Items of Interest about Relay and Vicinity


About one-hundred or so years ago, Maryland was a great tobacco growing state and as there were no railroads to ship by, and few, if any, wagons or carts at that time strong enough to haul one or more hogsheads of tobacco, other means had to be found to get their goods to market. The growers then adopted this method of packing a hogshead of tobacco:  They fixed a stout pole through the centre of it, allowing it to project about three feet at each end.   When ready to go to the wharf, three or four men would go with each  hogshead, two of them being provided with stout handspikes.  The men rolled the hogshead along the road and if one end got a little too far ahead, one man put his handspike in front of the projecting end of the pole and held it back until the other end went forward.  It was hard work getting these hogsheads uphill, and when coming down the two men with handspikes would, one at each end, put his handspike in front of and under the pole to the ground and holding his end up hard so as to act as a brake to check the speed going down hill, the other men keeping in front and backing downhill, push against the hogshead to keep it from getting away.  Many of our crooked roads were made so as to avoid hills and soft places.  Some growers would fix a sort of pair of shafts to the projecting ends of the pole and hook a horse in them to pull when the roads were good; again it might be a forked or split pole that was used, and one prong being fastened to each end of the projecting pole a pair of horses or oxen were used; or, if the man had only one horse, a cow was hooked up with it.


What is now called Catonsville Avenue, was called Rolling Road because, along it the farmers from upper Howard and Baltimore Counties, as also those from Carroll and Frederick, rolled their hogsheads of tobacco to the wharf for shipment.  The low field along the river opposite the end of Catonsville Avenue was once a part of the bed of the river and one wharf was near where Mr. Hitzelberger now lives.  A little northwest of that was a boatyard, in which it was said that some of the best boats that traded along the coast at that time were built.  At that time, the water extended north up the valley now crossed by the railroad.  There was a man who died in Elk Ridge a few years ago who, several times, told me had often, when a young man, helped to load and unload a schooner which came up to a wharf near the old furnace at Elk Ridge.


The upper part of the road which comes down along the river on the Baltimore County side, was made by George Washington during the war of Independence.  At that time there were no railroads to transport troops and supplies; they had to be moved along dirt roads.  In order to cut of the long round for troops from down the Frederick road to Rolling Road in Catonsville and then to the Washington road, he opened up a new road, which was called the Gun road.  This started from the Frederick road above Ilchester thence down the Baltimore County side of the river to where Avalon is, where they forded the river or crossed in boats, then continuing on to the Washington road.  This new road was in use until the big freshet of 1868, when a good part of it at and below Ilchester was washed away.  The Orange Grove flour mill was built over this road, a large archway being  made to it in the first part of the mill built.  After the destruction of the road, additions were built to the mill which closed up the arch.


When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was commenced in 1828, its first depot was on Pratt Street, near Charles.  The cars, which were pulled by horses, went out Pratt Street to Mt. Clare where was established another depot.  That building is still standing near the Poppleton Street gate into Mt. Clare yards.  From there they came out about along the same line as the freights from Mt. Clare now come, until they struck the curve just east of Sandmann’s store; they then kept straight ahead, passing between where the store now is and the house now owned by Mrs. Hagis.  The depot and terminus was about where Sandmann’s stables are; later on the tracks were extended to Ellicott’s Mills, requiring a second team of horses for the additional distance.  The change of horses being called a relay and was made at the terminal of the first section.  This term applied to the change of horses became used in speaking of the terminal and also of the surrounding neighborhood, continuing to be used ever since.  When the tracks were extended to  Ellicott’s Mills, its route at what was now Relay Station was kept along the south edge of the park, passing close by to the north of where the monument now stands, at the end of the stone bridge, and along the outer edge of what is now the garden.  The rails of the entire route being flat bars or iron fastened on long blocks of granite.  The ends of these bars sometimes getting loose and curving upwards tore their way through the cars.  Later on when the Washington Branch was built, the tracks diverging from the old road bed at the curve east of Sandmann’s store to where they now run at that point, a new station was built about where the freight house now stands; from there the tracks kept a little to the north passing the old hotel and hugging close to the base of the hill, then curving towards the south to the end of the bridge crossing the other track at grade.  There were a number of accidents at this crossing which was finally done away with by opening a cut through the rocks where the main line now runs; this was opened in 1852 or 53.  This cut left a mound of rocks between the two tracks.  This mound of rocks was taken away in the latter part of the 60’s and used in making the cut off between Carroll Switch and West Baltimore.  Previous to that all trains came round by Mt. Clare junction.  After the mound of rock was taken away, the Viaduct Hotel was built where it stood.  This house was furnished and opened for a mealing station for the traveling public and not to be used as an ordinary hotel.  There were rooms to accommodate persons who might be tired out or sick from traveling.  Such persons could stop over and recuperate for a day or two.  The average mealing station, previous to that time, was considered by travelers as a gruesome joke;  the victuals being either served too hot to eat or else delayed so long that the time allowed for the stop had almost expired before they were brought to the table.  To remedy this, the B & O determined to have their own mealing stations and saw  that their patrons got plenty of good food and plenty of time to eat it.  In order to keep diners from being uneasy and afraid that their train would leave them, the conductor was served his meal at a table in full view of all in the dining room, not leaving the room until the twenty or twenty-five minutes allowed for the stop was up.  Besides the dining room, there was a lunch room where those who did not want a full meal could be satisfied. I have often heard people say that they would not think of passing the Relay without at least getting a cup of coffee.  The use of the hotel as a mealing place caused the introduction of the dining cars to be done away with.


