Tour-guide duties reveals best of Baltimore's technical skills

March 24, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

ONE OF MY most pleasurable duties as a Baltimorean is that of the local tour guide. This past Saturday, on a tormenting March day, I found myself explaining and showing off the city to a friend from Detroit.

My rule of Baltimore visiting is that people gobble up the real aspects of the city - not always calendar pretty, but arresting. I find visitors are fascinated by Formstone rowhouses, the Domino sugar sign, walks around Federal Hill and stories about why its hillsides collapse.

They often say they'd like to see Oriole Park and the Ravens' home field, but I make this aspect of our pilgrimage a quick car drive-by. I leave the National Aquarium to those who have an overriding interest in it. And while I myself may take in some of the gamier neighborhoods that make the news, I leave the all-too-real bloodstained addresses alone.

Dave Kandt, an engineer in the Michigan auto industry, asked me to show him some places he might not otherwise venture.

I always put a stop at Fort McHenry at the head of the Baltimore list. The fort is the essential place to get a grasp on local history - and see the harbor unfold. If you understand the port of Baltimore, you'll get a fairly good handle on the city's roots.

The day did not disappoint. No matter how uncooperative the weather, the old fort accommodates even on a gray, humid and cold March Saturday.

We walked around the seawall. The harbor's smell told us we were someplace, not a shopping mall. Even though the mist hid some of the more spectacular views, you could see enough cranes and working docks to make you believe we are still a city that works with its hands, not a computer mouse.

Whenever taking people around Baltimore, I always look and listen for some clues about where their true interests lie. Dave seemed to be interested in the big guns at the fort and displayed a certain technical knowledge of their mechanical operation.

I thought to myself, here is a person who likes machines. Earlier in the day, I'd learned that the Baltimore Streetcar Museum would be open that Saturday. (It's usually open Sundays for visitors, and like Fort McHenry, is always worth a stop.) So, I thought, why not take an automobile designer to a place that shows us how people traveled in a city before there were cars in every garage and clogging the Beltway.

I hit the jackpot. With a little asking, I sent Dave climbing into a concrete pit - a depressed area in the streetcar barn where mechanics work beneath the motors and undersides of the vehicles in the collection. I told him this was his private tour. I had no interest in climbing down to the level of the Jones Falls, the stream that runs alongside the Falls Road museum.

He rated it a stellar occasion - a trip to the underframe of a 1900-something streetcar now being restored. He emerged with a big smile and an explanation of its motor worthy of an episode on the Discovery Channel.

Then, just to show that not all of Baltimore is a museum, we stepped outside. Five freight locomotives came past on an elevated trestle. They were hauling a long freight train through the Howard Street Tunnel. Then, just down the way, we heard another horn blast. It was another train, a long passenger hauler from New York, sliding into the stone mouth of yet another dark cavity, the tunnel that runs under Bolton Hill and West Baltimore. Our city that works so hard was doing its best to show why.

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