B&O's Royal Blue provides a fond, one-day sentimental journey

Jacques Kelly

December 09, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The passenger train that snaked through the Howard Street Tunnel, Remington, Charles Village and Waverly seemed to attract more photographers than Elizabeth Taylor's wedding.

At grade crossings and bridges in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties and northward to Philadelphia, the shutterbugs were out in droves. The occasion was the one-day re-creation of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's famed Royal Blue.

"This might be the excursion of the decade," said James Genthner, a Baltimore rail enthusiast.

After 1958, the B&O discontinued regular passenger service north to Philadelphia and beyond. But railroad traditions die hard in Baltimore. The word that the B&O Railroad Museum would hire locomotives and passenger cars for a Saturday excursion to Philadelphia, along a right-of-way normally traveled only by freight trains, brought an immediate sellout for the one-day event. The newsletters of groups of railroad buffs also broadcast the news that B&O passenger service was back again, if only for a day.

Nearly 750 people, including a busload from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, boarded the Royal Blue at a CSX track in Locust Point. Another group got on in Aberdeen.

In Philadelphia, 50 camera-laden rail enthusiasts packed an iron pedestrian bridge to record the arrival of the Royal Blue.

The return trip included the evening lighting of the 120-year-old Cecil County Holly Tree at Jackson, which has become a seasonal tradition. It began in 1948 when the B&O held a ceremony at its Traveler's Christmas Tree. A train loaded with employees would depart from Camden Station and ride northeast to Jackson, where that same tall holly tree still stands alongside the track. The tree lighting continued until the railroad decided it was too costly.

But Cecil County residents refused to let it die. With the help of the Conowingo Power Company, the event continued.

So, Saturday evening, the locomotives pulling the 11 coaches of the Royal Blue line slid to a stop at Jackson, a tiny whistlestop three miles east of Perryville.

Cecil County residents sang Christmas songs and handed out cups of hot cider. About 2,000 people, including the train passengers, stood by the main holly tree, which is flanked by three smaller trees.

"To see the train pull in here is a big event in itself," said Brain Gray, a Perryville resident who served as master of ceremonies at the tree lighting.

George and Charlotte Voith, whose son gave them their excursion tickets, were on the first train that brought B&O employees to the first tree-lighting. It was pulled by a steam-powered locomotive.

"The B&O [Railroad] was one big family then. It was a sad day when revenue fell off in the 1950s and the train trips here had to be stopped," said George Voith, a retired B&O employee.

"Galen Fromme [a veteran broadcaster for WBAL] announced the first lighting on the radio. It was big news," recalled Charlotte Voith.

Soon after she spoke, the tree was lighted. The "Hallelujah Chorus" rang out through an outdoor amplifier. Then the train whistle blew and passengers boarded for the ride back to Locust Point.

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