Riding the fabled Pennsy back in time Restoration: You could set your clock by the old gas-electric cars on the Northern Central Division line. Today, No. 4662 is ticking like new.

Way Back When

October 17, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Memories of the Pennsylvania Railroad's old Parkton Local and Ruxton Rocket were revived last Sunday afternoon. Members of the National Capital Trolley Museum and other rail buffs traveled to the Wilmington and Western Railroad in Delaware to ride one of the last two Pennsy gas-electric cars in operation.

For 30 years, until the demise of commuter service on the Pennsylvania Railroad's 28.8-mile Northern Central Division in 1959, the gas-electrics trundled back and forth daily, connecting the city with commuters and residents from Woodberry and Mount Washington to Bare Hills, Lake Roland, Ruxton, Riderwood and Lutherville. Other stations served by the railroad were Timonium, Padonia, Texas, Cockeysville, Ashland, Phoenix, Sparks, Glencoe, Corbett, Monkton, Blue Mount, White Hall, Graystone and Parkton.

"There were trains for the workers, clerkers and shirkers," observed Ralph Reppert, the late Sun Magazine writer, humorist and Parkton Local veteran.

The four daily commuter trains were joined on those tracks by the railroad's fabled fleet of long-distance passenger express trains racing through in a blaze of steam and smoke toward Buffalo, Chicago and other far-flug destinations. Workaday, slow-moving freights also chugged past, bound to or from Baltimore's tidewater terminals and factories.

"Almost four generations grew up along the Northern Central during the era of steam engines, smoke and noise. Residents then managed to adapt and survive life near the tracks," wrote D. Randall Beirne, Baltimore historian and professor and Ruxton native, in a 1989 article in The Evening Sun.

"People set their watches by the 7: 05 in the morning or the 11: 20 at night. So what if everybody had to remain silent at the dinner table as the Parkton Local huffed and puffed upon leaving the station? ... So what if the dogs howled when the train started? So what if a little coal dust settled on one's car or blew in the windows? Life went on as usual and no one complained," he wrote.

But despite commuter complaints -- and questionable claims about the line's sad finances -- the Pennsy was granted permission to abandon passenger service. The last train rolled on June 27, 1959. The line would not see passenger service return until the Central Light Rail line to Timonium opened in 1991 and to Hunt Valley six years later.

But last Sunday, like an apparition, the Pennsy's old gas-electric car No. 4662 sat gurgling in the bright autumn sunlight at Greenbank, Del., brightly restored in its fabled tuscan red with "PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD" in yellow-gold letters.

Precisely as the minute hand on his hand-held pocket watch hit 11 a.m., engineer and Riderwood resident John D. LaCosta pulled on No. 4662's throttle and its diesel engines rumbled to life. With a long blast on its air horn, the sound of squealing flanges and the faint odor of oil smoke, it began its journey to Hockessin, Del.

Built in 1929 by the Pullman-Standard Car Co. of Chicago, No. 4662 is a curious hybrid: a combination of steam-era and streetcar technologies. The development of the gas-electric car was largely due to railroads seeking economy in passenger operations as well as operational flexibility.

Each car has a set of controls and can be operated from either end. Its riveted steel body, including traction motors, diesel engines and wheels, tips the scale at 60 tons. Like the Pennsy itself, it was built to last (though No. 4662 outlasted its parent, which collapsed into bankrupcty in 1970).

"It has a face that only a mother could love," said LaCosta with a laugh, referring to one end of the car, which has a slight hood over the roof. "But the neat thing is when she's rolling along it's like riding on air."

Despite being nearly 70 years old, the car stepped right along, though its speed is considerably reduced on this line, which winds its way up the Red Clay Valley.

No. 4662 ended its working life in 1959, abandoned on a siding of the Pennsy's Green Spring Valley branch near Lake Roland. In 1967, the car was moved to Marshallton, Del., and in 1980 was extensively restored. It received a second restoration in 1989, and entered service on the railroad.

"It's accurately restored right on down to the Pennsy plush on the seats," said LaCosta.

The other surviving gas-electric car, which also was in local commuter service and remains operable, is privately owned and currently stored on the Black River and Western Railroad in New Jersey.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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