Baltimore had rough time for inauguration in 1909

JACQUES KELLY

January 20, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore was in a confident mood 84 years ago for the inauguration of William Howard Taft and the beginning of his Era of Good Feeling.

Thousands had planned to board trains from Baltimore to Washington to greet the new president. At that time, presidents were inaugurated on March 4.

For a week before the event, the front page of The Sun was full of ads for service to the capital on trains operated by the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O), the Pennsylvania and the new Washington Baltimore & Annapolis (WB&A), an electric interurban line.

The round-trip fare was $1.50 on the B&O and Pennsy, $1.25 on the WB&A. Each carrier advertised that a train would leave every 10 minutes. Every available coach was pressed into service.

Thousands of spectators would be converging on Washington for the inauguration. And this being the era of very few automobiles, virtually all would ride the steel rails. And Baltimore was an important hub.

The railroads had come under fire for delays on previous inauguration days. They were not supposed to happen again, especially because so many of the railroads' top brass would be occupying the plush parlor car seats.

The weather for March 4, 1909, didn't much concern the people. Caught up in the euphoria of the inaugural, Baltimoreans were oblivious to the threatening conditions. Even though snowflakes were swirling around the Custom House roof on Gay Street on the evening of Mar. 3, the weatherman steadfastly predicted a fair sky for Inauguration Day.

Local physicians were not so optimistic. The weather had been damp and cold. The Sun quoted an unnamed doctor who predicted it would be "a first-class day to take colds, pneumonia, neuralgia, rheumatism, consumption, catarrh, grippe and other maladies." The doctor warned residents not to stand outside along the route of the inaugural parade and issued a piece of sound advice, "Wear good rubbers."

On the morning of March 4, a freakish late winter storm had stalled over the Potomac and Patapsco river valleys. A heavy wet snow soon blanketed the city. Electric wires, poles, trees and awnings fell. A police officer was electrocuted at North Avenue and McMechen Street. A Fells Point woman went out for a loaf of bread and never made it home alive, having been fatally struck by a live wire on South Ann Street.

Electric, telephone and telegraph lines snapped like twine. A pole with 25 cross arms at Greenmount and Gorsuch avenues toppled. "On the opposite corner the concrete pavement was seared black by the mass of electrical wires," The Sun said.

The situation was so critical that Baltimore shut down all electric service to prevent fallen live wires from doing any more damage. Telephone and telegraph wires were silent, too.

"All communications from outside points had been cut off as effectively as if a great steel sack had been dropped over the city," The Sun reported.

The snow derailed the rail carriers' best laid plans. The WB&A, which had hoped to haul thousands, got no farther than Greene pTC Street. One of its big cars (comparable to a light rail vehicle) left the terminal at Park Avenue and Fayette Street at 1:30 a.m. on Mar. 4. It stalled at Greene Street. "Not a wheel could be turned," The Sun reported. The mighty Pennsy and B&O, their signals and switches clogged with slush, fared no better.

President Taft was forced indoors to the Senate Chamber to take the oath of office.

By the afternoon, a few trains were getting through to Washington, but only when preceded by pilot engines. It took six hours for the trains to get through the 15 inches of wet snow.

A few Baltimoreans managed to get to Washington. An intrepid party headed by Mrs. Edwin Abell, accompanied by Sarah Monmonier and Capt. Jesse Slingluff, made it to the inaugural festivities.

When it was all over, The Sun's artist drew a cartoon of the Grim Reaper over Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue. The headline read, "A Fateful and Fatal Fourth of March."

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