American was a fixture on Baltimore's rails Camden, building trains helped make city a railroading focal point

March 28, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

It was the classic workhorse of the rail, a locomotive with a smokestack that looked like a giant, upside-down funnel and with enough horsepower to push a growing nation west and revolutionize its culture and commerce.

In the decade immediately before the Civil War, the American-class locomotive was a smoke-belching fixture on the tracks spreading like steel spider webs across the continent -- many starting from Baltimore.

"At the time, it was considered part of the cutting edge of technology, plus it had a classic look about it," said John Ott, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum at 901 W. Pratt St., in the remains of the Mount Clare shops.

The machines weighed up to 45 tons and rode on spindly, spoked wheels that stood four feet high. Early models burned wood, later ones coal, carried by small cars towed behind the engine.

A number of manufacturers turned out Americans, including the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at its sprawling Mount Clare works in Pigtown. Ott estimates that a dozen American-class locomotives were built here, among about 800 engines built in Baltimore during the decades the city was a hotbed of railroading.

"This is where railroading in the United States really began. There were more bits of development and technology here than anywhere else," Ott said.

The B&O, for example, was the nation's first common carrier railroad. It linked the Port of Baltimore with the heartland of the Ohio River Valley and, eventually, Chicago and St. Louis.

The railroad was dedicated in 1828, on the same day the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was opened. The iron horse soon made obsolete canals and other, slower technologies.

"It brought coal to heat our homes. It brought us the food we ate. It changed the way we got from Point A to Point B. It absolutely revolutionized the country," Ott said.

The site where the football team's new stadium will be built was once occupied by the Bailey's roundhouse, a repair and maintenance shop of the B&O. Nearby is Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which derived its name from the still-standing Camden Station.

Opened in the middle of the last century, the Camden Station was once the nation's oldest and costliest train station.

Abraham Lincoln passed through it at least twice.

"From all viewpoints, you could say Baltimore was very important in railroad development," said Herbert R. Harwood, a retired B&O executive and author of "Impossible Challenge: the history of the B&O in Maryland."

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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