Let it snow! Oh, no!



A road cleared of snow during the 1958 blizzard in Garrett County.

The call came in that Thomas J. Johnson needed an ambulance. He was seriously ill and needed to get to the hospital. Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem, but in early 1958, getting anywhere in Garrett County, Maryland, was to say the least difficult.

The ambulance attempted to reach him, but it couldn’t get through to Johnson’s Herrington Manor home. Help came in the form of bulldozers and snow plows that struggled to carve a path through drifting snow as high as 15 feet. It took six hours for the plows to reach the 67-year-old Johnson and rush him to Garrett Memorial.

During another incident that winter, Trooper First Class Robert Henline walked three miles through deep snow that vehicles couldn’t get through to deliver medicine to a desperate family near Gorman.

Other incidents occurred, some serious and some just major inconveniences, but there were a lot of them. In seven weeks in 1958, nearly 112 inches of snow fell on the county, beating out the previously bad winter of 1936. No other winter in the 20th century to that point even came close.

The Cumberland Sunday Times reported that the bad weather “practically isolated most of the county despite heroic efforts of State Roads and county roads crews, National Guardsmen and other volunteers.”

Although the first snows of the new year had fallen mid-January, the first big storm came at the end of the month. Ten inches of snow fell on January 24 followed by three more inches two days later. “For a short time on Friday afternoon there was snow, sleet and ice falling at the same time,” The Republican reported. A heavy fog also slowed things down.

The heavy snows led to the rare occurrence of closing Garrett County schools in the county for three days at the beginning of February.

“It was the first time in several years that there had been the loss of even one day of school,” The Republican noted.

School Superintendent Willard Hawkins said he “was afraid to put the buses on the roads because of poor visibility and icy conditions.” The Republican reported that Hawkins had intended to resume school on the third days until he found out that many children and teachers were still snowbound.

A week later nearly 10 inches of snow fell on three consecutive days. Pleasant Valley, Kempton, North Glade, Sanders Lane, and Herrington Manor were the worst hit, reporting snow drifts of 15 feet or more. With visibility near zero, the Maryland State Police issued an emergency travel only order.

The blizzard left about 40 percent of the county roads impassable for two days, according to Paul DeWitt, assistant county engineer. Garrett County had 140 men working 45 snow plows around the clock to try and open and clear the 740 miles of county roads.

State road crews were running 20 snow plows and a giant snow-blower over the 158 miles of state roads in the county. The only state road that was impassable was Route 495 between Bittinger and Grantsville.

With so much snow on the ground, the snow plows were only able to push it so far off the road before running into previous piles of snow that had been pushed off the road. “By that time there was no place to push it and consequently many of the highways drifted completely over,” The Republican reported.

In Oakland, snow and vehicles competed for space and the snow often won. “Parking space was at a premium and many of those who found places at the edges of the drifts found themselves unable to move when they returned to their cars,” The Republican noted.

All of the snow busted the county’s budget that year with rented equipment costing $1,000 a day and snow removal equipment using 2,000 gallons of gasoline a day.

Although the snow totals blew away previous snowfall records in the county, at least the temperature records still stood. In 1958, the temperature fell to -17 degrees, but the 1912 record was -40 degrees.

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4948.4966From Baltimore’s Pratt Street Riot in April 1861 that saw the first fatality of the Civil War to President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was a rolling witness to history.

“You could argue that it was the most crucial railroad in the United States during the war because it ran across the dividing line between the North and South,” says Courtney Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore.

At the beginning of the war, the B&O had 513 miles of track that ran from Washington, DC, to Wheeling, Virginia.

“From Wheeling, the train would be taken across the river on floats to Parkersburg,” Wilson notes. From there, connections could be made to other railroads, but the Washington, DC, connection was the critical one. In terms of rail service, the B&O was Washington’s lifeline to the Union.

