considering many people only made about $2 a week at the time.

A painting of horses being changed at the Relay House
     in 1830. A portion of the tracks seen here directly in front 
  of the house were unearthed not long ago just off of the 
front porch by the current owner of the property when 
     he had to dig up a portion of his front yard for utility work. 
Painting by H.D.Stitt, Courtesy B&O Railroad Museum.

 The Relay House was originally a 3-story, 32 room frame structure that served as a hotel, restaurant, tavern, and train station. The stables behind the building housed the horses used for the final 6 mile journey to Ellicott's Mills. The original tracks for the horse drawn cars were laid within just a few feet of the Relay House front porch so that passengers could step off right at the station. The current owner of the property, Ray Chism, actually found remnants of the original horse-drawn tracks in his front yard just off of his front porch when he had some utility work done there.

 The first successful prototype steam engine in the U.S. was  named the "Tom Thumb" and ran from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills on August 28, 1830. Two tracks had been constructed and, as the story goes, the driver of a passing horse-drawn car carrying passengers between Baltimore and Relay challenged the locomotive to a race. The challenge was accepted and the Tom Thumb pulled away easily from the horse until a belt slipped off of the blower pulley and/or a pop-off valve was broken. Without the blower, the boiler didn't draw adequately and the locomotive lost power and lost the race. 

The race of the Tom Thumb on August 28, 1830 between Baltimore
       and Relay, Maryland. Courtesy of DOT Federal Highway Administration.
Painting by Carl Rakeman.

 Unfortunately, from what I have read, there is no official record of the race ever taking place which puts it in the category of a myth or legend but it certainly is a great story. Nonetheless, it was realized that the locomotive offered superior power and performance over horse-drawn cars.

By 1836 the railroad had switched over entirely to steam engines and the horses at the Relay House were no longer needed. By then the station itself had become very busy and was also an important water stop for the steam engines. There was a 30' wide and 15' deep brick lined water cistern on the Relay House property that continued to be used by locomotives until 1930.

 After the Thomas Viaduct was built the Relay House became the second busiest B&O train station after Camden Station in Baltimore. Passengers coming from the south that wanted to travel west had to stop at the Relay House station to switch to a west bound train. 

   The Relay House 1853. An engraving in Harper's Monthly Magazine April,
     1857, Volume 14, 592-612. The white Relay House is on the right. The 
  Relay waiting station has a long covered shed with a clerestory over 
     the tracks and platforms and 2 Greek-like buildings at the eastern end.
      None of these buildings at the tracks were present 5 years later except
 for the passenger platforms. It's a guess on my part, but I assume that 
the buildings and covered roof  probably weren't large enough to 
accommodate the newer and much bigger locomotives. Courtesy, 
Baltimore County Public Library Legacy Web project.

  A more practical railroad depot building was built across the tracks from the Relay House prior to the Civil War and served as the Relay railroad station. The Relay House hotel continued in operation as a hotel and mealing house until 1873 when the larger, more functional Victorian-Gothic style Viaduct Hotel & Train Station was built about 150 yards to the west at the end of the Thomas Viaduct.  

   Relay railroad depot ca. mid 1800's. Samuel Morse tested his
     new telegraph line at this building which ran between Baltimore
     and Washington. The first telegram ever sent, "What Hath God
    Wrought!" was dispatched by Morse between the two cities on
   May 24, 1844. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution,
                 National Museum of American History. 

After the Viaduct Hotel opened the original Relay House continued mainly as a summer hotel and boarding house until it burned down December 24,1897. It was rebuilt in 1899 in the form seen today, minus the second floor porch of the original house. It operated as a hotel and tavern until Prohibition in 1920. Today it is a private residence but the current owners sometimes display the sign "Relay Hotel" over the front porch and there is a small historical  plaque on the Viaduct Avenue side of the house near the road. 

The newer Viaduct Hotel & Train Station became such an important and interesting local landmark that I have dedicated a large portion of the blog to it, including many historic photographs as well as several related stories and items of interest.

