The excursion train was moving down the track near Jessup when wheels seemed to emit a dull and distant "cha-chunk" noise.
It was not a good sign.
We had smashed a driverless automobile stopped at a grade crossing.
No one was hurt, but this was not supposed to happen on a Maryland Main Street Special, a Gov. William Donald Schaefer-sponsored railroad outing from Baltimore to Brunswick.
It was an ideal autumn Saturday, warm and clear, perfect weather for a trip in 1950s coaches along the CSX (formerly Baltimore and Ohio) route to Washington, then through Montgomery County to the Potomac River Valley with its Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Our destination was Brunswick, the railroad town which was celebrating its centennial with brass bands, overpriced hot dogs and speeches.
At this point I have to make a major confession. Train wrecks have long fascinated me. As a child, I kept a scrapbook of grainy newspaper Associated Press pictures of twisted rail, piled up box cars and mangled locomotives. The day a Pennsy train derailed some 35 years ago at Caton and Frederick avenues my father drove me to the accident. And anyone who has ever owned a set of Lionel electric trains knows the temptation to place a foreign object across a set of miniature tracks.
After about the age of 6, I lost my taste for rail demolition derbies, but never broke the train addiction. And, judging by the scores of other buffs -- whole families, including grandparents -- who filled a long string of MARC (State Railroad Administration) coaches at the B&O Railroad Museum earlier this month, I could see that Marylanders hold their railroads in high esteem.
The motorist who had decided to change a tire on the small
grade crossing at Harwood Road near Jessup was attracted by the level spot created by the flat planking that crosses the rails. The CSX main line to Washington was not, however, an excellent work space.
The stranded auto sat motionless on the tracks when the motorist realized a moving train was oncoming. The railroad crew could easily see the car in the distance, but trains cannot come to an immediate, dead stop.
The motorist, waving his arms to stop, ran up the side of the tracks. Our air brakes went on, but we still knocked the car into ditch. The rail car at the head of the train (the diesel engines were at the rear, pushing) took a few small dents.
My fascination with train wrecks herewith ended -- forever. And I was in the lead car, the one that pounded the stopped car. The auto took plenty of body damage and our car picked up a dent or two. Within 25 minutes, we were rolling again.
I can now see why railroads are skittish about running tourist operations and excursion trips. Too much can go wrong.
The state-sponsored train rides, which began in August, accomplished the requisite public relations for the governor, the state and the main streets of Maryland's towns.
My trip had an excellent booklet prepared by the B&O Museum which told the story of each hamlet and crossroad we passed, keyed to the rail mileposts along the way. If you want to learn Maryland's history, this is the way to travel.
The trip explained why so many people persist in referring to Jessup as "Jessup's."
In railroading talk, the place is known as "Jessup's Cut," for the excavation work done there in 1834 when Irish immigrant John Jessup and his crew of workers dug through the ridge between Deep Run and the Little Patuxent River. Some years later, when the Maryland House of Correction was built at Jessup's Cut, the prison also assumed its own version of the name, "The Cut."
But on subsequent trips, if the state has any more, do not expect the Harwood Road grade crossing to be labeled "bad tire-servicing area."