Despite being in the Union, the rail line ran through states with Southern sympathies or states that were actually in the Confederate States of America. This made it a target too tempting to ignore. Over the course of the war, 143 raids and battles would involve the B&O.

New Tactics

In terms of tactics and strategy, the Civil War was unlike any conflict fought before, largely because of the use of railroads.

Most of the nation’s 200 railroads at the start of the war remained loyal to the Union. Among these railroads, the majority used a uniform distance between their rails. This allowed the Union to move troops and goods faster and with fewer transfers.

This was a significant tactical advantage for the North. The trick was for Union generals to learn to make use of it.

“I would say that they adapted to it very quickly, particularly that they could move troops six times the distance in a 24-hour period,” says Wilson.


“A Southern Railroad”

Marylander John W. Garrett (for whom Garrett County is named) was president of the B&O during the Civil War years. Garrett had been born in Virginia and still loved the Old Dominion, though it was considered an enemy of the state where he lived as an adult.

“His loyalties were in question at first because he had called the B&O a Southern railroad,” Wilson says. He also referred to Confederate leaders as “our Southern friends.”

However, the Confederacy also had doubts about Garrett’s loyalty to the Southern cause. After the Pratt Street Riot, a group of Southern sympathizers threatened to “destroy every bridge and tear up your track” along the railroad.

“It was two to three months before he won the confidence of the president,” Wilson says, and that came about because Garrett, as well as many Maryland businessmen with pro-Southern leanings, realized that their commercial interests lay with the Union.

John Stover wrote in History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, “John W. Garrett might claim that the B&O was a Southern line, but in his heart he knew that both the prosperity and the future of his railroad lay with the North, the West, and the Union, rather than the South.”

Once Garrett came to this realization, he committed himself to the Union cause and didn’t waver.

Pre-War Engagements

Even before the Civil War started with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, the B&O had been caught up in the tensions between the North and South.

In 1859, conductor A.J. Phelps sent a panicked telegram to Baltimore that read, in part, “Express train bound east under my charge was stopped this morning at Harpers Ferry by armed abolitionists. They have possession of the bridges and of the arms and armory of the United States.”

This was the beginning of John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry and is often considered the first battle of the Civil War. Brown realized what Confederate generals would also come to see in a few years: If they could sever the B&O Railroad’s connection, they could cripple their enemy.

In 1860, President-Elect Abraham Lincoln made his way from Illinois to Washington, DC, for his inauguration. It was supposed to be a leisurely trip, but rumors began that Lincoln might face violence in pro-Southern Baltimore.

Lincoln’s schedule was adjusted so that his train arrived in Baltimore at 3 a.m. Horses quietly dragged Lincoln’s rail car along Pratt Street from the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore depot to the Camden Street depot, where it was transferred to the B&O line. The B&O then delivered the president-elect safely to Washington at 6 a.m.

Damages during the War

In the early years of the war, when Northern Virginia was contested territory, sections of the B&O that ran south of the Potomac River would sometimes be under Confederate control. Whenever this happened, the Confederate Army was sure to burn bridges and tear up tracks.

“Millions and millions and millions of dollars of damage was done to the railroad during the war,” Wilson says.

The B&O’s annual report for 1861 showed that it had been a particularly costly year for the railroad. Losses totaled 26 bridges nearly a mile in length, 102 miles of telegraph line, two water stations, and a lot of rolling stock lost because of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.

On May 23, 1861, Jackson’s men shut down the B&O between Point of Rocks, 12 miles east of Harpers Ferry, and Cherry Run, 32 miles west of Harpers Ferry. Jackson captured 56 locomotives and more than 300 freight cars. Some of them were put into use with Confederate railroads, while the rest were kept at Martinsburg, Virginia.

The following month, at Martinsburg, Jackson’s men blew up the seven-span railroad bridge; 400 rail cars and 42 engines were destroyed. This represented a significant loss to the railroad and shut down the B&O for close to 10 months.

