Before light rail, there was the B.W.& A.

January 26, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Staff Writer

A much-overdue full-length history has finally been written of the Washington Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad, which once conveyed travelers and commuters from the ferry wharf in Annapolis to Camden Station or its downtown terminal in Washington at speeds approaching 70 mph. It's a story not only of the past, but of this area's present and future, for before there was light rail in Baltimore, there was the W.B.& A.

As related by John Merriken, a retired Army officer who lives in Simpsonville, this most interesting local interurban line was chartered as the Annapolis & Elkridge Railroad in 1838. It was electrified in 1908 and its route took it from the foot of Howard Street to Baltimore Highlands, English Consul and Linthicum Heights and Naval Academy Junction. There, the line diverged, with one branch going to Annapolis and the other to Washington.

Known affectionately as the Weary, Bruised & Aching or the Wobble, Bounce & Agony, the W.B.& A. operated 27 years and six months before financial difficulties began in 1930.

In 1930, the road carried 3,209,000 passengers, about 6,000 to 7,000 a day going through its Baltimore terminal alone. But the number of tickets bought in 1930 was 400,000 fewer than in 1929.

When the railroad was built, it had a book value of $15 million. But by 1930, when it had $10 million in mortgage bonds outstanding, it couldn't pay the interest that was due. It also couldn't pay its taxes and in January 1931 went into receivership.

The forces that brought down the W.B.& A. seem difficult to understand, given its operating territory of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and two of the state's most important cities and Washington.

But anti-W.B.& A. sentiments were increasingly heard in Annapolis because of congestion on city streets where the cars ran. Routings were altered, but that was a short-term solution and the operation's very existence became controversial.

At one point, members of one train crew were given a ticket by the police chief of Annapolis in the presence of the mayor and the press.

Worse, many of the road's traditional patrons stopped riding it in the 1920s, with the rise in use of the automobile and bus and a developing highway and road system. Their influence on the rail industry was permanent.

A strike by rail workers in 1935 (W.B.& A. conductors made $5 for a nine-hour work day) took place on the eve of the railroad's final run, which was Aug. 20, 1935.

Bondholders converged to pick the carcass of the line. They bought the North Shore, or Short Line, branch, which operated between Baltimore and Annapolis, and the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad rose from the ashes of W.B.& A.

By 1950, the Baltimore and Annapolis became a bus company, even though it retained the "railroad" in its name.

In 1942, as part of the war effort, Works Progress Administration workers removed 625 tons of the line's unused rail from Baltimore's streets. But in the late 1980s, memories of the W.B.& A. were evoked when the city's light rail system was being built.

Today, trolleys speed over a segment of the old line from Baltimore Highlands to Cromwell near Glen Burnie. One can't help but wonder if the light-rail rider of the 1990s has any idea that the big green and tuscon red cars of the W.B.& A. once followed this same steel path.

John Merriken has painstakingly documented every facet of the road's life. He has brilliantly organized the material from the corporate beginnings and demise of the company through the technical side such as discussions of terminals, Annapolis Junction (the nerve center of the road), signals and the electrical system. A detailed discussion of the cars will be of interest to any student of the railroad.

The author has consulted numerous archives and private collections in order to illustrate the book with more than 250 pictures. He has reproduced rare timetables and included rosters of equipment and maps. There is enough material here to keep the most punctilious nit-picker content.

This work is a major contribution to understanding the economic and social impact that the line had in an area that lies eastward of the major trunk line railroads that cut through the state. It's gratifying to see the heritage and story of a spunky operation such as the W.B.& A. preserved in such a wonderful and professional presentation.

Mr. Rasmussen is a member of the Metro staff of The Sun and a long-time aficionado of railroads.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Every Hour on the Hour: A Chronicle of the Washington Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad"

Author: John E. Merriken

Publisher: LeRoy O. King Jr.

Length, price: 270 pages, $39.95

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