The small station which had been built about where the freight house now stands was used until about 1859 or 60, when a much larger one was built on the opposite side of the railroad just West of where the switch tower is.  This building was used until October of 1873, when the Viaduct Hotel was opened.


Along during the early days of the railroad, there was a certain Denis A. Smith (I think he was treasurer of this state) who was quite a politician in his time.  He bought the property at the junction of what is now Sutton Avenue and the Washington Road, and built the stone house which stands there.  He was a high roller and entertained on an extensive scale.  On account of some of his high doings, he was nicknamed St. Denis by his associates.  He was instrumental in having a post office established here and it was given his nickname; which it retained until very recently.  This Denis A. Smith failed and the property was purchased by Samuel Sutton, who resided there until his death a few years ago.


In about 1857, the only houses West of the Rolling Road at Relay were the old hotel, Dr. Dorsey’s (where Dr. Gundry now lives) and a large house where Alex Snowden lives.  The next was Mr. Randle’s (nearly opposite Stapletons).   On the East side: a house at Mr. Geddes’, one at McCabes, one on the Francis’ place, P.G. Mitchell’s and one at Earps.  Across the tracks were the house owned now by Mr. Hagis, the stone house and the brick house on the Company’s farm.   The brick and inside woodwork, also the sash and doors in this house were brought from England.  The surroundings of the house which stood where Snowden lives were more pretentious than any of the others, a neat paling fence enclosed about three fourths of an acre of ground around the house.  The part in front was divided into sections by low terraces and the levels so formed were laid out with white gravel walks bordered with boxwood and a great variety of old time roses. Shrubbery and hardy flowering plants were used to beautify the place.  Outside the fence along the slope in front was a narrow bed of bulbous rooted and perennial flowering plants, the whole design being artistic.  Who the party was who designed it, I do not know, but as I remember it, it was owned by Mrs. Lowe; she also owned the old hotel property.


The Relay, at one time, must have been a sort of whiskey centre,  There were two distilleries here, one in the valley which runs up back of Miss Len Faith’s property, the other where the Viaduct factory now stands.  The Hockley flour mill was just above the stone bridge near the race on the Howard County side; it was burned down in the early 50’s.  A person standing on the east side of the bridge over the river and looking down about forty yards from the bridge on the Howard County side can see the two stone walls of the tail race from the mill.  After the destruction of the mill, the owner secured the old distillery and converted it into a flour mill which was run as such until bought by the Viaduct Company.  This mill, at one time, did a large business in parching corn for the foreign trade.  They had a large oven built for that purpose; it was the belief at that time  that the corn arrived in better condition on the other side if so treated.


Before the opening of Druid Hill Park, the Relay was the excursion grounds and the breathing place for Baltimore.  On the ground on Viaduct Avenue, now owned by Charles Thompson and Miss Lena Faith, was a grove of trees.  Near the centre of it was erected a large dancing pavilion and band stand, with a number of booths conveniently located.  Scarcely a week would pass during the summer without one or more excursions there, one or two trains bringing them out and returning for them before dark and by loud blasts of the whistle notifying the people of time to return to Baltimore.