**See my Viaduct Hotel & Train Station Post**

  Samuel Morse's workshop for the telegraph was located at 5128 South Rolling Road in Relay. The first commercial telegraph service opened May 24, 1844. The telegraph pole was invented at this time because the stone and clay base of the land in Relay was too difficult to dig a normal trench for placement of the telegraph wire and as a result the first telegraph poles were installed in Relay.

  Before the opening of Druid Hill Park in Baltimore city, Relay was a major destination place for Baltimore residents to relax and unwind.  There was a grove of trees located on Viaduct Avenue near the Relay Hotel.  At the center of it was erected a large dancing pavilion and  bandstand with a number of booths located there as well.  It was said that rarely a week would pass during the summer without one or more trips there with a couple of trains bringing people from Baltimore out to Relay. Before dark, the trains would notify the passengers that it was time to return to Baltimore by loud blasts of their train whistles.

 Union troops occupied Relay, the Relay House, the Thomas Viaduct, and Elkridge beginning in May of 1861 to protect the bridge and the Washington junction in Relay from Confederate sabotage or attack and to stop shipments of arms and supplies being smuggled into the Confederate states by rail. Three artillery batteries were deployed around the bridge and over  2,000  Union soldiers were stationed in and around Relay for the remainder of the war. The fields across the tracks from Relay, later to become the village of St Denis, were where many Union troops camped and drilled during the war. Relay and the surrounding area was a military occupation under martial law for 4 years so there was little to no improvement made there until after the war.  

**More details and photos related to the Civil War history of this area are in my Civil War History post** 

      Union troops at the Relay House 1861. The previous railroad depot building
      is visible at far left center. See my Thomas Viaduct History post for detailed
        information on the Civil War history of the Relay area. Photo courtesy of the 
Maryland State Archives.

Relay Historic Marker located on S. Rolling Rd. in Relay.
Photo by Jeff L.

A whimsical Relay historic district marker located on
    S. Rolling Rd. at Francis Ave. in Relay. Photo by Jeff L.

  This historic district sign is located on South Street at River Road
   and is only about 75 yards from Washington Blvd. Photo by Jeff L.

The original Relay House ca. 1860's. Courtesy of the Baltimore County
Public Library Legacy Web project.

 This is most of what that large sign in front of the
Relay House says. I have a similar photo of the
  Relay House to the one above on a digital poster 
    and was able to enlarge and enhance it enough to 
         make this much out. Question marks are words that I 
   couldn't read. This is the exact layout of that sign.

The Relay House from an 1864 drawing showing freight and
passenger platforms in the foreground. Notice the big white
      sign from the previous photo is in this drawing. From the Ebook
          Pictoral History Of The Civil War In The United States Of America
by Benson J. Lossing.

 The same area as it looks today. The re-built Relay House is now
  wearing blue colored siding. Too bad those spruce trees block the
 view of the front. There is a full length porch with a sign that says
"Relay Hotel". Photo taken March 11, 2012 by Jeff L.

The Relay House (at far left) with passenger platforms and two waiting
   locomotives. The building just behind the man on the far left was a ticket
   office and the dark post with the curved appendage next to his (R) elbow
         is a water pump that drew water from a cistern on the Relay House property
      to fill the steam engines. This photo is of a B&O Railroad Artists Excursion
in June of 1858. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

    The same site today with the rebuilt Relay Hotel (minus it's 
    2nd floor deck) at far left.  Photograph taken April 2011 
    by Jeff L.


  Railroad Ave.1904 with the rebuilt Relay Hotel in center background
         and the Viaduct Hotel barely visible at upper left. The building in the right
        foreground was a general store from what I was told by a CSX Railroad
      cop that I ran into on this site who is also a B&O Railroad history buff.
        This picture was taken at the corner of Railroad Avenue and S. Rolling 

             Road.Courtesy of the Baltimore County Public Library Legacy Web project.

 Railroad Avenue today. The road is wider now because the fourth 
   track was removed sometime after 1950. The old general store was
    located right at this corner in the green, grassy area at right. Photo 
taken April 10, 2011 by Jeff L.

