Eckhart Branch Bridge
By Mike Welsh
[This article was published in the March 1998 issue of the Bull Sheet following demolition of the bridge]
One of Cumberland, Maryland's, oldest railroad structures has been demolished. The Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad's Eckhart Branch bridge over Will's Creek at the west end of the Cumberland Narrows was removed by contractors during a three-day period beginning January 19, 1998. It was nearly 153 years old.
The 246.7-foot-long single-track bridge consisted of four 45-foot brick arches resting on granite piers. Capstones which ran the length of the bridge on each side appeared to be sandstone. It made an attractive structure. The bridge withstood numerous floods, which together with age, helped to deteriorate it. Sometime after the 1940's, steel reinforcements were added to help stabilize the sides.
When the B&O Railroad arrived in Cumberland in 1942, coal was already being mined in the area, though on a limited scale due mainly to transportation constraints. Now that rail transportation was a reality, coal mine owners were eager to use this cheap and efficient means to tap markets heretofore nearly impossible to reach. The Maryland Mining Company in 1845-46 built a nine-mile railroad from their mines at Eckhart Mines to a connection at the west end of the Narrows with the Maryland and New York Iron and Coal Company's railroad from Mount Savage, Maryland, to their connection with the B&O at Cumberland. The Eckhart Branch followed the valley drained by Braddock Run and included three percent grades, two tunnels, one horseshoe curve, and the bridge over Will's Creek.
It is believed that the B&O operated the Eckhart Branch in its earliest years. One curiosity was passenger service on the branch. Eastbound passenger trains from Eckhart Mines to Cumberland consisted of a single coach that was drifted the entire downgrade distance to Cumberland controlled by handbrakes to make the station stops. This practice continued at least through the 1870's.
The Maryland Mining Company owned the branch until November 1852 when it conveyed its railroad and equipment to the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company. When CC&I Company merged with Consolidation Coal Company in 1870, the Eckhart Branch was acquired by the Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad, a wholly owned subsidiary of Consolidation Coal Company. C&P was incorporated on March 4, 1850.
C&P owned and operated the branch until May 12, 1944, when financially troubled Consolidation Coal sold the C&P to the Western Maryland Railway for $1.1-million. The look of the C&P disappeared at this time, although the railroad was not formally merged into the Western Maryland until September 1, 1953.
The Eckhart Branch's demise began September 1, 1954, when 7.6 miles of the branch was abandoned from Eckhart down to the National Road grade crossing. (The Hoffman Branch at Eckhart had been abandoned in December 1948.) The remaining 1.4 miles from track end to Eckhart Junction was retained to serve coal customers. By the early 1980's, this portion was also out of service, and the track was removed between these points about 1984.
Despite the track being removed, the bridge was left standing, and it was believed by many that it was to be saved. A few disastrous floods damaged but did not destroy the bridge, however no further repairs were made to stabilize it.
This writer realized that with no repairs being made, it probably was not the intention of the powers-that-be to save the bridge. The county was pressured by homeowners and businesses located in the flood plain of Will's Creek at Locust Grove to remove the bridge. It was said that during periods of high water, debris would collect at the bridge causing the creek to rise out of its banks. Unfortunately, Allegany County decided to demolish the oldest railroad bridge in the county, and another relic of Cumberland's railroad history is lost forever.
The Eckhart Branch Bridge on January 18, 1998, just one day before demolition began [photo by Ken Lehman]
View of George's Creek Junction (circa-1922) looking east, showing the Eckhart Branch Bridge lower left [photo from Mike Welsh collection]