Relishing the bumpy heyday of B&A commuter trains

April 04, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabel | Lorraine Mirabel,la Staff Writer

Every afternoon, Marjorie Beatty would hear the whistle blow when the old B&A train rumbled through Glen Burnie. When she heard an extra toot, she knew it was meant just for her.

The young wife would peer out her front window to see a man wave from the train in the distance. She'd know it was time to start dinner. Her husband, the train's engineer, would soon be home.

"I could see the train, and I could see his arm," she recalls now. "When he'd blow the whistle, I knew I had a half-hour."

At times like those, in the late 1940s, Charles Beatty was glad he had taken his father's advice and gone to work for the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad. The short line, as it was called, traveled from Camden Station, over the Patapsco River, through Anne Arundel County and across the Severn River to Annapolis.

Mr. Beatty's father had worked late nights and long hours on the Pennsylvania Railroad to Philadelphia or New York, so he told his son, "Get a job on the B&A. It's close to home."

On the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mr. Beatty's 42-year career as a railroad man began -- at 37 cents an hour. At 17, as a rail brakeman in line to become engineer, he had found his calling.

A decent living could be made on the little railroad affectionately nicknamed "Bumble & Amble," "Bounce & Agitate" and "Bumps & Agony."

"We used to say, 'Swing and sway on the B&A,' " recalls Elizabeth Ballman, 68, remembering the bumpy rides in the 1940s that took her from Glen Burnie to her Baltimore office job.

Mr. Beatty still can rattle off the names of the stations he passed on the 55-minute trip every day: Westport, North Linthicum, Ferndale, Marley, Robinson, on down the line to Annapolis, rumbling past woods, farmhouses, the occasional post office and general store.

The 69-year-old and a handful of others have become the living links to the old passenger railroad. Its end came in the middle of a chilly February night in 1950, when the last train dropped the remaining few riders in Annapolis.

The previous evening, Mr. Beatty steered the last 5:15 p.m. passenger train out of Camden, hauling five cars with standing room only. With income dropping, operating costs soaring and diesel replacing electric cars, the B&A could barely afford the equipment repairs and right-of-way maintenance needed for the freight haulers that would continue carrying coal, lumber, even Christmas trees. Continuing passenger service was out of the question.

The former engineer recalls the long faces of crew members and passengers alike. "You got to know them, some by name," he says. "People were wishing you well and saying, 'Take care.' "

"A lot of people couldn't believe it was the last train," Mrs. Beatty recalls.

After all, the automobile remained a luxury for many. Besides taking people to work, shopping or visiting, trains linked communities and brought people together. Mrs. Beatty, who rode to work at Hochschild Kohn in Baltimore, met her husband after striking up a friendship at the train station with his sister-in-law.

But by 1950, the era of passenger rail service had ended in Anne Arundel County. A fleet of transit buses replaced the red rail cars. Mr. Beatty and other railroad workers learned to maneuver through traffic on unfamiliar city streets.

Don Weisman, 69, who started as a brakeman with the B&A in 1946, didn't much relish the idea of driving a bus. As a conductor, he thrived on checking tickets and chatting with passengers. He'd even met his wife, Sandy, on the train. Buses just weren't the same.

"I just did it because I had to have a job, but it wasn't my special thing," he says. "I couldn't compare it with the railroad. You never got tired of going back and forth."

After about six months, he yielded to his longing for the rails, going to work on government freight trains at Fort Meade. And two years after his 1978 retirement, he returned to the B&A -- staying when Ken Pippin bought and revitalized the freight hauler in 1984, running the locomotive from a Glen Burnie paper plant to Patapsco Avenue.

L A member of that crew, Lou Potee, had B&A in his blood, too.

Mr. Potee, who retired in 1989 and lives near the Dorsey Road light rail station, looks back fondly at his railroad days, cherishing the adventure and freedom of the job.

"I loved every minute of it," says Mr. Potee, 65. "You didn't have to put on a monkey suit or a uniform. You could go to work in dungarees. And you don't have anybody looking over your shoulder, telling you what to do."

The railroad men never thought they'd see a new day of passenger service, especially after a December 1961 revival lasted less than a month.

After 1950, the B&A sold most of the old passenger cars or burned them for scrap, cutting down poles and overhead electric lines and ripping up double tracks. But Mr. Potee always harbored hopes for a passenger revival, explaining, "If you're a railroad buff, you like to see a lot of trains running seven days a week."

These days, that's just what anyone near the old B&A right of waywill see. With Friday's opening of the light rail line's southern spur, trains once again took passengers past Baltimore Highlands, Pumphrey and Linthicum. By July, trains will run to Ferndale and Dorsey Road.

From what Mr. Potee can tell, trolleys patterned after old Baltimore streetcars bear little resemblance to the clanking trains of yesteryear. When he tries out the light rail, he jokes, the state ought to give him a pass for all the years he rode up and down that track.

And when he rides, he imagines a change in more than the view.

"I understand it's really a nice ride," he says. "When you're riding along, you don't hear that clicketyclack. If you close your eyes you'd think you're in an airplane. It's quite different from the old days."

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