This turned out to be the Confederacy’s most successful action against the B&O. Though they recognized the importance of the railroad to war-time tactics, they were unable to permanently stop the B&O or match the railroad’s success with the Southern railroads.

Recognizing the importance of the B&O to its own success, the Union government dedicated brigades on the eastern and western ends of the line to protect the B&O from not only regular Confederate Army actions, but also raids from the growing number of ranger units.



The relationship between the B&O and the Union proved beneficial to both. The Union was able to move its men and equipment quickly to where they were most needed.

For instance, when General William Rosecrans required back-up to defeat Confederate General Braxton Bragg in Georgia, help came from 30 trains pulling around 700 cars filled with 25,000 troops. They made a large part of the journey on the B&O.

For the B&O, revenues increased dramatically, and not just from its government contracts to provide transportation.

“Both passenger and freight revenue greatly increased between 1861 and 1865, passenger receipts increased more than fourfold in the four years, and freight revenue climbing nearly threefold,” Stover wrote.

“However, the 1861 revenue, partly because of the destruction caused by Stonewall Jackson, was much below that of previous years.”

Other stories of interest:



The old Western Maryland Railroad station. Courtesy of Thurmontimages.com.

One of the reasons that there is a Thurmont was lost in 1967.

Thurmont was originally called Mechanicstown, but a movement in 1873 started to come up with a more progressive name for the growing town. Among the supporters of a name change was the Western Maryland Railroad.

“The railroad was all for the idea since it would relieve the shipping and passenger problems caused by a profusion of the ‘sound alike’ communities. There was Mechanicsburg and Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania and several Mechanicsvilles in Maryland as well as our town,” according to A Thurmont Scrapbook.

The Western Maryland Railroad had first reached Mechanicstown on January 9, 1871. The first stationmaster was Harry Shriner.

“Upon the event of the coming of the railroad to Mechanicstown, a group of civic-minded citizens arranged a reception and a banquet for the railroad officials and their guests. It was a big event, taking place in the Stocksdale Warehouse located beside the tracks at the end of Carroll Street,” George Wireman wrote in the Catoctin Enterprise in 1972.

The warehouse served as a temporary depot for the telegrapher and expressman until a permanent depot could be built on the site of the old cannery in Thurmont. The depot had two waiting rooms, an office for the stationmaster and telegrapher and sanitary facilities. The grounds outside were landscaped and there was a water tank at either end of the depot.

By 1890, six passenger, mail and express trains (three eastbound and three westbound) ran through Thurmont daily.

In 1914, Thurmont even had a milk service train running to Baltimore.

During 1923, a young man named S. Elmer Barnhart started working for the Western Maryland Railroad. He was a fresh graduate from the Dodge Institute of Telegraphy and State Agency in Valparaiso, Ind. He had been born in Greencastle, Pa., and served in France with Base Hospital 98 during World War I.

He began his career with the railroad at Edgemont but he soon moved to Rocky Ridge’s station.

“Part of his job involved relaying basketball results by Morse telegraphy from Mt. St. Mary’s College to the Associated Press,” George May wrote in the Frederick Post in 1967.

Barnhart took over operating the Thurmont station in September 1939.

“The peak of his career was in 1952 when he was freight, ticket and baggage agent and operator at Thurmont; agent for the Railway Express Agency; Mayor of Thurmont which included being superintendent of the Municipal Light Company and Chief of Police and an elder and financial secretary of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Thurmont,” May wrote.

As automobiles continued to can gain favor as a form of transportation for Americans, the Western Maryland Railroad stopped passenger service to Thurmont on March 1, 1957. Freight and mail service continued, though.

Occasionally, a few special trains would be scheduled to carry passengers on special excursions, usually to Pen-Mar Park.

“On Saturday, October 12, 1963, the local station resembled a scene from the pages of history when large crowds gathered to ride the special excursions to Pen Mar Park, located a short distance west of Blue Ridge Summit in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains,” Wireman wrote.