  The general store (pictured in the above 1904 photo) in 1930. This was
   a railroad crossing at that time. S. Rolling Road crossed over the tracks
    at Railroad Avenue back then but it dead-ends at the tracks today. Photo
courtesy of the Baltimore County Public Library Legacy Web project.

 The same area today. S. Rolling Road stops at the tracks now.
      The area between the orange fire hydrant and the telephone pole 
    to the left of it is where the general store building was located in
      the 1930 photograph. Photo March 11, 2012 by Jeff L.

South Rolling Road railroad crossing circa.1914. Photo courtesy 
Electric Vehicles magazine, December 1914, page 209.

Blog follower Denise Stanco shared a few facts and a story about 
the RR crossing and General Store that was there. The store was 
 owned by her mother's Aunt Lena in the 1920's. Her mother grew 
         up in Relay in the 1920's & 30's and remembers that there was penny
     candy counter in the store. She also remembered that her Aunt Lena 
owned cows. Every morning black man would walk them across
     the tracks at the RR crossing to a relative's house that had a field to
         graze them in. The cows would graze there all day and then be walked 
back across the tracks in the evening to be milked.

 Another interesting fact was that the children that lived in St. Denis
had to cross the railroad tracks at this crossing every day to get to
 and from their school in Relay.

 Denise Stanco's Uncle Buddy was walking home from school and got
his shoelace caught in the tracks and fell down, causing a big gash in
   his forehead. When he got home his mother called Dr. Beitler because
he owned a car and could come over to treat him. When the doctor
   got to the house they went to get the woman that lived next door who
weighed about 300 pounds. They then sat Buddy down in a Morris
chair (the forerunner of the La-Z-Boy) and had the neighbor sit on
him so that he couldn't move while the doctor stitched him up w/o
the use of any anesthetic! Denise said that he screamed  the entire
time. I'll bet he did!! I'd probably break-out into a sweat every time
I saw a fat lady after a torture session like that!

        Below is a photo of her Uncle Buddy, his brother and sister and a friend 
               crossing the tracks at the railroad crossing with school books in their hands. 

  Uncle Buddy is at far left with Denise's Uncle Pug next 
  to him. Denise's mother Annette is at far right and her 
   school friend Alma is next to her.The front corner of the
   general store is visible at top left.  Photo taken in 1930. 
        Denise Stanco generously shared this story and her photo.

I am now standing where the 4th set of tracks used to be and
  right in the middle of what used to be the railroad crossing. The
  Relay Hotel and the house with the red car next to it have been
       there since the 1800's and are both visible in the previous black & 
       white historic photograph (5 photos back) from 1904. Photo taken 
March, 2011 by Jeff L.

    Photo taken just before the Relay House. The evergreen trees line the 
 Relay House front yard. Again, I'm standing on what used to be the 
   4th set of tracks. The left 2 go south towards Washington DC and the
           right track goes west towards Ellicott City. The Gothic Viaduct Hotel & train
           station took up the entire center of this picture where the tracks form a "Y".
       The Thomas Viaduct "Builders Monument" obelisk which was erected at
the Relay end of the bridge is visible at left. Photo by Jeff L.

  The Relay House as it looked in 2011. I had to take the picture
     from this end of the house because of the huge evergreen trees
      that are in front of and on the right side of the house at Railroad 
Avenue & Viaduct Avenue. Photo by Jeff L.

    Google image showing an aerial view of the B&O Railroad station
 site where horses were originally changed-out and early steam
 engines stopped prior to the construction of the Viaduct Hotel.

         Relay, MD in 1877 from a Papenfuse Atlas drawing. I highlighted a few areas 
  of interest in yellow. One item of interest is that the old Relay House was 
    called "Hotel Leroy" then. Also of note is the RR crossing from Old Rolling 
 Road in Relay across to Sutton Avenue in St. Denis which was closed in
  1930 when a bridge was built over the tracks on Rolling Road connecting 
  St. Denis with Relay. Another item of interest is the acknowledgement of 
 the Civil War fort that was on the property where the bluff overlooks the  
     Viaduct Hotel. Also, the Railroad Depot Building across from the old Relay 
House is shown on this map.

