The Narrows is a term used to describe a chasm between Haystack and Wills Mountains just west of Cumberland, through which now runs the CSX Keystone Subdivision. It is here that Wills Creek, on its descent down the east slope of the Allegheny Mountains, pierces the final ridge before uniting with the North Branch Potomac River in Cumberland, MD.
In addition to the scenic beauty, the Narrows also was home to the area's first efforts at industrialization, and subsequently became an important thoroughfare for traffic west of Cumberland. A century after George Washington and General Braddock scouted the area for the precursor of the National Pike, the Eckhart mines at their namesake location up Braddock Run were among the first bituminous coal mines developed in the area, together with a few others along Georges Creek. The Eckhart operation was owned by the Maryland Mining Co. Meanwhile, at Mount Savage a little to the northwest, the first pig iron was smelted by the "Maryland & New York Coal and Iron Co."
|Map 1: The Narrows, 1898 USGS map.|
With the arrival of the B&O in Cumberland in 1842, local interests began lobbying for the construction of branch lines leading to the coal mines at Eckhart Mines, and the iron furnaces at Mount Savage. B&O didn't want to invest into branches for political as well as financial reasons. Eventually the Maryland & New York Coal &Iron (M&NY C&I) Co. chartered and built it's own Cumberland & Pennsylvania RR with the purpose of connecting with, and hopefully later selling out to, the B&O near the Narrows.
|Fig. 2: Eastern entrance to the Narrows, looking west from Cumberland. Photo by Herman Miller, 1947. Digital reproduction courtesy of the City of Cumberland, Herman & Stacia Miller Collection.|
The line to the Mt. Savage works was finished and operating in December 1844, while Maryland Mining's Eckhart branch entered service in May 1846. Throughout the following years, the Mt. Savage operation fell on hard times, and the Eckhart coal business has always been the more prosperous of the two. The C&P later became the initial stretch of B&O's main line to Connellsville, first via trackage rights and following 1903 by way of lease. Eckhart Jct. was established just west of the Narrows, Mt. Savage Jct. a few miles to the north.
In chronological order:
The Georges Creek & Cumberland RR, built as a competitor to Consolidation Coal Co.'s C&P, was the first railroad to build west through the Narrows on the south bank of Wills Creek. As can be seen on the accompanying 1898 USGS map above, the line ran from City Junction west parallel to the National Road, then made a sharp turn at Eckhart Jct. and ran up Braddock Run valley towards Eckhart. In the valley, it paralleled the Eckhart Branch of the C&P (the old Eckhart Railroad) to the south, up on the hillside. Interchange was made with the Pennsylvania RR between City Junction and Eckhart Jct. until 1888, when the GC&C acquired the Pennsylvania line up to State Line.
In addition to the mentioned lines, the Pennsylvania Railroad reached this location from Hyndman, and much later, the Western Maryland constructed its Connellsville Extension (finished in 1912) skirting the south bank of Wills Creek.
These four lines then, the B&O, PRR, WM, and the old C&P's Eckhart branch, made up the Eckhart Jct. area as seen in the fig. 1 looking east, towards Cumberland. The B&O owns the two leftmost tracks of the triple track to the left (the third one is C&P's line from Mt. Savage Jct.). WM crosses the highway (US-40 Alt.) on the massive truss bridge to the right. The ex-Pennsy (by this time, WM's State Line branch) connects to the WM by way of the truss bridge and viaduct combination at the top center. The Eckhart branch crosses Wills Creek on the four-arch viaduct at the lower center. Barely visible at bottom right, Braddock Run empties into Wills Creek. A road bridge to Locust Grove and the old National Highway (US-40 Alt., right and center) complete the scene. Forty years earlier, a streetcar line would have shared US-40 paralleling the WM ROW, and headed up Braddock Run towards LaVale.