With little notice, the Western Maryland Railroad closed the Thurmont depot on January 13, 1967.

“The need for the station diminished during recent years because of more modern accounting practices in Hagerstown, which took over the work of the Thurmont Agency,” Wireman wrote.

Many people assume that the decision to close the depot came about because Barnhart retired on January 1, 1967, at age 65. He had spent 44 years with the railroad and 27 years in charge of the Thurmont train station.

“On April 4, 1967, the fate of the station was soon learned. A wrecking crew appeared on the scene and began demolishing this Heritage Landmark. Within the short period of three days, a stranger visiting the site would never have realized that a railroad station once stood on this very spot,” Wireman wrote.

While the trains still run through Thurmont, they no longer stop in the town.

Here are some more stories that involve the Western Maryland Railroad in Thurmont:





A Human Fly in action.

During the Sunday night performance, thousands of people gathered to watch the Human Fly, George Oakley, repeat his daring deeds. After his first stunt, his assistant, Anna Vivian Murray, urged him to rest a bit before scaling the tall bank building.

Oakley waved off her concerns and told her that he was in a hurry and wanted to leave Chambersburg that evening. It would be at least 9 p.m. by the time that he finished.

“He kissed me and sent me upstairs with the tube,” Murray said later.

Murray went into the building to wait at the second-floor window and Oakley soon began his climb. Minutes later, as he neared the fourth floor and hooked his cane on the inner tube, the crowd heard a “dull snap.” The inner tube had broken and the cane went flying off into the crowd.

“His fall was unbroken except by one man who rushed in in an attempt to save him,” The Repository reported.

Oakley landed on his left side, smashing hard against the pavement. The crowd screamed and several women fainted. The police had trouble getting to Oakley because the crowd was so thick.

Four men lifted Oakley and put him into a cab. Murray, who was said to be his wife, had reached his side by that time. Oakley was conscious. He asked for a priest and how far he had fallen.

“Only three stories. You’re all right. George. You’re more scared than hurt, you’ll be all right,” Murray told him.

This was not Oakley’s first accident in his six years of daredevil climbing. His first accident had actually happened earlier in the year on July 4. Oakley fell 1 ½ stories while climbing a building in Scottsdale, Arizona. He had walked away from the fall with an injured left hand.

However, his climbing partner had been killed in plane stunt a few weeks earlier. He had made a parachute jump and his chute had failed to open.

An examination at Chambersburg Hospital showed that Oakley had a number of broken bones including lower vertebrae, his pelvis, ribs, left arm and his breast bone with many of the bones being broken in multiple places. According to The Franklin Repository, his “nervous system suffering much from shock.”

Oakley remained conscious for several hours. Father Noel of Corpus Christ Catholic Church arrived to deliver last rites. Thoughout the night Oakley’s condition grew worse and Murray and a young boy stayed by his bedside.

Oakley died early the next morning. His body was taken to H. W. Cramer’s for preparation for burial.

His wife, Clara, arrived from Cleveland, Ohio, which surprised many people because Oakley had introduced Murray as his wife and the young boy as his son. According to Oakley’s WWI draft registration card, not only was Oakley married, but he had three children.

During the coroner’s inquest, Murray admitted that she and Oakley hadn’t been married, but had been planning to wed.

“I loved Oakley as I thought I could never love any man. We were to be married within a month. I never knew he was a married man, if he really was,” she said.

More importantly, she told the jurors that Chambersburg had been the first time that she had held the inner tube for Oakley’s climb. Chief Byers and Motorcycle Officer Suder tested the tube using the top of an open door at police headquarters to stretch the tube over. Suder said it broke under little strain.

It appeared that a faulty or weak inner tube was the culprit. Coroner Shull ruled that death accidental.

Catch the first part if you missed it:

Death Certificate

The Human Fly’s death certificate.



A Human Fly looks over the crowd during a 1916 performance.

