Just out: A human history of Baltimore's 'Great Road'


November 15, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It was back in the early 1970s that a tall, highly intent young man appeared at the Pratt Library's microfilm machines. He seemed to read the tiny print of 1830s newspapers with a seriousness that only a zealot could possess.

That individual is James D. Dilts, who spent nearly 20 years researching a project that itself took not much longer to build: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At last, the Dilts opus is complete, all 2 1/2 pounds of it, 472 acid-free pages that will cost $50 a volume.

Entitled "The Great Road, The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, The Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853," it has been published this month by Stanford University Press. A monumental piece of writing and scholarship, it immediately takes its place among the most serious and important works of Jacksonian-era history.

"The Great Road" is a work larger than the immediate story of some competitive, enterprising and progressive Baltimore merchants and investors who seized on a new technology to link the port of Baltimore with the Ohio River at Wheeling, via some of the most beautiful but difficult geography the Middle Atlantic states possess.

Dilts, who was a Sun reporter before he undertook this work, has a focus that is broad and far-reaching. He gives us page after page of political, economic, and engineering detail that might grow wearisome were it not for the author's keen eye for the human component.

Dilts is at his best when he quotes from contemporary diaries and journals. Consider B&O bridge engineer Benjamin H. Latrobe's words concerning the death of one Barney Dougherty, an Irish immigrant mason who fell to his death while building the Thomas Viaduct at Relay in 1834:

"[Dougherty] was buried today, all hands attending his body as far as Vinegar Hill on its way to the Catholic graveyard near Baltimore. What a sympathy there is between these rough men. It was affecting to see [his] fellow laborers dressed in their best going in a body to escort him a part of the way upon his long journey."

Vinegar Hill, by the way, was a term used for the collection of Irish railway workers' temporary shacks and shanties built along the line outside Baltimore. It took its name from the substance used to disinfect the ships that carried the immigrants.

Latrobe, Dilts also tells us, was something of a psychosomatic who drank sarsaparilla and turpentine and wore flannel drawers to ward off his maladies.

We learn of the bitter and often stupid rivalries between the merchants and politicians of Baltimore and Washington as they battled over the railroad vs. the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. There was in-house, Baltimore-style squabbling as well: Would the B&O have a waterfront yard at Fells Point (Lancaster Street) or Pigtown (the Middle Branch)?

The author was patient. In the book's opening pages, he recalls how the B&O corporate secretary unlocked a door for him leading to a pipe space under the roof of the old B&O Central Building at Charles and Baltimore streets. Documents were crated in wooden boxes and stacked nearly to the ceiling. The railroad eventually gave him an unused office to sort through 150 years' worth of history.

Not content with compiling the history of the B&O through a trail of paper, Dilts walked the entire 380-mile length to Wheeling to gain a feel for its rivers, geography, cities and towns. The effort shows.

What also shows is a gracefully written, well edited and produced book, neatly bound and laid out with a fine choice of type face. There are also some 80 photographs -- many rare, previously unpublished 19th century views, particularly of the Potomac, Patapsco, Cheat and Ohio rivers.

In all, the book is as elegant as its subject, the railroad that Baltimoreans remember for its personable service delivered on those gracious old blue-and-gray passenger coaches standing in an atmospheric mist of steam vapor at Camden Station.

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