Mencken might have liked our light rail

Baltimore Glimpses

September 08, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

IT IS a morning in spring 1896. A young man of 16, carrying his books and obviously a student, is standing on a station platform beside the tracks that follow the Jones Falls. He's Henry Louis Mencken. The station is (in all likelihood) Cylburn (then located on the west side of the falls between the Mt. Washington and Woodberry station). The train is the Northern Central -- the light rail of its day. It is the habit of young Mencken to take the train from his house in Mt. Washington to the public school where he is a student, Poly -- then near City Hall.

The Mencken family lived in Mt. Washington from May through September during the years from 1890 to 1898 (Mencken's 10th through his 18th year). It was the family's summer place, located on 3.2 acres high on the hill at what is today 1307 Northern Parkway between Falls Road and the Jones Falls. The train runs today on the same roadbed, and the house (altered somewhat) stands on the same lot.

Pictured in the Mencken family album is a single-family house of white clapboard, with a wide porch out front. Today, the house has brick siding. The porch is gone, converted to a room that is part of an apartment. There's a fire escape from roof to ground along the east side.

In his autobiography, "Happy Days," Mencken set the scene: "There is a stretch of perhaps half a mile of wild woodland running up a steep hill from the east bank of the Jones Falls, south of [what was then] Belvedere Avenue. The land there is too steep to encourage realtors, and so it continues untouched." It stayed untouched until the 1960s. Then the city took away huge chunks of the hill to make way for the Jones Falls Expressway and then Northern Parkway.

In the back, to make way for its Cross Keys development, the Rouse Co. took over the golf course of the Baltimore Country Club. "Several miles away," Mencken wrote, "there was a mill village, Woodberry, which had produced a large number of eminent ball players. The women of Woodberry worked in the mills, while the men played baseball.

"In spring and summer," Mencken remembered, "I went to school in the city by train." In 1891 and 1892, Mencken's trip was to Knapps Academy, and from 1893 to 1896, it was to Poly. Both were near City Hall.

The Parkton local, the train that Mencken took, was very different from today's light rail, a cross between a streetcar and a train. Vernon Smith, recalling the ambience of the earlier train, wrote in a Sunday Sun "I Remember" column: "Those commuters rode on red plush seats and walked on carpeted floors. In the mornings over cigars" -- is this where Mencken learned to love those Little Willies? -- "they exchanged thermometer readings and discussed the news. Commonly, on the return trip there would be a game of cards."

Then, as now, freight trains ran along the same tracks. Mencken remembered an experience as a boy. A friend "invented the game of dropping horse apples upon the brakemen who rode on top of the box cars, working the old handbrakes. The trick was to fire the shot just as the car emerged below the [Bollman] bridge [which spanned the falls at Belvedere Avenue] and then hide behind the heavy wooden stringpiece. Unfortunately, the brakemen, in their dudgeon and alarm, mistook the horse apples for rocks and conceived the theory that they were being beset by homicidal tramps. On a memorable afternoon one of them was waiting for us. As the first apples fell he yanked out a revolver and let go. I can still hear the whistle of that lead. Some of it came so near to my head that I could actually feel the heat."

Mencken last rode the Jones Falls train in June of 1898. He was 18 and was by then commuting to his father's cigar manufacturing plant, where he worked for a short time before becoming a reporter. That was the last year the family lived in summer in Mt. Washington. The house was sold that year.

The Cylburn station is no more. The last Northern Central train ran in 1959. It was running in 1956 when Mencken died. And, of course, light rail began running on the old Jones Falls route in 1992.

Mencken loved the civilized life. He hated to drive, and for most of his life he didn't own an automobile. (The one car he spoke of was a Studebaker.) Were he alive today and living in Mt. Washington, probably he'd be climbing on the trolley at the Mt. Washington station.

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