 There have been several incidents and accidents over the years in Relay.  I read newspaper articles relating to Relay and a couple were rather interesting. I can't recall where I read the stories on the net but I wrote down some notes and facts while I was reading them. Here are a couple of stories as I recall them from notes:

"Head-On Collision at the Relay House"
 - There was a head-on collision between 2 locomotives right in front of the Relay House around 1884. They thought that it was caused by a switch being changed deliberately by someone wanting to cause an accident. Fortunately, both trains were going no more than about 10 miles per hour at the time as they approached the Viaduct Hotel and Station. The  west-bound train and east-bound freight train collided and both engines rolled off of the tracks and several freight cars derailed as well. The fireman on the passenger engine jumped to safety but the engineer stayed on the locomotive. Amazingly, neither man was injured. The fireman and engineer on the freight engine were both injured however. The engineer had multiple bruises and a back injury and the fireman had serious burns from boiling water and steam and also lung injury from inhaling the steam. It took hours to clear the wreckage from the tracks and traffic was held up for most of the night.

"Woman Hit and Killed By Train at the Viaduct Hotel"

 - An elderly woman was hit and killed by a train in Relay on New Year's Eve around 1896.  She was walking from her home in Relay to the Viaduct Hotel & Station to catch a train to Baltimore when she heard a train whistle just as she reached the boardwalk about 100 yards from the station. She thought that it was the passenger train that she was to take to Baltimore so she stepped off of the boardwalk and started walking across the tracks. An approaching freight train nearly ran her over and she froze for several seconds in the middle of the tracks, apparently shaken from the near miss. She finally started to walk back across the tracks towards the platforms at the station and just as she got to  them she was hit by another locomotive and thrown about 15 feet. It was reported that she then died within minutes, probably of internal injuries. The only visible injury that she had appeared to be a broken arm. The B&O Railroad was cleared of any responsibility for the incident and it was ruled to be an accident.
***The junction at Relay was (and still is) a dangerous place for pedestrians. Four tracks passed by the Viaduct Hotel & Train Station from 3 different directions and from around curves. Fast express trains, freight trains and local trains passed and stopped at the station 24 hours a day. People frequently had to cross the tracks to get to their train and there were no fences or gates erected on the long passenger platforms. It is truly amazing that there were so few incidents of injury or death at this junction over the 77 years that the Viaduct Hotel & Train Station was in operation.

  I Came across a paper that was read
at a meeting of the Relay Volunteer
   Fire Company on Friday May 5, 1911.
It contains many historical items of
interest and the history of the town
of Relay, St. Denis, and vicinity. 

This is the link:


The following historic item of interest was brought to my attention by blog contributor Ruth Andrews Sherwood and took place about one mile west of the Thomas Viaduct, in the area known as Glenartney , during the early years of the Patapsco State Park.

The park service made the decision to offer campsites, as well as large tents set up on wooden platforms, free to the public as a way to make people aware of this new recreational area. Ruth told me that her father's family used those campgrounds and she gave me details about camping there and photos of her grandparents and their children camping in Glenartney almost 100 years ago:

In the early 1900’s legislation was approved to preserve areas along the Patapsco River as park land which became known as the Patapsco Forest Reserve. In 1912 legislation was introduced to expand the Patapsco Forest Reserve which was soon after referred to as Patapsco State Park.

Informational posters were distributed encouraging camping in the park free to the public. The B&O Railroad soon got involved and cooperated in preparing and posting the camping posters. Since the Old Main Line bordered the park it made for easy access to and from Baltimore via the B&O passenger trains.

The Glenartney area of the park (one mile upriver from Relay) became a free camping site. The camp grounds were located across the tracks from Lost Lake (a.k.a. Beaver Lake) where Glen Artney Rd. ends today. There is a single span railroad bridge there with a road the travels underneath the bridge. The old campgrounds were located on a hill to the left after passing underneath of the tracks. Glenartney also had its own  B&O passenger train stop close to the campgrounds.

