Where history made tracks NEIGHBORHOOD HAS A RICH, WORKING-CLASS PAST

March 29, 1992|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Staff Writer

There's a tidy historical footnote to the Orioles' new address at Camden Yards.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Camden Station's platform was the first spot in Baltimore the team set foot on when the major-league franchise returned here April 15, 1954. Teams then all traveled by train. The first two games that season were played in Detroit. The team rode the blue-and-gray B&O coaches for its welcome here. Once the team detrained, it boarded buses for a mammoth parade and first game at Memorial Stadium.

Camden Yards, a modern name applied to a sprawling site on the western edge of downtown Baltimore, has long been a working, get-the-job-done district. The neighborhood has a history piled up about as high as the upper reserved seats. But like a lot of self-effacing Baltimore, you have to look for it.

A good place to start is Camden Station. Thanks to a resplendent feat of historic rebuilding and replication, Camden Station today looks dazzling proud. The old terminal, once the corporate headquarters of the mighty Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, sits on Camden Street, just east of the new ballpark.

Camden Street Depot opened in 1857, after the B&O Railroad overcame financial and engineering obstacles to reach the Ohio River at Wheeling, W.Va., 379 miles from Baltimore. The B&O board set aside a princely construction budget of $500,000, in gold-standard dollars. This tab was somewhat trimmed, but the terminal as completed for a knockout showcase building.

The tall clock tower (a replica went back atop the roof earlier this month) was built to proclaim the railroad's vaunted status in Baltimore. And it came in handy, too. Before 1883, when Standard Time was adopted, B&O conductors consulted the tower clock for "true Camden Station Time."

The coded clicks of the telegraph wire told Baltimoreans of the breaking news events of the day. Word of John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., or the first shots at Fort Sumter, S.C., first -- came into Camden Station, then the news center of Baltimore.

President Lincoln passed through Camden Station several times. The first was on the way to his inauguration in 1861 and another was to deliver the Gettysburg Address in 1863.

Lincoln's funeral train from Washington also came to Camden Station, on the morning of April 21, 1865. The car carrying his coffin stopped at what is now Lee Street.

The whole station and its exterior shed were draped in black, and steam locomotives standing in the yards tolled their bronze bells continuously. Bands played solemn music as the president's casket was removed so that Baltimoreans could pay their last respects.

The station's greatest notoriety came on April 19, 1861, during the opening days of the Civil War. A Baltimore mob attacked troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania who were trying to pass through Baltimore to guard Washington. The mob charged Camden Station as the Massachusetts troops attempted to board B&O coaches.

Camden Station's tall steeple served an unexpected purpose this day. The B&O's principal officers ran up the steps and used the tower as an observation post.

Aloft in the tower, the B&O officials observed this frenzy and got word to police, who were able to open the rails so the troops could move on to Washington.

The long and thin B&O warehouse, which today holds the Orioles offices, began its life in 1898 as a storage place for freight. Loaded to capacity, it could hold 1,000 carloads of merchandise. Some 60 freight cars could load and unload on the east side, while 100 horse-drawn teams could receive goods on the ballpark side.

The redevelopment of Camden Yards did not do away with the rail traffic that had been part of the life here for nearly 150 years. CSX (successor to the old B&O) freight trains exit and enter the Howard Street Tunnel. MARC commuter trains still call at Camden Station weekdays, as will the new Central Light Rail Line.

The ballpark site itself was never railroad property. It was once a matrix of 19th century city streets packed with brick rowhouses.

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