The Western Maryland survives in oral histories

Way Back When

Railroad: Fans of the historic railway have published its story as told by the employees who lived it.

March 04, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Wes Morgenstern and several other members of the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society, realizing the value of oral history, set out to emulate what Studs Terkel, the nation's premier oral historian, has turned into an art form.

"Working on the Western Maryland Railway, A Collection of Employee Interviews," a 176-page illustrated book that Morgenstern edited, was published late last year by the railway historical society, whose headquarters is in the WM's former Union Bridge depot in Carroll County.

The idea for such a book first occurred to Morgenstern while riding a railroad-fan trip and listening to tales of a former WM brakeman who worked on freight trains out of Baltimore's Port Covington while attending college.

"As I listened to the stories, it occurred to me that much of the physical plant of the old Western Maryland had already disappeared. If we didn't make an effort to preserve the human aspect of the road, there would be little left to remember in a few years," Morgenstern writes in the book's introduction.

"With this mission in mind, those of us who collaborated on this project embarked on a journey through the last 40 years of the Western Maryland, as seen through the eyes of its employees and management," he writes.

The book is a rich collection of informative and fascinating stories whose appeal is quite broad. Naturally, railroad enthusiasts will find much here. However, those interested in industrial history and how people once worked will also be intrigued by what they find here.

Also, the interviews have not been heavily edited or sanitized to the point where the charming patois of the storyteller is lost.

Founded in 1852, the WM railroad once stretched some 861 miles, beginning at tidewater Baltimore and climbing through the mountains of Western Maryland. It also managed to extend its steel route into Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The WM eventually was controlled by the Baltimore & Ohio and in 1973 disappeared into CSX.

The range of those interviewed for the oral history project include enginemen, a roundhouse foreman, conductors, a foreman of wharves, a director of railroad police, brakeman, clerks and even a former president of the Western Maryland.

The uniform theme of this book, if there is one, is how strenuous railroad work was, and probably still is. How mistakes quickly translated into death. Long hours and days away from home. Cranky steam engines and bad coal. Railroad wrecks. Winter storms and spring floods. Snow drifts so deep that trains were brought to a halt until rescued by snowplows.

How family generations from Hagerstown or Union Bridge thought nothing of following their elders into railroad work. Not only was it a necessity, but often more so it was a matter of family pride.

"I grew up in Carrollton, within a stone's throw from the railroad. I wanted to work on the railroad all my life. When I'd hear a whistle sound I'd make a beeline for the railroad so I could watch that train go by," said Worth Bateman, a retired engineer.

Engineer Earl Selby recalled the back-breaking era when steam engines were hand-fired.

"I had a lot of trips when I thought I might quit but during the Depression jobs were hard to find. A fireman's pay in 1936 was $5.49 a day, far cry from what it is today."

J. Robert Leight, a retired conductor and 41-year veteran, recalled friends killed in the line of duty.

"Harry Myers got killed up in the Hancock East Yard. He got rolled between the cars. Also, assistant crane operator Sprecher, who worked on a tool car, got killed when the wreck crane upset at North Branch. We had some accidents that would shock most people. Those old steel wheels didn't have any mercy for legs or arms if you got in the way."

William Fitzgerald, a retired locomotive engineer, summoned up a universal feeling of those interviewed.

"I have no regrets having worked for the Western Maryland Railway. If I had to do it over again, I would probably do it exactly the same way," he said.

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