The Glenartney B&O train stop ca. 1920's. Photo from the
Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The Patapsco State Park supplied families with large army-style tents that were set up on wooden platforms free of charge. This made it possible for residents from Baltimore City to bring furniture, beds, and other household necessities with them to their camp site.

Cooking was done over open camp fires and water was gathered from springs and carried back to the tent areas for cooking and cleaning. Clothing was washed by hand in streams and hung out to dry on lines. Anything resembling a bath would have been accomplished by swimming in the Patapsco River.

Groceries were purchased at markets in Baltimore (such as Lexington Market) and then brought back to camp by passenger train or supplies could be obtained by walking to a small general store in Relay or Elkridge and then brought back to the campsite on foot.

    Google Earth image of the Lost Lake - Glen Artney Hilltop Tent
    Campsite area.

Ruth Sherwood shared a few photographs of her father's family camping at the Glenartney campsite in 1917 & 1919. Her grandparents and their children lived in Baltimore City but spent entire summers living at the hilltop tent campgrounds for several years. Her grandfather worked at the offices of the B&O Railroad in Baltimore. His daily commute to and from the city was easily achieved due to the close proximity of the campgrounds to the railroad line.

      Ruth Sherwood's grandparents and their children in Glenartney at the hilltop 
       campsite in 1917. Photograph by J. Frank Andrews, courtesy of Ruth
       Andrews Sherwood.

     Ruth's father's family in 1919 playing a game of quoits at the hilltop camp.
     Photograph by J. Frank Andrews, courtesy of Ruth Andrews Sherwood.

     Ruth's father's family in 1919 swimming in the Patapsco River in Glenartney
     near the campgrounds. Photograph by J. Frank Andrews, courtesy of Ruth
     Andrews Sherwood.

Anyone familiar with summers in Maryland knows that the heat and humidity here is stifling. I can’t imagine how hot Baltimore City would have been 100 years ago before refrigeration and air conditioning were available. It must have been like an oven. You would have been miserable 24 hours a day.

It isn't hard to imagine that it would have been preferable to camp out for a couple of hot summer months in a big tent in the shade with nearby creeks, springs, railroad service, and the Patapsco River right next to your campsite. Also, the towns of Relay and Elkridge were within easy walking distance of the campgrounds. And, best of all, it was free!

Large wooded areas provide a shaded micro-climate that must have been very appealing to city dwellers back then. I can remember back in the 1970’s riding my motorcycle around Loch Raven watershed and passing through large shady areas of road that almost felt cold when I entered into them.



  1. I have a house for sale on the tracks just north of the St. Thomas Viaduct (1711 Sutton Ave). Do you know anyone who would be interested in purchasing or a train enthusiast social media site to post information?

  2. I have a house for sale on the tracks just north of the St. Thomas Viaduct (1711 Sutton Ave). Do you know anyone who would be interested in purchasing or a train enthusiast social media site to post information?

  3. Thank you for all the info, very helpful with my research on a Vermonter who traveled to Washington in 1841 and left a journal. On his way out of D.C.to Pittsburgh he mentions the "Leway House," but I think he means Relay House. But I had second thoughts when I saw "Hotel Leroy" on your map. Is it possible he was referring to an owner of the Relay House named Leway? Is there any record of who the owners might have been in the fall of 1841?
    Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.
    One correction: the citing for the drawing of Relay House should read Harper's Monthly Magazine April, 1857, Volume 14, 592-612, not 1853.

  4. The only info I have on the Relay House is what I posted. The 1877 Atlas names it Hotel Leroy at that particular time. Who knows just how accurate it is. I will take your word for it on the Harper's drawing date. 1853 is the date that was on the caption for the drawing at the library's website. I have found similar errors before. Thanks.

  5. Jeff L. - Really enjoyed your article.
    Do you know when the St. Denis station was burnt down? I have checked a number of sources, and no one has mentioned that aspect. Also, are there any photos of that station? Thank you, JT
    My email is zeronine50@gmail.com

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