The town of Relay has always been closely linked to the B&O Railroad. The name was derived from the changing of teams of horses that pulled a wooden wagon/carriage on rails between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills. In the early 1830s, horses were replaced by the first steam engines. By the Civil War, Relay had become a key railroad location for east – west train passengers to transfer to north – south trains. Sabotage of the nearby Thomas Viaduct was a very real concern.
Relay was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War to help protect the Viaduct which was a vital link between our nation’s capital and the rest of the Union. In 1873, the Viaduct Hotel Station was built by the B&O Railroad for the comfort and convenience of its passengers. The Hotel was demolished in the late 1950s. Relay was a popular railroad excursion destination for day trips to the Patapsco Valley State Park in the early 1900s. Heavily laden freight trains still pass through picturesque Relay on a daily basis.
The Thomas Viaduct
The Thomas Viaduct was the largest bridge in the Nation when it was completed in 1835. Today it is still the world’s oldest multi-arched stone railroad bridge. Construction on it began on July 4th, 1833 and was completed two years later (to the day). It has been in continuous operation ever since then. The bridge crosses the Patapsco River near Elkridge, Maryland, and is a major link in today’s CSX Railroad freight system. The bridge was built from granite quarried further upstream in the Patapsco Valley. Originally designed to carry relatively lightweight steam engines and a few cars, the bridge now carries the much heavier modern day diesel engines with long lines of heavily loaded freight cars. The Thomas Viaduct is one of the few structures which survived the devastating flood of 1868, which virtually destroyed all of the mills and dams in the Patapsco Valley, and the 1972 flood from Hurricane Agnes, which again ravaged the few remaining towns in the Valley.
Role in the Civil War
During the Civil War, our Nation’s capital was virtually on the line that separated the North from the South during that conflict. All of the railroad links to the south had been severed when the South seceded. There was no railroad link to the east. The railroad link to the west was very vulnerable with Harper’s Ferry changing hands several times during the war. The only somewhat reliable railroad link from the Capital to the rest of the Union had to be to the north. The B&O Railroad with it’s Thomas Viaduct crossing the Patapsco River provided that only railroad supply and troop transport link. Union commanders quickly realized how vital and how vulnerable the Thomas Viaduct was to direct attacks from Confederate forces as well as sabotage from southern sympathizers. They therefore stationed troops on the bridge and on the high ground above it to protect it at all cost. There are pictures of this period in our Nation’s history, but little physical evidence of any of the fortifications remains on the ground today.
In 1872, the B&O built the Viaduct Hotel, a showcase combination hotel and station at Relay overlooking the Patapsco River. It was surrounded with gardens, graveled walkways, flowers, hedges, and evergreens. It was the first hotel station in the nation built for the comfort of railway passengers.
Preserve. Protect. Interpret. Restore.
Patapsco Heritage Greenway, the non-profit managing organization of the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area, is dedicated to preserving, protecting, interpreting, and restoring the environment, history, and culture of Maryland’s most dramatic river valley for the enjoyment of all.