Cast in Concrete

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, August 3, 2020

I’d seen both sides of the bridge over Maryland Route 34, between Shepherdstown, West Virginia and Sharpsburg, Maryland (the location of the U.S. Civil War’s Battle Antietam) many times before I finally did something about it, photographically speaking.  It obviously had been there a long while when I first viewed it about 30 years ago, and, based on numerous subsequent viewings since then, it didn’t look like it was going away any time soon.

The interesting thing about this otherwise mundane concrete overpass, besides the fact that it supported a mainline railroad, was the steam-era Norfolk & Western herald cast into the bridge’s structure, on both sides of the underpass.  This location is, of course, less than 15 miles from the northern end of the northernmost point on the "historic" (i.e. before the addition of the Nickel Plate and Wabash in the 1960s) N&W at Hagerstown, Maryland.

During the first half of twentieth century, concrete became a popular construction material for land-based forms of transportation in the U.S., including numerous highway and rail bridges, some of which, like this one, catered to both modes for the movement of goods and people.  Some railroads, an example being the Lackawanna (DL&W), made extensive use of concrete structures, a notable example being the magnificent Tunkfhannock Viaduct at Nicholson, in northern Pennsylvania between Scranton and Binghamton, New York.

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the double-deck Western Hills viaduct was built using this material in conjunction with the Cincinnati Union Terminal project, and passed directly over the engine facilities, including the roundhouse, offering a marvelous view of what are now the long-gone activities of a major rail passenger terminal.

Subsequently, steel has largely replaced concrete for medium and large bridges, but there are still many of the “old school” examples around.  Within seventy miles of this location, on what is now the Norfolk Southern’s “B-line” between Manassas and Front Royal, Virginia, is a another concrete relic with “Southern Railway” embedded in the now hard-as-rock structure, for example.  A few years ago, while visiting the Rail Park in Fostoria, Ohio, I saw a fine representation of the Nickel Plate Road still displayed proudly on a nearby overhead bridge. 

So, cutting to the chase, recently, I finally made a bold move, and … stopped the car, got out and photographed the east side of the Maryland Route 34 railroad overpass.  And then, since no trains deigned to grace me with their presence, I came back a few weeks later, at a more propitious time, and succeeded in capturing NS intermodal train 211 on its journey between northern New Jersey and Atlanta, Georgia; today’s “H-line”, at least between Hagerstown and Front Royal, supplies the right-of-way for NS’s principal north-south route in the eastern U.S.  The “& Western” may have passed from the scene, but the “Norfolk” portion of the cast-in-concrete still applies.

While taking the picture something unexpected occurred: the locomotives and train were not parallel to the sides of the bridge.  A look at Google Earth shows why.  The bridge is essentially on a north-south axis.  The railroad atop it runs at an angle, approximately from SSW to NNE, compass-wise.  It appears that the bridge (built in 1939 as a grade crossing elimination project) was intended for the potential of two tracks, and that there may have been some re-alignment of the railroad (a possibility: elimination of an S-curve at this location) subsequently. 


While many of these concrete bridges have stood the test of time so far, you never know when they might be replaced. Changed traffic patterns or worse, loss of traffic, could cause them to meet their demise.  Accordingly, shoot them while you can. Other things could change, as well: while I’m not expecting it in the near future, it’s not impossible that the “N&W” emblem on the Route 34 overpass could even outlast any reference to “Norfolk” on the part of the owning and/or operating entity overhead.  Time will tell.

(Photos by George W. Hamlin)


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