Exploring Brunswick Through the Eyes of Lifetime Residents & Champions, Norm and Karen Cornelius

06/10/2019
By Preservation Maryland

Preservation Maryland has been engaged in Brunswick, Maryland over the past few years, offering support on preservation issues and now through serving on the Preservation and Revitalization Committee. In order to learn more about Brunswick and its history, we met with Norm and Karen Cornelius, lifetime residents and champions of Brunswick.

Back in the 1960s, Norman (Norm) Cornelius returned to Brunswick after serving in the Navy. He and his wife Karen both grew up in Brunswick, the quintessential 19th-century railroad city. Norm graduated from Brunswick High in 1959 and Karen in 1963; they met at her high school graduation.

In 1964, Norm began working at the Brunswick railyard in the “WB” tower, a control center for gates, switches, color position light signals, and for disseminating information to the crews. Working in the tower was a high-stress job that involved directing all of the incoming and outgoing trains onto the proper tracks. A wrong move could result in a fatal crash.

At this time, the railroad was still a booming business in Brunswick and the city reflected that. Norm recalled that anything you could ever need was right in Brunswick. There were grocers, retailers, community gathering spaces, doctors, and more. Karen reminisced shopping at the Lace Store for a pair of black and white saddle shoes for the new school year.

One of the beloved community spaces was the YMCA, which was near the WB tower where Norm worked and to the west of the railyard’s roundhouse. The YMCA was built in 1907 to serve the many crews from Baltimore and Cumberland who would stay overnight while waiting for their next trip. The YMCA also served the local community. In addition to rooms for rent, it featured dining spaces, recreation, and a barbershop.

Norm and Karen recalled their children spending the summers swimming and fishing in the Potomac River and playing various recreational sports, with baseball being especially popular among Brunswick families. Norm and Karen were founding members of the Potomac Valley Youth Association (PVYA), which developed sporting events for youth in the City in accordance with PVYA’s mission to provide opportunities for any youth that wanted to participate in sports.

Today Brunswick looks very different. The YMCA, the roundhouse, and many other buildings significant to the city’s history have been lost to demolition or fire. Some of the buildings that once housed bustling retail establishments now sit empty.

Something that has remained, and that Norm is incredibly passionate about, is his old place of work, the WB tower. He and many other residents are hoping to see the tower moved next to the historic red caboose at Railroad Square. The caboose has been a labor of love for Norm and Karen and is very popular with visitors to Brunswick. It is hoped that together the tower, caboose, and train station will help spark interest in learning more about Brunswick’s railroad past among residents and visitors.

For Norm and Karen, they want to preserve and revitalize Brunswick’s downtown because it is their home, where they raised their family, and where they have made a life together. In many ways, preserving Brunswick’s history is preserving Norm and Karen’s history, too.

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This post was written by Elsa Haarstad while an intern at Smart Growth Maryland at Preservation Maryland. Elsa is pursuing a degree in Historic Preservation from Goucher College and plans to stay involved in Brunswick. Learn more about our interns and open internships.

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