Little Known Sykesville History – When Lee And Stuart Traveled Through Sykesville On B. & O

October 12, 1967

By James N. Purman

Two men, one in the uniform of a cavalry lieutenant, and the other in civilian clothes, stood on the swaying metal deck of the cab of a locomotive as it pounded its way over the uneven tracks of the B & O main line through Sykesville. The time was October 17, 1859, one hundred and eight years ago next Tuesday.

Within five years, both these men would become great figures in American history. The one in civilian clothes was Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee; the other, his temporary aide, was Lt. J. E. B. Stuart.

That afternoon President Buchanan had sent Stuart across the Potomac to Arlington where Colonel Lee was enjoying a few days’ leave, to draft him for the assignment to which the speeding locomotive was carrying them now. At Harpers Ferry, just the day before, the Federal Arsenal had been captured by abolitionist John Brown and his accomplices who were rumored to be arming slaves for an uprising. Lee was to take command of a company of Marines who had gone up on an earlier train, capture the insurgents and restore order at the Ferry.

In those days the main line of the B & O by passed Washington; Lee and Stuart had gone over to Relay where they had been waiting for transportation since later afternoon. President Garrett of the B. & O had specially dispatched the lone locomotive which was carrying them. As we visualize the small engine with its oversize stack billowing clouds of smoke and whistle screeching at villages and crossroads, plunging around the sharp curves of the track alongside the Patapsco, it is interesting to try and reconstruct the scene that met the famous passengers’ eyes as they passed through Sykesville at dusk that October day.

Rounding the curve (just under the new Rt. 32 bridge), they saw ahead on their left, crowded between the tracks and the river, the four-story Grimes Hotel and, next door to it, the store of Zimmerman and Schultz. Just beyond the hotel, which has the largest in Maryland, outside Baltimore, a small wooden bridge carried road traffic across the Patapsco.

Beyond the bridge, between the river and Forsythe Road, were the various buildings of James Sykes’ “Howard Cotton Factory”, including a large stone mill building and a long row of houses for the mill workers. On an elevation just beyond the mill property stood the Episcopal Church. Various other houses stood along the roads and railroad tracks.

The only structures standing today which saw Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart pass on their way to capture John Brown are the small stone house on the Renehan Apple Butter Factory property (the single surviving building of Sykes’ mills) and St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church.

The rest of the Sykesville of 1859 was washed away in the floods of 1868 and later years and the town was relocated on the safer, Carroll County side of the river. The Zimmerman and Schultz store was replaced by a brick building across the tracks from its old location, the present State Roads building.

Three days later, in the early morning hours of October 20, his mission completed, Colonel Lee returned through Sykesville. John Brown and some of his raiders were in jail, the rest were dead. The trial of the abolitionists was held in November at Charlestown near Harpers Ferry and on December 2, just after his execution, John Brown’s body was carried on a train through Sykesville, accompanied by his wife Mary, returning to the final resting place in New York State.

(CREDITS: Chief of sources of information for this article were Allan Keller’s book, “Thunder at Harpers Ferry, Scharf’s History of Western Maryland and Misses Elsie and Fanny Jones, Sykesville, who also supplied the picture. The author is especially grateful for their interest and cooperation.)

(Editor’s Note: Father Purman is the current rector of St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church.)

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