Sixty-five times a day, give or take a Metroliner or two, an Amtrak train roars into the quiet Maryland town of Perryville.
Sixty-three times a day the train never even slows down.
Two commuter locals do stop in Perryville, so it is not technically correct to call this 258-year-old northeastern Maryland village an orphan of America's shift from railroad to auto.
But there is no question that Perryville, named for the nephew of a pre-revolutionary Maryland governor, has lost the stature of a national railroad hub, which it enjoyed in the 1920s.
Back then, as local jokesters like to tell it, the town was the largest rail freight distributing station between Phildelphia and South America.
Tracks of the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio railroads joined in Perryville, as they still do, and two thirds of the local people made their living as conductors, engineers, track repairmen or freight handlers. At that time, two dozen passenger trains stopped in Perryville every day.
But today, "It's apples and oranges. It's just nothing like it used to be, says Curtis W. Rutter, an observer of the Perryville scene for 62 of his 82 years. "The railroad now is close to nothing."
Still, Perryville has begun an economic comeback in the last five years that has been unmatched by any other town in Cecil County and by few in the northern part of the state.
The sparkplugs have been William Cole III, president of the only bank in town, and Domonick J. Cifaldo, Perryville's Army-jacketed, bureaucracy hating mayor.
Their hope is to turn Perryville's economy away from the railroads and toward two other obvious sources of business vitality: the Perry Point Veterans Administration Hospital and the shoreline.
The hospital, located on 457 grassy acres just south of town, has treated psychiatric patients for the last 58 years. It houses nearly 850 patients and employs 1,234 people. Its annual payroll of $18 million is by far the largest in or near Perryville.
In addition, through an unusual program, 155 Perryville households each earn between $250 and $300 a month by providing room and board to hospital patients deemed well enough to try living "on the outside."
"They become part of the family, so the interrelationship between Perryville and Perry Point is obvious," notes Dr. Milton Ginsberg, Perry Point's chief of staff.
The shoreline is along the western edge of town, where the Susquehanna River joins Chesapeake Bay. Although four marinas operate on the Susquehanna year-round, and although Perryville is less than an hour's drive for potential weekend sailors in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Lancaster and Baltimore, pleasure-boating remains substantially undeveloped.
Cole's and Cifaldo's immediate aim has been to reverse Perryville's economic dependence on nearby Havre de Grace and North East by making their town's business structure more balanced and self-sufficient.
At present, Perryville is the only Maryland town of its size (2,500) that has no grocery store, drug store, barber shop, movie theater or doctor.
"Not some of those things," says Bill Calvert, a local attorney. "All of those things" are lacking.
Somewhat curiously, perhaps, Perryville does have a Honda automobile dealership, a supply store that stocks four kinds of birdseed, and a newsstand that carries an array of girlie magazines that would impress even the most jaded city dweller.
"We know that some of that is a little unusual for a town this size, that some of it has come in the wrong order," Cole said. "But we have had some nibbles as far as a shopping center is concerned, and that would go a long way toward helping us."
Meanwhile, the town government (15 employes, annual budget $500,000) is now poised to handle substantial business growth as never before.
Rezoning of the town's main commercial strips (Broad Street downtown and U.S. 40 along the northern edge) was completed by the town commission a little more than a year ago. For the first time, commercial development in Perryville will be restricted to those two streets -- and just as important, residential development will have to go elsewhere.
A few months before the town commissioners passed the zoning code, a new high school was opened. Then, last November, Cole arranged a merger of the National Bank of Perryville with First National Bank of Maryland -- thus increasing his bank's loan limit from $55,000 to $10 million overnight.
In mid-1979, Perryville received a $301,000 grant from the federal government to help winterize and rehabilitate local homes -- 60 percent of which are owned by their occupants. And although a moratorium is temporarily in effect, Perryville expects to double its sewage capacity and water output within two years.
Cifaldo, 61, a retired machinist who served for 30 years at nearby Edgewood Arsenal, gets red in the face with frustration when he is asked about the delay in upgrading sewer and water facilities.
"We've fought the EPA and the damn feds for six years now," he says. "First it's this, then it's that. They always come up with a new regulation. "I tell ya, if it's like this in Washington all the time, I'm worried about our country.
"We get young couples who marry now and ask us to let them build, and we just can't. We just can't do it. The sad thing is that we could have had this sewer and water in here four years ago if the feds had just left us alone. And nothing is going to happen here unless that happens."
One thing that has happened is that Perryville has become one of five towns in the state to hire state policemen rather than maintain its own force.
Two troopers are detached from their normal state police duties to serve Perryville fulltime. They cost the town $42,000 a year, "and not a single person I know thinks it hasn't been worth it," Cifaldo says. "The town policeman we used to have knew everybody and didn't want to hand out any tickets."
An unsolved municipal problem, however, according to Cifaldo and town administrator Eric Morsicato, has been the civic attitudes of Amtrak and the B & O Railroad.
"They don't pay any attention to zoning, and they're very bad on maintenance. They won't mow their grass or anything," Morsicato said.
While Perryville is unlikely to take legal action against the railroads, "we might just keep after 'em, like a little old feisty dog," Cifaldo said.
The mood in Perryville, however, is normally anything but feisty. "This is a friendly place," said Calvert. "When a social event takes place at the firehouse, everyone comes . . . If I walked out on the street right now, I'd probably know nine out of 10 people, if not more."
Such spirit apparently has affected Perryville's young people. Whereas high school graduates elsewhere in the state tend to flock to Baltimore and Washington for jobs, Perryville's "have mostly stayed around," Calvert said. w
Still, Cecil County ranks only 16th in per capita income among Maryland's 23 counties, and it ranks fifth in unemployment. "We're poised on the verge of being a boom town, because I-95 and U.S. 40 are right here," said Cole. "But we do have some of the downs that any small town experiences."
The town would like to expand as much as possible, according to Cifaldo. A potential increase in revenue is the main reason, and annexation would be the method.
Cifaldo said the town government is eyeing a 2,000-acre area just north of the city and just south of I-95 that would immediately add 300 households to the town and perhaps $100,000 a year to its treasury.
"We'd all like to see it grow," Cifaldo said. "Perryville's been at a standstill for such a damn long time. We'd like to show what can be done when a lot of different kinds of people put their shoulders to the wheel."