Many a young boy loves to climb a tree, pushing the limits of gravity to see how high they can climb and enjoying the rush of adrenaline as the ground grows further and further away. Those boys grow up, though, and realize that if they should fall, they could be seriously injured.

Other boys just never seem to outgrow that urge to climb. They become daredevils. In the early 20th century, these climbers earned the nickname “Human Fly.” They toured the country accepting the challenge to climb the tall buildings in any town. Although many of the famous Human Flys were active in the first couple decades of the 20th century, Human Fly John Ciampa climbed building in the 1940s and early 1950s, Human Fly George Willig climbed the World Trade Center in 1977 and Human Fly Rick Rojatt was a stunt rider in the 1970’s.

In 1924, plans to have an open-air attraction from New York City entertain the crowds during Old Home Week in Chambersburg fell through so Human Fly George Oakley “one of the most daring of present-day human flies,” according to The Franklin Repository, was invited as a replacement act. He was going to be performing in Hagerstown the week before so it fit well with his schedule.

Oakley arrived for two evenings of performances on Saturday and Sunday, August 30 and 31. He did not have the appearance of a daredevil. He was a 36-year-old man of medium height and a stout build.

He performed two daredevil feats for the crowds. For the first stunt, The Franklin Repository, reported, “He will stand on his head on the front bumper rail of an auto, which will attain a speed of 30 miles an hour and suddenly stop. When it stops, Oakley will turn a somersault in the air, and land in the street right side up.”

The second feat was just as, if not more, dangerous. He scaled the outside of the Chambersburg Trust building. “In scaling the walls he used a cane and an automobile inner tube. Someone would precede him to each story inside the building and hold the tube against the outside. The cane he used to hook onto the tube an then he would scale the wall to the window where he would wait for her until she had dropped the tube from the window above,” The Franklin Repository reported.

It was an exciting show that left people holding their breath and shutting their eyes when the tension became too great.

See how things end:



This is interesting. A Confederate general’s widow who helped build B-29s.

Emerging Civil War

Of all American weapons produced in World War II, including the atomic bomb, the most expensive was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Developing and producing the plane cost $3 billion and involved a massive industrial undertaking from plants in all regions of the country. The plane made key contributions to victory in the Pacific and in the prosecution of the Korean War before being retired in the 1950s.  B-29s_dropping_bombs

Thousands of subcontractors made components and systems for the plane, which was the most advanced of its day. The B-29s themselves were assembled at four main plants: Boeing facilities in Renton, Washington and Wichita, Kansas; a Martin plant in Omaha; and a Bell plant in Marietta, Georgia. It is this last plant that offers an echo of the Civil War and a symbol of national reconciliation.

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LBToday is the last day to get the Amazon.com bestselling book Looking Back: True Stories of Mountain Maryland as a FREE Kindle e-book.

The book is filled with true stories about Western Maryland that will keep you reading whether you’re a native of Western Maryland or just someone who has heard about it.

  • Did you know that a Russian prince once worked as a priest in Cumberland?
  • Have you heard the story about the German POW camp near Flintstone during WWII?
  • Do you know about the mining wars that were fought to try and unionize the coal mines in the Georges Creek region?
  • Do you know the story behind Cumberland’s only lynching? Have you heard the story about the baseball game played between the Cumberland Colts and the New York Yankees?

These are the stories of Allegany and Garrett counties in Maryland found in old newspapers, history books and other places. It’s the stories of people who tamed the mountains, established cities, raised families and lived their lives.

 Journey back in time and look beyond the photos that so well document the region’s history. This collection of 40 stories spans 220 years of life in Western Maryland.

Looking Back hit no. 1 in Amazon’s Mid-Atlantic E-book category yesterday (I took a screenshot to mark the occasion) and has since climbed into the top 500 of non-fiction e-books. 071216-First No 1

Grab your free copy today and let me know what you think by leaving a review. That will help my future marketing efforts for the book.

Here are some of the types of stories that you’ll find in Looking Back: True Stories of Mountain Maryland:


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