Another excursion place was opened here also.  Mr. J. J. Hellman, who had built the brick house at the crossing at Elk Ridge, built the large brick house in St. Denis and moved there; he had the slope from the road to the river laid out with walks leading to various kinds of places of amusement: swings, flying-horses, etc. The flying horses were far from being like those of the present time; a large pole being set and guyed as for a derrick, with four booms running out at the four opposite sides and securely guyed from the ends to the top of the pole.  From the end of each of these four booms, was suspended a frame in which was a seat for two persons.  When these seats were filled, two men stationed near the centre, would push the machine around.  At the side of the road, he built a ten-pin alley; the little one story house near the fire engine house is a part of it.  The two places were much patronized.


Another resort that was much patronized long ago was Wartman’s Sulphur Spring Hotel, on the Sulphur Spring road, about one mile a little northeast of Relay; the water from this spring was supposed to have great medicinal virtue and there was generally a crowd there, particularly on Sundays.  No doubt there was plenty to drink there that was more enticing than sulphur water, but the latter answered for a good excuse for your presence. 


The gudgeon fishing was then enjoyed by hundreds to the one who seems to care for it now.  When I was a small boy, I have often seen both banks of the river so crowded with anglers as to make it difficult to get a place to cast a line.  When you did, you had a fish straight before you or else get out.  This and the places of amusement were broken up by the outbreak of the Civil War.


About one mile west of Relay, on the Howard County side, on Rockburn Branch, was an iron furnace owned by one of the Dorsey’s.  About one mile further up the same branch near the present home of Mr. Bowdoin, and another owned by the same man,  In these was smelted the iron ore dug out of the hills above upper Elk Ridge.  On the Baltimore County side was the Avalon iron works which were destroyed by the freshet of 1868.  It was a hustling place where was manufactured iron plates, bars and nails.  In connection with this history, there are not many people now who know that a small steamer plied up the Patapsco as late as 1868.  The owners of the iron works and Rose Winans spent a great deal of money in straightening and deepening a channel up the river as far as the stone bridge. They then purchased a small tug and a number of scows for their work.  They built one wharf just below the stone bridge on the Baltimore County side and several along the Winans farm.  Pig and scrap iron was loaded on the scows at Baltimore for Avalon and manufactured iron was loaded on the scows to be taken back to the city.  For Winans, they would transport produce from his farm to Baltimore and returning bring manure or other fertilizers; the little steamer making several trips a week.  This was also broken up by the freshet of ‘68, which destroyed the wharves and channel completely. On the morning of the freshet, the little steamer was moored to a large willow tree at one of the Winan’s wharves and when the water in the river began to rise so high, James Biden, who was farm manager for Winans, took his brother and two men named Hawk to try to make the boat more secure.  They climbed into the tree to make the fastenings higher up.  While there, the water raised so fast they were surrounded.  The fields along the river being under water, great quantities of debris were brought down by the flood which soon uprooted the tree and took it and the boat down the river.  Mr. Biden remained on the tree until rescued near Light Street bridge in such an exhausted condition that he was a long time in recovering.  The other men were drowned.  This same freshet destroyed a great number of houses in Ellicott Mills and drowned many people, the bodies of most of them being found between here and Light Street bridge.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Government recognizing that the Relay was of great strategic importance, as it was the junction of the Main Line and the Washington Branch, decided to occupy and fortify it.  At that time, it was the point at which all passengers traveling between the West and South had to change cars, going either way, besides all travel between North and South passed, the B & O being the only road running South as far as Washington, the Pennsylvania cars being hauled from Baltimore to Washington over the B & O.  There was no Metropolitan branch connecting Washington with the Main Line so that the capture of this point or the destruction of the bridge by the Confederates must be prevented.  One day shortly after war was declared, two strange men drove out from Baltimore and after tying their team, made an examination of the bridge, and from their actions, seemed to have selected one of the piers as suiting their purpose.  A man, who had been attracted by their actions, suspected it to be their purpose to blow up the bridge  He notified the agent of his suspicions and he, in turn, notified the railroad authorities and they ordered the trackmen to guard the bridge day and night.  Shortly after this, one Sunday morning, a train load of soldiers stopped at the Lawyers Hill crossing and after leaving the train took possession of the roads and let no one pass the stone bridge, making all who wished to cross the river go around by the Washington Road bridge.  After some delay, they formed in line and marched up the road to the top of the hill then owned by Dr. James Hall, where they encamped.  They built a small fort near the top of the hill in which they mounted two guns, which were pointed toward the bridge.  Soon afterwards, they built another small fort beside the Main Line just West of where Relay Station now is.  This was built of bags of sand and mounted two guns also.  These first soldiers were soon followed by other regiments which encamped in different places, some on Lawyers Hill, some on the places now owned by Mrs. Francis, Messrs., Banks, Haines, Dr. Gundry, and the Walzl property.  Where the Walzl house stands, they put up several large buildings for the soldiers to sleep in and one for a hospital.


