Baltimore Glimpses: The would-be seaplane capital of the world

March 19, 1996|By Gilbert Sandler

BY THE 1960s, the storied B&O ''Royal Blue'' to New York was gone. Today at BWI, at what was once Friendship Airport, they are handling 600 flights a day. And in the inner harbor there is not a sign of the old passenger steamers. Their dreamy trips up the rivers and down the bay are only memories, stories parents and grandparents tell to children. . . .

1938: The Locust Point ferry across the harbor from the Foot of Broadway (now called Fells Point) to Haubert Street in Locust Point made its last run on New Year's Eve. It had provided a 4-minute trip, 15 times a day. But it was costing the city $25,000 a year and the City Council did away with it.

1939: The City of Baltimore, the luxury (for its day) liner you could take from the inner harbor to LeHavre, France (18 days; round trip, $180) was forced out of business by World War II. In this year, too, the day excursions to Fort Smallwood beaches fell victim to the war.

1947: The Smokey Joe ferry from Love Point on the Eastern Shore to Pier 8, Light Street, a 2-hour, 20-minute run, smoked its last. ''Roads, bridges, and tunnels,'' her captain, Norman Taylor, said at the time, ''have made all of these old ferries useless.''

1950: The last of the Merchants and Miners cruise ships made her final sailing. The luxury vessels had departed the inner harbor regularly for Philadelphia, Providence and Boston; south to Miami, Jacksonville and Havana.

1952: The Claiborne-Annapolis and Matapeake-to-Sandy Point ferries across the bay ended service, victims of the newly built Bay Bridge. Average trip across by ferry, 45 minutes; by bridge, seven minutes.

1962: The Old Bay Line's City of Norfolk made her final run. Passengers would board every evening at 6, sit down to an Eastern Shore dinner and then settle in for an evening of dancing under the stars before retiring to their staterooms. In the morning they woke up to the sights and sounds of Old Point Comfort and Norfolk.

Moonlight excursions

1963: All the Tolchester Beach excursion boats the Emma Giles, the Tolchester, the Annapolis had, by this time, gone out of service, bringing to an end the excursions to the down-the-bay beaches and, too, the ''moonlight excursions'' as well (Baltimoreans will remember the Bay Belle moonlighters). High on the list of wondrous experiences that made up the lives and times of Baltimoreans in this same era was the B&O train to New York, lovingly referred to as ''The Royal Blue.'' George Nixon, who in his day was one of Baltimore's most respected train buffs, recalled that trip for us. ''You'd board a beautiful, shining, absolutely spotless coach, get settled in your seat and then head for the dining car.

''The dining car was fitted out in a charming, colonial decor, with ornate, leaded-glass windows. The maitre d' would seat you at a table covered with a thick, snowy-white table cloth, set with heavy silver and beautiful blue-and-white china. And what food!

''For breakfast, bacon and eggs and biscuits and steaming hot coffee. For lunch and dinner, steak and gourmet fish dishes. And the service was flawless!''

The B&O to New York did not actually take you to New York. It took you to Jersey City, where you'd get off the train and onto one of five buses, each headed for a different part of New York.

''One of the highlights of that trip,'' Mr. Nixon recalled, ''was that bus ride right onto a ferry that took you across the Hudson River. We used to rush to the front, and as the ferry moved along, you would see it coming into sharper view the Manhattan skyline! Rising right out of the Hudson. It was magnificent!''

The whole trip took a little over four hours and cost (in the 1950s) for the round trip, $10 no bargain in 1950 dollars. ''But,'' Mr. Nixon recalled, wistfully, ''it was the biggest bargain in America!''

From 1941 until 1950 (when Friendship, later BWI, opened) Municipal Airport was Baltimore's airport. It occupied the acreage in Dundalk that abuts Broening Highway. The site today is the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Municipal took over Logan Field, which was across the road to the west and is now the Logan Shopping Center (When Friendship Airport opened, the city fathers changed the name of Municipal Airport to Harbor Field).

In its glory days, Municipal was used by the modest number of Baltimoreans who in those pre-jet days chose to fly instead of taking the train.

The airport and the airlines serving it, including American, Eastern, United, Pan Am and British Overseas Airways (to Bermuda) shared a wild dream: They were betting that seaplane travel would shape the world of tomorrow. One reason for that optimism here in Baltimore was that Glenn L. Martin in Middle River was building the famous Clipper seaplanes. Mr. Martin himself fed the optimism; he said at the time, ''Baltimore will face a golden opportunity to become a world port.'' He had in mind Municipal Airport.

But jets made seaplanes obsolete and dashed Baltimore's dream of becoming the leading seaplane port of the world.

Albert Sehlstedt, who had covered aviation for The Sun, recalled Municipal Airport of the 1930s and into the 1940s: ''It had one of those chain-link fences around it, protecting passengers from the tarmac. The terminal was a tiny, domed, art-deco building. They had maybe 20 or so departures and arrivals a day (today, BWI has more than 600).

Robert Rappaport used the airport to fly to Syracuse University, where he was a student. ''I flew Eastern,'' he said. ''They gave you a box lunch for a dollar hard-boiled egg, a chicken sandwich, and an apple.

''And sometimes a cookie.''

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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