Railroad linked Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Historian says trains ran 'every hour, on the hour'


September 27, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Maryland train buffs shed a tear with the mention of the initials W, B and A.

The Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad was the great one that got away -- a state-of-the-art, high-speed, interurban company that died so regrettably in 1935.

For just 27 years, the line linked a geographic triangle formed by the three cities in its name. Its efficient passenger service was heralded as a regional showpiece of progressive engineering. It was the 1908 equivalent of the Baltimore-Washington super-speed transport that is still dreamed of today.

What happened?

Its rails were scrapped, its ruler-straight right-of-way largely disappeared and was replaced by ranch houses, utility poles and patches of goldenrod. Its failing was that it was ahead of schedule by 30 or 40 years.

People easily forget a railroad that ran like a heavy-duty streetcar stretched from Liberty Street (just across from the Baltimore Gas & Electric Building in downtown Baltimore) to 15th and New York in Washington, a block from the White House.

Army Lt. Col. John E. Merriken (Ret.) hasn't forgotten, though.

He started riding the rails of this most uncommon carrier in 1924. He has written the line's definitive chronicle in a new, 270-page, hard-bound history called "Every Hour -- On the Hour." The publisher and editor is LeRoy O. King, of Dallas.

It also has taken somewhat longer than the span of years that the railroad's big green parlor cars rocketed through the pine and holly forests of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties to write this railway's story.

His research began in earnest in 1960, soon after he returned from service in the Army's medical department in Panama and Germany.

"The first thing I did was walk the entire route, which had been mostly abandoned in 1935. The only place I couldn't get was the Friendship Airport property, which the WB&A cut right through," he said.

The colonel, a meticulous researcher and writer, works in a study at his home in Simpsonville, south of Columbia. He has gathered years of documentation in neat spiral notebooks. His actual composing is done on a vintage, German-made, Olympia manual typewriter.

"I started riding the WB&A in about 1924. We lived in Washington but all the rest of the family lived in Baltimore," he recalled. "Every Christmas, wedding, funeral and birth, we took the line. Public transit today isn't like the service I experienced."

"Today, you often can't get a bus at night or on part of the weekend. When my family took the WB&A to Baltimore, we never looked at a schedule. We just went to the station. There was a train waiting on the platform. It left every hour on the hour. That's why I gave the book that title," the colonel said.

America was interurban-happy nearly 90 years ago. Electricity and motors allowed single-car trains (occasionally more cars for crowds) to rocket through the countryside.

The WB&A was distinguished with high levels of capitalization and excellent straight-line routing. The parlor cars, dressed up with plush seats, mahogany paneling and stained-glass windows, looked as if they had been decorated with the same standard as a prosperous North Broadway or Fulton Avenue rowhouse.

"The farmers granted rights through their property for free. They wanted contact with the city," he explained.

Much of the colonel's feelings about the line came from his first-hand knowledge. As a young man he spent Saturdays around the WB&A's Odenton shops and yards.

"We didn't have this obsession with security and guards and metal detectors. You could go on the railroad property and talk with the shop people, the painters, the electricians. If it were around today, you couldn't even get past a front gate," he said.

The WB&A was the brainchild of the far-sighted George T. Bishop, a Cleveland industrialist who conceived and financed the line. He was an early convert to the practical uses of electricity.

Maryland owes him another debt. He was responsible for convincing the old War Department to locate what is today Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

His railroad served the military base throughout World War I. Fort Meade, and the thousands of jobs it has spawned, far outlasted Bishop's green parlor cars.

The General Assembly effectively killed the line during the hard times of the 1930s Depression. Thanks to a Baltimore delegate who changed his vote late one night, a bill to give the railroad a tax break failed. The board of directors gave up; the final Washington Local rolled out of Baltimore the night of Aug. 20, 1935.

Some bond holders reorganized the once mighty WB&A into a truncated line, the Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad on the route roughly used today by Central Light Rail and the B&A biking and hiking trail.

In the 1940s, this service grew shabby and passengers often derisively referred to the B&A as the "bump and agony" before its 1950 demise as a passenger carrier. Merriken feels some people have been unduly harsh on the line when they fail to recognize its origins and healthier years.

"I don't think anybody should be judged on his life for the way he looks in a nursing home," the colonel said.

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