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Point of Rocks, MD Railroad Hotspot

Point of Rocks is the location of an important railroad junction and the site of one of the most picturesque and best known of the historic stations of the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  At this junction, the ex-B&O Old Main Line from Baltimore, one of the oldest lines in the country, and the ex-B&O Metropolitan Branch from Washington, D.C., opened in 1873, come together and continue west  as one line to Cumberland, Pittsburgh, and Ohio.  All lines are now CSX.

The much-photographed Point of Rocks station presides over the junction from inside the wye formed by the two main lines.  One of the most beloved inspirations of the noted B&O architect Ephraim Francis Baldwin, the station was completed in 1876 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.  Designed in the Victorian Gothic style, the station is reminiscent of a Bavarian lodge.  One of its most compelling features is the tall steeple-topped tower that directly faces the main line coming from the west and oversees its division into the separate lines to Baltimore and Washington. Unrivaled for its Victorian architecture and magnificent setting, the station belongs on any railfan’s must-see list who is interested in the history of the B&O, railroad station architecture, and photography.  (The station is used as an office by CSX and is not open to the public.)

Point of Rocks is also a good place to watch trains.  Most of the traffic is on the Metropolitan Subdivision and is made up of a steady stream of CSX freights to and from the west, the weekday-only morning and evening MARC trains of the Brunswick line, and the twice-daily Amtrak Capitol Limited to and from Chicago. A few freights a day also use the Old Main Line.  Despite its many curves that necessitate slow speeds, the Old Main Line actually has lesser grades than the Metropolitan Subdivision, which can be an advantage for heavy freights headed for Baltimore, such as coal and grain trains.  The third leg of the wye connecting the two lines was upgraded to support the start of MARC service to Frederick in December 2001.  MARC trains for Frederick diverge from the Metropolitan Subdivision east of the station and travel around the wye in order to head east on the Old Main Line towards the Frederick Branch, which leaves the Old Main Line just to the east of the route 355 overpass and Monocacy National Battlefield park.  Interestingly, the Frederick trains do not stop at Point of Rocks.  Those with access to back issues of TRAINS magazine will find a detailed Trackside article about train watching at Point of Rocks in the June 1996 issue. A Google search will also quickly lead to detailed maps of the area. Photography is better in the afternoon when the light will be on the depot’s tower.

The Point of Rocks station is located on Route 28 (4000 Clay St.), which serves as the main street of Point of Rocks, a short distance east of its intersection with U.S. 15 at the approach to the bridge over the Potomac River.  Distance from Washington, D. C. is about 40 miles.  It can be reached from Frederick MD (about 12 miles) via U.S. 340 and 15, from Virginia via U.S. 15, or from Montgomery County via route 28.  When approaching from the North on U.S. 15, use care when making the left turn onto Route 28 as the intersection is at the bottom of a long grade and traffic is heavy.  There is a large parking lot for MARC patrons at the station.  It has plenty of room on weekends as MARC provides only weekday service but gets quite full on weekdays.  Even though it has some new developments, Point of Rocks is a very small town and offers only limited services.  There is a convenience store and gas station about a quarter mile east of station on route 28 and several other small country stores.  The best bet for more extensive services is in Frederick. There is also access to the C&O Canal Park and the Potomac River; in fact, the area occasionally floods.  Heading west on route 28 from the station, the road to the park is to the left just before rise that leads to the junction with U.S. 15.  Across a one-lane bridge over the canal, there is a new parking lot and boat launch along with modern and clean chemical toilets. For those interested in including a visit to Brunswick, go North on U.S. 15 to the roundabout at route 464 and proceed west on route 464.

 Point of Rocks is named for a rock formation that leaves a very narrow passage along the eastern shore of the Potomac River and years of contention between the canal and the railroad ensued due to the difficulty of fitting both around the point.  Eventually, the two reached a truce and were able to coexist.  A wall was built between the two right-of-ways to keep the trains from scaring the mules that pulled the canal boats.  When the line was double tracked, the Point of Rocks tunnel was built to provide a passage for the second line.  The tunnel entrance is located just to the west of the U.S. 15 overpass and can be viewed from the canal park.  (Viewing the tunnel from the bridge is not recommended for safety reasons because there is no pedestrian walkway on the western side of the bridge and traffic is quite heavy.) Point of Rocks was also a strategic location during the Civil War and the town was attacked by Mosby’s raiders, among others.

Baldwin designed the Point of Rocks station shortly after becoming the chief architect for the B&O in 1873 (B&O was the first railroad to hire an official architect) and it is undoubtedly one of his best known works.   The station has been exhaustively photographed, painted, sketched and modeled and images appear regularly in books, articles, posters, and calendars.  Besides the 4-story tall tower with its pyramidal roof, other interesting features are the arched windows, decorative brackets and bargeboards, dormers, and the slate jerkin-head roof.  There are accommodations on the second floor for a station agent, consisting of 5 rooms, alas not available for rent.  The first floor has a waiting room, ladies’ room, ticket office, telegraph office in the base of the tower, and a freight house (thought to be a predecessor of the main station that was incorporated into its design).  The station was closed in 1962 and is now used as a CSX maintenance of way office.  The current commuter platforms and attractive platform shelters were installed by MARC in 2008.

A little known fact (ref 2) is that the station was struck by lightning in the late afternoon of June 27, 1931 and gutted.   All fans of the station can be eternally grateful that the officials of the B&O ordered its full restoration. More recently, the south side awning on the main building collapsed under the weight of record snow fall during the blizzard of 2010 but it has been rebuilt. Although CSX has kept the station up, it is hoped that if the time ever comes that the railroad wishes to relinquish ownership that a suitable organization will be found to take over responsibility for the station and a full restoration effort will be initiated.

The architecture of the Point of Rocks station is unusually sophisticated for its rural setting. That such an elaborate and imposing structure was built at this location testifies to the significance of the railroad in post-Civil War America, especially in small towns. The influence was so great that the town was moved to its present site from a location about a mile away in order to be near the tracks, demonstrating the importance of the railroad to commerce at that time.

History buffs may want to visit another Point of Rocks structure on the National Register, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, located at 1914 Ballenger Creek Pike.  The church was constructed of brick in 1842 in the late Federal style by slaves from the nearby Duval plantation. Union troops used the church as a hospital during the Civil War and, following the war, the church vestry successfully sued the U.S. government for $1000 war damages to put towards the church’s restoration.

 

References:

  1. David Naylor, Railroad Stations:  The Buildings That Linked the Nation, Norton/Library of Congress Visual Sourcebooks in Architecture, Design, and Engineering,  W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, Copyright 2012
  2. Carlos P. Avery, E. Francis Baldwin, Architect, The B&O, Baltimore , and Beyond, Baltimore Architecture Foundation, Baltimore, MD, in Association with the B&O Museum, 2003
  3. Susan C. Soderberg, The MET, A History of the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad, Its Stations and Towns, Germantown Historical Society, Copyright 1998
 Pictures
Photo by Gail Anderson
 

 
Special thanks to Hank Anderson for contributing to this page. 
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