When the engineers who had charge of the building of Federal Hill fortifications in Baltimore finished that work, they came to Relay and commenced a fort to overlook the bridge; this was an earthen fort mounting seven twelve-pound guns, one thirty-four pounder and one Howitzer.  Also, two twelve-pounders mounted outside the gate.  Inside there was a magazine sunk deep in the ground and then covered with a high mound of earth.  In front of the entrance to the magazine was another mound of earth to protect it from the shells of the enemy.  This fort was named after Gen. John A. Dix and was erected on the bluff above the Viaduct Hotel.  This fort has long been leveled down and J. Byrne’s house now stands on its site just where the thirty-four pounder stood.  The soldiers remained here until after the war was over.  The field where St. Denis is, as also the one on the upper side of the railroad up to near the Walzl house, was the drilling ground for all the soldiers stationed around here.  Several days each week each regiment headed by a brass band or a fife and drum corps would march from their encampment to these fields and there, for hours at a time, go through different kinds of drills.  Some of the soldiers not satisfied with their camp grub would forage around the country for something better; often robbing chicken coops, meat houses, dairies, etc.  If caught and convicted of these things, they were generally punished in some way.  The usual way of punishing a chicken thief was to knock the head and bottom out of a barrel, fix it over the man’s body so that his head stuck up through it and with a large card in front and one at the back bearing the words in large letters “CHICKEN THIEF”. Sometimes one of the chickens he had stolen being tied under each sign.  Then he was made to march up and down the platform, at Relay, all day long.  The guard on duty there being charged to keep him moving.  For other offenses, a man was made to fill his knapsack with stones or bricks, and with that on his back, marched all day on the platform; sometimes with a card showing what his offense was.


If the soldiers at any of the camps wanted wood, hay or straw, they usually took it without the permission of the owner.  One day, a party of soldiers under command of one of the minor officers went to a neighboring farm with a team to take straw from a stack.      The man owning it did not wish to get into trouble so he did not go to object.  Not so with his wife though.  When she saw what they were after, she went down and asked the man in charge if he had an order from the quarter-master for the straw.  He said it was not necessary and ordered the men to load the straw.  The woman drew a pistol from under her apron and said “The first man to put his fork in the straw I will shoot”.  She then told the officer to send a man to the quarter-master for an order and if he got it, he could then get the straw.  The man was sent and returned with the order, which the woman took and returned to her house to await future payment for her loss. 


As this neighborhood was under martial law most of the time during the war, there was little or no advance or improvement made here.  A few houses had been erected a few years before the war, namely, Miss O’Hern’s, Troupe’s and Bank’s.  On the other side of the railroad, Mr. Hellman had built his brick house and the houses along the river road.  There were no dwellings erected during the war.  A few years after peace was declared, a Mr. Colbert bought the ground on the West side of Rolling Road, extending from where the public school now is, to Mr. Randle’s line.  On this land, he erected several houses.  Shortly after this, Mr. Sutton sold a part of the field back of St. Denis station to a man who had it laid out in building lots. This man then chartered trains for certain dates to bring excursionists out from Baltimore to attend auction sales of these lots.  As an inducement to buy, he offered One Hundred Dollars to the first person to build a house on a lot purchased from him; the second person would get Fifty Dollars, the third, Twenty-five Dollars.  The first house was built by Michael Ready, and is the one next to and north of Mr. Householder’s.  A few years later, J.P. Richardson purchased the ground West of Rolling Road and extending from the railroad to where the school now stands.  On this ground, he erected several houses.  A Mr. McDonald purchased part of this property and he also built three or four houses.


Sometime after the death of Mr. Sutton, the property on the North side of the railroad, opposite St. Denis Station, which he had owned, was bought by Mr. Walsl and laid out in building lots. He also purchased and laid out the ground in St. Denis next to the Washington road.  These four men: Colbert, Richardson, McDonald and Walzl may be termed the Boomers of Relay.  From their individual efforts has arisen a suburban village which is a credit to the County in which it is; the residences and people comparing favorably with others around Baltimore.



This interesting paper was written by Mr. Joseph J. Byrne, and read at a meeting of the Relay Volunteer Fire Company, Friday, May 5th. 1911.  The names mentioned, as being of the present time, are of persons owning, or residing on, at that time, the property mentioned.