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Union Bridge still waiting to be discovered
When you ask what Union Bridge is like, Hank Johnson has a favorite story that sums up the Carroll County town in a nutshell.
"My wife mailed a letter to her sister in England and the Union Bridge post office called and said you couldn't send it for 32 cents postage. So they said they'd put the additional postage on it and send it for her," explained Johnson, a resident and a real estate agent with the Westminster office of Long and Foster Real Estate Inc. "See if that happens in Baltimore."
In a decade where residential development has gobbled up farmland and turned great chunks of the countryside into subdivisions, Union Bridge, on the Carroll and Frederick county line, has remained what it has been for almost 300 years, a small, undisturbed country town.
"I bet the post office could deliver 90 percent of the mail with just the names and no addresses," Johnson remarked.
With rows of intact Victorian homes and buildings lining its main street and the railroad station at its center, the town seems to have stood still in time, which is fine by its residents.
"I think it's the last town in Carroll County left to be discovered," said Brian Amsel, who purchased an 1890 residence on Main Street in 1997. Like many homeowners on Main Street, Amsel re-painted his Victorian home in a multicolored paint scheme that's more historically accurate for that era.
"We've experienced less growth than any other town in the county," said Jim Schumacher, the special projects manager for Union Bridge.
"It's just a little too far out; it's that extra 15 to 30 minutes of commute," Schumacher said in explaining why the town has not been overrun with development. It takes more than an hour to travel south on Route 75 to Interstate 70 to Baltimore.
"We're a well-kept secret; we're not anxious to have hordes of people descend," explained Johnson. "We want to stay the kind of town where, when an underage kid tries to buy cigarettes, his parents get a call."
Although it's surrounded by farms owned by generations of families, Union Bridge has been essentially a one-employer town since Lehigh Portland Cement set up business near the center of town in 1911.
The plant is being modernized and a new access road that will divert truck traffic off Main Street is being built. The Maryland Midland Railway runs freight service on the old Western Maryland Railway right-of-way through town and recently built new offices that blend well with the downtown's historic buildings.
Because of Union Bridge's isolated location, the real estate market isn't exactly booming. Six properties are for sale.
A two-bedroom home on 2.5 acres is listed for $129,000, and a four bedroom with two baths is listed for $169,950. There are more expensive homes on larger parcels available; one for $550,000 and another for $329,999.
Not including a home that sold for $450,000, the average sale price of 12 homes in the past year was about $133,000.
But a town that's had only seven new houses spring up in 12 years would seem bound to grow sometime.
Union Bridge is about to get its first large subdivision. A former 130-acre farm a quarter-mile north of town is to eventually be the site of 324 homes.
Because of a limited water supply, the town will for now allow only the first 174 houses to be built, according to Perry Jones, the town's mayor.
The entire development, which is still going through the approvals process, will be built out over a 15- to 20-year period. Site work is expected to begin next year.
Though its turn-of-the-century ambience is Union Bridge's strongest selling point, the town does feel that it needs some updating, such as new street lighting and sidewalks, as well as a few more businesses on Main Street.
"We received a grant to hire a firm to do a master plan for our downtown," explained Joan McKee, chairwoman of the Main Street Revitalization Committee. The planning firm, Whitney Bailey Cox & Magnani, is developing a list of projects and costs for the committee, she said.
The plan is being done in conjunction with the State Highway Administration, which has a revitalization-enhancement program for state roads that run through historic towns. Route 75 is Union Bridge's Main Street.
Once the plan is complete, the town will set priorities for the projects and seek grants.
"One goal will be to organize the Main Street merchants to come up with better parking for downtown shopping," Schumacher said.
Union Bridge was settled by Quakers and German settlers from Pennsylvania who began a farming community in the 1700s. There were two towns, one on either side of Pipe Creek, but a bridge eventually joined them - hence the name Union Bridge.
William Farquhar, one of the first landowners in the area, held the first Friends service in 1735 in the Pipe Creek Meeting House on Quaker Hill Road, which is still used for worship.
The Western Maryland Railway came to town in the late 19th century, and a depot was built in 1902 that also served as the company's main offices.
The railroad ended passenger service in 1957, and an excursion train that ran out to Western Maryland ceased operation about five years ago.
The station has survived as a museum run by the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society, open on Sunday afternoons.
Several stone quarries are in the area, and from Union Bridge came one of America's most important 19th-century sculptors, William Rinehart.Starting as an apprentice in his family's quarry, Rinehart went to Baltimore to study at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and later to Italy.
By his death at 49, Rinehart had sculpted hundreds of works, including some on display in the nation's Capitol. Named for him is the Rinehart School of Sculpture in the Maryland Institute's Mount Royal Station building.
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 70 minutes
Public schools: Elmer Wolfe Elementary, New Windsor Middle, Francis Scott Key High
Shopping: Cranberry Mall in Westminster, Route 15 in Frederick
ZIP code: 21791