For half a century, Herb Harwood has been quietly, obsessively documenting trains. His mission is clear: He simply wants to save the rails


February 18, 1996|By Tim Warren

There are all kinds of stories to tell about Herb Harwood, which shouldn't be surprising, since he has had all kinds of adventures taking photographs of trains, stations and nearly everything else associated with railroads for most of his 65 years.

At first thought, that seems to be the most prosaic thing on Earth to do -- aim a camera at a piece of chuffing iron and steel coming around the bend. But when you do that as often as Herbert H. Harwood Jr., and publish 10 books on railroad history in the meantime, you attain a kind of mythical status.

There was the time when Mr. Harwood, just a teen-ager then, was taking photos of trains leaving some buildings in central New Jersey. He was rudely approached by men who asked tough questions as to his intentions. It turned out that this time, in the mid-1940s, was not a good one to be photographing trains exiting a place where atomic research was going on. Hours later, the puzzled boy was allowed to ride his bicycle back to his grandmother's house.

After all, he was only taking pictures of trains.

Another time, a few years ago, Mr. Harwood was mugged while shooting photos for his latest book, "Baltimore's Light Rail: Then -- and Now." He calls the incident "just another urban experience." He had just taken a shot of three vehicles near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum when he was approached by a thug who wanted his money and his camera.

It was 10 o'clock in the morning, and perhaps the mugger's bravura was due to the appearance of his potential target: a thin, graying man in his early 60s, wearing glasses and a perpetually thoughtful, distracted look. Mr. Harwood managed to fend the mugger off, though, keeping both camera and money.

And the photo survived, too. When "Baltimore's Light Rail" was published last fall by Quadrant Press of New York, on Page 69 was this honey of a shot featuring a 1944 PCC 7407, a 1902 open car No. 1164, and a contemporary light rail train in the distance making its way downtown.

"That's where the mugging happened," Herb Harwood says matter-of-factly, pointing to a bridge off to his left. It's a crisp December day, and he is taking a ride on the light-rail system from Baltimore County, where he lives, to the Camden stop downtown.

He's meeting his elder son, George, 32, who is restoration shop supervisor at the B&O Museum. George, a soft-spoken, unobtrusive man much like his father, is in the fourth generation of Harwoods to be associated with the railroads. The elder Mr. Harwood's grandfather and father both worked for the New York Central; Herb Harwood spent 31 years with the Chesapeake and Ohio and the B&O, retiring in 1986. He was writing railroad books before the retirement, and here he is, 10 years later, still plugging away.

"Baltimore's Light Rail" is full not only of railroad lore and dozens of his own photographs, but of nuggets of local history as well. Mr. Harwood is a serious man, obviously, as one might expect of a person whose life has been marked by a quiet obsession. But he's got a sharp, dry wit. As the light-rail train hums quietly southward, he observes wryly that some communities served by the Northern Central railroad in the 19th and early 20th centuries -- Riderwood and Ruxton, among them -- were the most stubborn opponents to its descendant, the light-rail system.

Along the ride, he points out objects of interest -- now, the Mount Royal Station, opened in 1896 and one of many stations in Maryland designed by E. Francis Baldwin. "His impact on the contemporary landscape is enormous, yet hardly anyone knows who he is today," Mr. Harwood muses.

It's a common theme for Mr. Harwood these days -- that as railroads slowly recede in importance in everyday life, so, too, will their legacy. That's what drives him these days, he says. What began as a youthful enthusiasm for trains in New York and New Jersey in the 1930s and '40s now has become for this serious man something, well, more serious.

"I'm beginning to view my work with railroads as a sense of mission, not entirely for myself," he says thoughtfully. "I'm 65 and reaching the end of my life. I've devoted a large part of it to this -- writing books, documenting railroad history. I'd like to make it meaningful in another way, for future generations. But future generations may not care." He gives a small laugh.

He turns back to the tour. At every stop, he throws in a concise commentary about a station, an old factory or the construction of a rail line. Mr. Harwood's grasp of details is impressive -- he seems to know the history of every building on the light-rail route (he just finished a chapter on the city's industrial architecture for a book on Baltimore buildings to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press). And so it becomes readily apparent that Herb Harwood is an unusual railroad historian, interested not just in the machinery but also the people who propelled it and the society that was affected by it.

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