|Fig. 1: Eckhart Junction, looking east toward Cumberland. Photo by William E. Barrett, 1970. Digital reproduction courtesy of the Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress. Record no.: HAER, MD,1-CUMB.V,1-|
Things were a little less convoluted, but no less cramped, at the eastern entrance to the Narrows. Fig. 2 shows an interesting scene, again dominated by the B&O on the far right side. The Western Maryland (ex-Georges Creek & Cumberland) trackage appears to the left of Wills Creek, and in left center are the old and new National Highway bridges. Between 1892 and the 1930s, the old bridge also allowed streetcars to cross the creek, traveling between Cumberland, Narrows Park (in Braddock Run valley, called Seis' Grove when opened in 1880), and LaVale, MD. Streetcar service to the Narrows was inaugurated on July 4th, 1892. At the bottom right, a bridge consisting of two through girder spans carries a WM spur towards the remnants of the Wellington Glass factory, it's stack still prominently visible. Henderson Avenue is the white line just above the stack.
An undated, but much older, photograph, fig. 3 shows a different arrangement at City Junction opposite from the Wellington works. Presumably, the picture was taken around the turn of the century. The bridge shown here is a Cumberland & Pennsylvania structure. The C&P crosses the PRR at grade. The diamond is guarded by a small tower. The C&P paralleled the B&O down here from Mt. Savage Jct., and reached the docks alongside the C&O Canal in downtown Cumberland by way of this bridge.
|Fig. 3: Cumberland & Pennsylvania/Pennsylvania RR trackage and Wellington Glass factory, looking west from Cumberland. Photo by Herman Miller, undated. Digital reproduction courtesy of the City of Cumberland, Herman & Stacia Miller Collection.|
By the time this picture was taken, the WM had not yet absorbed the GC&C. So, the railroad in the foreground is not the Western Maryland, but the GC&C, coming down from the connection with the PRR. The latter's line down from the Maryland/Pennsylvania border at State Line/Ellerslie was taken over by the WM as its State Line Branch in 1953. The WM's Connellsville Extension used the tracks of the GC&C through here, to the junction with the PRR at the west end of the Narrows, and then proceeded west via Helmstaetter's Curve and Frostburg to its crossing of the Alleghenies.
The C&P line paralleling the B&O was abandoned in the 1950s, several years after WM had gained control of the C&P.
The Narrows remain the proverbial neck of the bottle to most traffic leaving Cumberland in a westerly direction. Thoughtfully, and thankfully, the engineers when locating modern-day Interstate 68 opted to stay out and cross Haystack Mountain on a more southerly route. This enables students of railroad, industrial, and local history to enjoy many artifacts from the past.
Starting at the western end, the PRR bridge spanning Wills Creek is gone, but fragments of all its supports and abutments remain visible. Nature is reclaiming the old roadbed on the Locust Grove (north) side of the creek. The old Eckhart branch viaduct and roadbed are very visible even to the casual passer-by, although the roadbed further up Braddock Run towards LaVale has mostly been converted to building lots. The Western Maryland bridge and track are intact and used by the Western Maryland Scenic Railway operating between Cumberland and Frostburg.
Lastly, the B&O is a modern, doubletracked mainline operating as CSX's Keystone Subdivison. Eckhart Jct. is still a place name, even though the junction itself has been gone for the better part of three decades.
Towards Cumberland, urban redevelopment has changed a lot. The glass factory is gone, WM's bridge is still in, although it doesn't carry any rails any more. The old stone National Road bridge has all but vanished. A massive flood control project has turned Wills Creek into a concrete channel. The Narrows is still home to a few gas stations, as it has been since the dawn of the automobile age. Taking a close look at the Western Maryland roadbed one will notice a half-burried tank car, presumably filled with concrete, employed to stabilize the fill. The B&O tracks have mostly disappeared behind a dense thicket of trees and shrubs.
As an addendum, the following two maps show the situation at Mt. Savage Jct. and State Line Jct., respectively. These locations are not strictly located in the Narrows, but are important to the operations of all area railroads.
Thanks to Tony Hill, Jeff Knorek, and Carsten S. Lundsten for their help.