Roundhouse Regrets

The Patapsco Valley still rumbles with the rattle of freight trains on the CSX lines, but trains don’t stop anymore at the nation’s oldest surviving railroad depot.

Ellicott City was a hub for goods starting in the 1700s, including coal, lumber, flour, and cotton, and the railroad’s beginnings in the 1800s helped make it easier to transport freight from the west to port in Baltimore.

“Roundhouse Regrets” is one of author Frederick Foote’s Coal Train Poems, a collection examining slavery and liberation in America inspired by the trains, ubiquitous in this region, carrying West Virginia coal to eastern ports for shipment abroad.

In 1830, the first train from the Mount Clare roundhouse traveled to the Ellicott’s Mills station, which was built of granite donated by the Ellicott family from its nearby quarries. Constructed at the end of the Oliver Viaduct, the station’s upper story was at track level, so the trains could be worked on from underneath.

The Ellicott City Times marked the end of passenger service to the station with this story, “On Saturday December 31, 1949, the last passenger train arrived on time at Ellicott City at 6:02 PM. The train carried over 300 people including descendants of the Ellicotts, local politicians and businessmen as well as some who had been regular passengers for 26 years. For many it was like the ‘passing of an old friend.’ ”

Freight trains still stopped in Ellicott City until 1972. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, the B&O Ellicott City Station now serves as a museum.

The freight trains, coal or otherwise, now clank through Ellicott City without stopping, their rattle muted by traffic on Frederick Road and by the rush of the river.

Author Frederick Foote is a Maryland poet and physician. His poems have appeared in journals, including Commonweal, The Progressive, and The South Carolina Review. His 2014 book of war poetry, Medic Against Bomb, received the Grayson Poetry Prize and other honors.

Roundhouse Regrets
by Fred Foote

Coal Train’s
writing his memoirs
on the back side of a spade
the Georgia Southern to Norfolk 
autos backed up for miles
that was a little respect
the coal line on the Chessie
cold sleet like something out of hell 
and he stayed there 20 years
while others slept with the flatcars 
he labored over mountain
stelling himself it was Work
who would ever read this 
the shovel lay in the coal bin 
after the fires went out
once in Ellicott City
they hung a flag on his nose
and made him an armored train
they tried the same trick in Washington 
but the flag fell off
best was the B & O line
a siding and tender all his own 
yet he threw it away
he was like that in his youth
he ran down babies fruit carts and cattle 
everyone got their turn
now he lifts the phone 
and puts it down again 
there’s no one left to call
the fever charts on the desktop 
chime like the angel of death
and no place ever quite fit
the ones without droughts were rife with disease 
the ones that lacked lice were hammered with hail
there are always so many 

“Roundhouse Regrets” was previously published in Main Street Rag. © Fred Foote. Published by permission of the author.

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