The ritual of a child's first train ride

JACQUES KELLY

September 10, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It's easy to spot Baltimore parents or grandparents overseeing a ritual of their offspring's childhood: the first train ride.

From about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. most days, you'll see 4- and 5-year-olds with noses pressed to the glass windows on either Central Light Rail Line cars or the MARC commuter trains to and from Washington. As the scenery passes by, some senior family member gives a running commentary, along with more than a few reminders to behave.

At the end of the line, some of the more assertive granddads will ask to see the engineer for a private photo session. But mostly it's just a day spent introducing the pre-schoolers to the world of railroading, a natural exercise in a city like Baltimore where thousands of grandfathers and grandmothers once worked for the B&O, Western Maryland, Pennsy, Canton, Ma & Pa and other lines that have been gobbled up under the corporate banner of Conrail, CSX or AMTRAK.

hard not smiling when you spot a wide-eyed 5-year-old making a maiden light rail trip down Howard Street.

I know what the experience meant to me, circa 1954. My own introduction to the land of ticket counters, day coaches and diesel engines came not on Howard Street, but under it, in the massive tunnel that so few Baltimoreans know exists and remains in daily use.

Dorothy Croswell lived next door to my family's Guilford Avenue home in the 1950s. She was an old family friend who suggested to my mother that she'd like to oversee an outing for the first train ride.

Off we went to Camden Station, then a bustling railroad terminal. The place was full of big oak benches, a Union News magazine and snack kiosk, and ticket windows staffed by B&O veterans. You saw porters with baggage carts, lines of waiting taxicabs and rows of locomotives and passenger cars, along with blackboards listing trains' destinations and arrival-departure times.

Dorothy walked up to one of the most official ticket windows and asked for two tickets to Mount Royal Station. She didn't have to dip into capital for the fare. It was 10 cents.

It was also one of Baltimore's great train rides. For that pair of dimes, we boarded a blue and gray coach at one of Camden Station's long bricked platforms. A small cloud of steam vapors gushed from the passenger car's undercarriage. It was pure railroad atmosphere.

After what seemed like seven years, the train backed out of Camden Station and passed through an expanse of train yards near today's parking lots at Oriole Park.

Then we stopped briefly as the coaches clanked and groaned, then lurched forward, disappearing into the darkness of the Howard Street Tunnel.

This mighty piece of railroad infrastructure was constructed in the 1890s (it's now celebrating a quiet centenary) to take the B&O trains from Camden Station northward, eventually to Philadelphia and Jersey City. The tunnel was solid blackness, except for the occasional signal lamp along the way.

As train guide, Dorothy pointed out we were passing by the old department stores, particularly Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler Brothers. The pink terrazzo floor in Hutzler's basement luncheonette rumbled every time the B&O's vehicles passed. I'd been to this restaurant before and heard the train-is-right-below stories. Now I knew first-hand this was not fiction.

After what seemed like hours in the tunnel (actually less than five minutes), we emerged at Mount Royal Station on Cathedral Street. The Maryland Institute College of Art was years away from buying this landmark. It was still an operating station, though considerably less busy than Camden.

We were at the vestibule end of the car waiting to step off when we were temporarily delayed by the woman ahead of us, being assisted by a porter onto a footstool the railroads used to get people off and on trains. With that, her husband or boyfriend ran up, clutched her and planted a big kiss that lasted another eternity.

That public display of affection certainly ended the 10-cent trip with style.

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