National Pike and Royal Blue Line: roads well traveled

November 18, 1990|By FRED RASMUSSEN

Two commercial highways, one of macadam and the other of steel, with strong Baltimore links changed travel and commerce in America forever.

The easternmost section of the National Road was begun in 1797 when Baltimore businessmen and bankers, anxious to find a quick route to the western territories, committed their economic resources to that end, writes Merrit Ierley in "Traveling the National Road: Across the Centuries on America's First Highway (Overlook Press, 238 pages, $21.95). Known locally as the National Pike and Baltimore Pike, it connected the city with Cumberland and became part of the National Road, which stretched 750 miles from Baltimore to Vandalia, then the capital of Illinois.

The National Road, created by an act of Congress, was signed into law by Thomas Jefferson in 1806, making it the first interstate road in the country's history. Often compared to Rome's Appian Way, it quickly became the major route over the Alleghenies and was clogged with traffic on horseback, Conestoga wagons piled high with freight bound for Eastern markets, and pioneers headed westward.

The National Road was a major highway of commerce until the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad built its line westward in the 1850s, and what had bounced over the road in wagons and stagecoaches was quickly diverted to trains.

Though this development affected traffic on the National Road, the advent of the automobile revived it. The National Road came back as a major east-west highway, known today as Route 40.

Mr. Ierley has written "Traveling the National Road" through the voices of those who traveled its route during its heyday, using diaries and newspaper articles. The elaborate use of maps and photographs as well as contemporary illustrations round out this excellent work of technological and social history.

The company that turned the National Road for many years into a weed-grown local roadway was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Founded in Baltimore in 1827, it was the nation's first chartered common carrier railroad.

Herbert Harwood Jr.'s "Royal Blue Line" (Greenberg Publishing Co., 199 pages, $40) details the B&O's struggle to enter the New York market and its operation in the face of its formidable competition, the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Having lost out in a corporate shootout with Pennsy executives over the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, the B&O in the 1880s undertook to build its own line from Baltimore to New York.

Mr. Harwood's book details the construction and eventual operation of what became known as the Royal Blue Line from Washington to Jersey City, N.J. Passengers transferred to the ferries of the Central Railroad of New Jersey for the quick ride across the North River.

The color of the passenger cars, which was Royal Saxony Blue, became synonymous with the route itself and its service, even though no train carried that specific name until 1935. Between 1890 and the demise of the Royal Blue Route in 1958, when B&O President Howard E. Simpson closed down the route to passenger traffic, the trains that traveled those rails had etched themselves into the American traveling public's psyche.

The competition that existed between the Pennsy and the B&O was inbred but the swift, elegant trains of the B&O remained quintessentially reflective of its Baltimore Tidewater origins.

Mr. Harwood, a third-generation railroad man and former CSX employee, has made good use of graphics, many reproduced here for the first time. This book should take its place alongside his earlier work on the B&O, "The Impossible Challenge," making it a standard reference work for anyone interested in the history of the railroad.

Mr. Rasmussen is a librarian at The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.