Go west, sweltering city folk

WAY BACK WHEN

Hot time: Before the age of air conditioning, the only escape from the seemingly endless heat and humidity of a Baltimore summer was a visit to the nearby Atlantic beach resorts or the cool mountains of Western Maryland.

July 29, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

A 1928 Western Maryland Railway brochure -- featuring a woman in a white cotton dress and straw hat standing on a mountain path next to a gentleman smartly dressed in white duck pants, necktie and waving a straw boater -- must have been a temptation.

It was probably enough of one to cause heat-weary Baltimoreans who glimpsed the timetable in the waiting room of the railroad's Hillen Station to pack their portmanteaus and buy tickets on the next train out of town.

It was railroad president John Mifflin Hood who first envisioned the passenger potential of building and serving resorts in the mountains of Western Maryland after the railroad opened the famed Mountain House near Pen-Mar in 1883. The grand wooden hotel comfortably housed and fed some 400 guests.

In their 1982 book "The Western Maryland Railway: Fireballs and Black Diamonds," authors Roger Cook and Karl Zimmermann described the hotel as "a most successful stimulus to vacation travel on the Western Maryland Railway."

The railroad also built Pen-Mar Park, an amusement park with a dance pavilion, roller coaster, picnic grove and restaurant.

A miniature steam train, operated by William M. Fleigh, a Western Maryland Railway engineer, conveyed guests over some 4,000 feet of scenic trackage.

At the turn of the century, 42 trains steamed daily out of Hillen Station carrying happy excursionists and vacationers.

"The plush Blue Mountain Express featured the Buena Vista and Blue Mountain, buffet-parlor-observation cars, and was said by some to be the finest train operating from Baltimore," wrote Cook and Zimmermann.

Such was the demand that it wasn't uncommon for the Pen-Mar Express, for instance, to run in four or five sections of 10 coaches.

Hillen Station, bound by Hillen, Exeter, High and Front streets, was built in 1876. "Fashionable folk, bound for the Blue Ridge and Buena Vista, thronged Hillen in the summertime," reported The Evening Sun.

"From it left holiday-bound men, women and children, laden with hampers of picnic food for Pen-Mar, `the place of perpetual breezes,' which Mr. Hood inaugurated in the 1880s and which was terminated as a park in 1942 when excursionists took to the highways in automobiles instead of the rails for a day's pleasure," said The Sun.

Hillen was also a favorite point of departure for the city's African-American community.

To handle the traffic, the Western Maryland hired Tom Cotton, who belonged to every African-American organization in the city, to head what was then called its "Negro Excursion Department."

"Usually, a band went along. Crowds of excursionists, setting out or coming home, filled Hillen Street for a block or two in both directions. As many as twenty extra train sections were required to handle the crowds," reported The Sun in 1954 .

That year , old Hillen was closed. The dwindling numbers of railroad patrons were then accommodated in a small brick building that an Evening Sun editorial described as "hardly bigger than a hot-dog stand and tucked away almost under the Bath Street viaduct."

On June 8, 1957, the last Baltimore-Hagerstown train, with its distinctive olive green coaches lettered in gold for the Western Maryland, started off. Its departure at 5:20 p.m., brought an end to 81 years of passenger service from Hillen Station.

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