The amusing 'Sky-Ride' over the falls

Baltimore Glimpses

April 04, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

ON JAN. 1, 1950, police found Joe Vinci's cab (reportedly stolen the night before) abandoned on the streetcar tracks at Guilford Avenue and Biddle Street. The car thief, apparently in a celebrating mood, had attempted to drive the cab along the Guilford Avenue streetcar tracks. That might not sound like such an unusual thing to do, except that those tracks were a story-and-a-half off the ground.

The 20-foot stretch of track on which Vinci's car sat abandoned was a small section of the eight-block trestle that was used by the Guilford Avenue Elevated or El train from May 1893 to January 1950. It was a crossed-girder affair for streetcars only (the Nos. 8 and 36) that began at Guilford Avenue and Chase Street (a few blocks east of the Belvedere Hotel). The trestle dropped to earth at Guilford Avenue and Saratoga Street, near a restaurant called the Black Bottle. That restaurant is still there, but it has been renamed House of Welsh. (It's believed to be the site of the city's oldest saloon.)

There were stops along the elevated way, at Madison, Monument and Centre streets. You got up to each of the stops by climbing up a steep, spiral staircase.

In 1948 Newton Brown was a motorman (driver) on the No. 8 streetcar, which provided him a wealth of fond memories. "It was a three-minute trip," he recalled. "If there were no stops to be made, and we wanted to open up and let her fly, we could make the entire run in less than a minute."

Newspaper accounts of the elevated train's opening day referred to it as "an electric toboggan slide." In its early days passengers packed the trains for the thrill of riding what some dubbed the "Sky-Ride." It was a novelty in a day when most relied on their feet for transportation.

People who rode the El remember it as a thrill-packed, scenic and thoroughly civilized way to get from Chase Street to downtown. Riders could see the gardens inside the wall of the city jail and the waters of the Jones Falls, before they were covered by an extension of the Fallsway.

It was torn down in the interest of the road builders and the automobile nuts. But, in the end, the Guilford Avenue El was forsaken by the Baltimore Transit Co. (forerunner of the Mass Transit Administration), spurned by the city of Baltimore, condemned by the Public Service Commission -- all of whom seemed delighted to see the old El go. They held no ceremony to mark its passing. At 4:20 a.m., Jan. 1, 1950, two No. 8 streetcars, one heading north, the other south, passed each other on the elevated tracks. It was a moment for history; there would never again be a streetcar running on the Guilford Avenue El.

The only one to give the El its proper place in history was the unknown celebrant who stole Joe Vinci's cab that long ago New Year's morning, and somehow got it up on the El tracks. He managed to get as far as Biddle Street and then, for some reason, gave up. Maybe he thought he had already made his point.

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