B&O Royal Blue was beautiful, beloved and doomed

Jacques Kelly

October 22, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

A most pleasant way to travel to New York from Baltimore was the Royal Blue, that beautiful train Baltimoreans believed was theirs.

I will never forget the first time I saw a line of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad coaches at Camden Station. It was one sharp-looking train, awaiting passengers as the steam vapor rose out of hissing hoses. The engine and coaches were stunning, decorated in a deep, rich regal blue, perfectly offset by the warm gray, then highlighted with gold stripes and some black trim.

The story of the B&O's East Coast service from Baltimore to Jersey City now has a fitting chronicle, "The Royal Blue Line," a newly published 199-page book by historian Herbert H. Harwood Jr.

Harwood, who lives in the 600 block of Stevenson Lane, is the third generation of his family to have earned a living in the world of boxcars and timetables. He took an early retirement several years ago from CSX Transportation and devotes himself to researching and writing about this region's railroading. He has also headed the B&O Train Museum at Pratt and Poppleton streets.

Harwood has written a good read by any standard, and the book is not just for fans of railroading. The book's excellent illustrations are keyed to the text. It costs $40 and is published by Greenberg Publications in Sykesville.

Baltimoreans loved the B&O's legendary service. The conductors were like kindly uncles. The ambience on the B&O was unlike that on the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was commonly held that the Pennsy's conductors were impersonal at best, often downright nasty and arrogant.

The B&O's passenger trains achieved the respect of a beloved institution. They were in a class with a meal at Miller Brothers; overnight passage to Norfolk on the Old Bay Line; a two-pound box of Maron's candy; a view of the Preakness from the steps of the old Club House at Pimlico, and table linen from O'Neill's.

"Showing almost no outward effort, they glided in and rumbled away with their long, heavy strings of sleeping cars, diners, lounge cars, roomy coaches, and, on some, smooth-end observation cars carrying names like Royal Blue and The Columbian in fancy script. Soon they disappeared over the flat horizon for all those hazy, mystical places I had never seen -- and perhaps never would," Harwood writes of boyhood visits to his grandparents in Plainfield, N.J., where he first encountered this noble railroad.

Harwood explains why the B&O's route to New York ultimately failed. For starters, it went only as far as Jersey City. Passengers had to get off train coaches, board a ferry to cross the Hudson River, then proceed by special B&O buses to their Manhattan destinations. No wonder the B&O needed its own navy of ferry boats and tugs. The tugs were painted in B&O blue-and-gray.

Even in the days of feisty capitalism, it was a questionable nTC decision by railroad barons John W. Garrett and his son, Robert, to challenge the Pennsylvania Railroad for East Coast mainline business. It was a costly enterprise to build a rail system that duplicated your rival's.

Harwood says the Garretts' decision was not rational. The author even questions how mentally and physically stable Baltimore's rail tycoons were.

"By objective standards, the line itself was unnecessary when it was built and redundant for much of its life. But for those very reasons, the Royal Blue Line was forced to make itself into something out of the ordinary. That it surely did, and that may be a more lasting accomplishment," Harwood writes.

Because the Pennsy could get you to New York quicker, the B&O had to establish its reputation on service and image. The notion of a "Royal Blue" train was a piece of marketing genius. The color was selected by Charles F. Mayer, the B&O president, who matched it from a scrap of Royal Saxony Blue velvet. The B&O service was officially inaugurated July 31, 1890. The last run was April 26, 1958.

The route created by the Garretts, which includes such engineering feats as the Howard Street tunnel, is still much used today by freight traffic.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt preferred the Royal Blue, riding from Washington to a point short of Hyde Park, N.Y. He only traveled the Pennsy in death, when it carried his coffin home to Hyde Park. Like the Garretts, FDR was a Pennsy-hater, too.

The Royal Blue and the other inter-city trains operated by the B&O never attracted great numbers of passengers. When the service between Washington and New York was ended, ridership averaged 98 passengers per train, barely enough riders to fill two cars.

The demise of the B&O's passenger service recalls the story of the lady who lived on Park Avenue in Bolton Hill, very close to Mount Royal Station and not far from the Pennsy's Pennsylvania Station on Charles Street.

Several times a year, she regularly rode the train to New York and saw several plays. But then she quit. Asked why, she replied, "Well, the B&O stopped running trains there." Enough said.

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