Early training produced a lasting love of railroads

September 22, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

I CAUGHT THE TRAIN bug early and wouldn't let go.

Maybe it was early exposure to a set of toy trains, or the engineer's suit I preferred over all other outfits. But most likely it was my mother's preferred way of entertaining her brood of children.

On days when other children had softball games or music lessons, I was chaperoned to one of the city's railroad stations, or to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's 26th Street main line, a route that led to the Northeastern cities.

We rarely boarded a train. Mostly, we just went for a look.

At the main line, the blue-and gray trains rumbled through a deep open cut maybe 40 feet below the street. We observed the railroad's comings and goings through the pikes of a black iron security fence.

Train watching was a simple yet exciting pastime that worked its spell on children. You heard the diesel engine's dull roar well in advance. You waited, then spotted the headlight piercing the darkness of the tunnels along the cut. Then you counted the cars and had a discussion on passenger or freight and whether it was headed to Washington or Philadelphia.

Soon I began battering my parents, grandparents and anyone who would listen with questions about where the trains went. The person who was the most forthcoming with answers was a next-door neighbor, a good friend of my mother named Dorothy Croswell.

Dorothy suggested a real, first-time train trip, one that would cost all of 10 cents for a child. The start of this brief ride was Camden Station. The end was Mount Royal Station. The entire five-minute trip took place in the darkened Howard Street Tunnel, the route that B&O trains used.

That day in 1953 or 1954 left me with two impressions. The first was that the tunnel was dark. There was absolutely no scenery. And second was that Mount Royal was one spectacular station.

I had been educated in advance about Mount Royal's famous rocking chairs. These oak chairs, varnished the color of honey, sat empty on the day of that visit. The dark and cavernous waiting room seemed to be less than filled. I didn't know it at the time, but Mount Royal's days as an active railroad station were numbered. In less than 10 years, it would cease to function.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's station, just a few blocks away from Mount Royal, was the rival and the passenger giant in Baltimore. If Mount Royal was quiet and Victorian, Penn Station was busy and impersonal. It was also never as tidy as Mount Royal. Penn Station looked as if it needed a coat of paint. All Mount Royal needed was more passengers.

To my youthful but nevertheless highly critical eyes, Penn Station had a trashy demeanor. The main waiting room was partitioned-off to hold a junk heap of pinball machines. Pinball players smoked cigarettes and loafed at the flippers, and the effect was to make the station into a cheap version of a Southern Maryland one-arm-bandit gambling joint. In the 1950s this, the main railway entrance to Baltimore, was not a sight to inspire newly arrived visitors.

Dorothy pronounced the train trip over, and we went home. My father made a vital contribution to railroad education. Sunday evening, he drove downtown. His route invariably was the same. Just off Falls Road near Maryland Avenue was the best train-watching spot in Baltimore. Turn your head one way and the Pennsy and Western Maryland trains pounded through. Look the other and you could just see the B&O's trestle. And, as we drove home along Falls Road, there was the Ma&Pa's roundhouse, loaded with vintage steam locomotives. It was a dose of railroading that satisfied for a week.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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