All The Livelong Day

The B&O Railroad turns 175 next year. Now, its namesake museum is recording workers tales.

April 14, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The 80-year-old woman had been retired from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for more than 20 years when she sat in an old dining car at the B&O Railroad Museum, listening to a group of porters, waiters and supervisors reminisce about the golden age of passenger service.

Across the table, a former worker from Cincinnati set to musing.

"Y'all remember little Maggie?" he asked. "Whatever happened to her?"

Said Maggie Hudson: "I'm sitting right here."

Little Maggie was one of the first women to work as a B&O "porterette." William Selby and James A. Kearse worked extra shifts, riding the rails for days on end, working their way up to waiter-in-charge and steward-in-charge and an occasional place on the train of a president.

They took to the "road" on the classy, luxuriously appointed cars of famous trains with names like the Capitol Limited, the Diplomat and the Ambassador.

From the time the railroad rolled out its first fancy passenger car, through its struggles to compete with planes and automobiles, to its final yielding of passenger lines to the Amtrak system in 1971, the B&O put hundreds of men and women to work serving the rail customer of yesteryear.

As the B&O prepares to celebrate its 175th anniversary in February, the museum, a repository of history about the railroad in West Baltimore, has been working to record the experiences of these workers, many of whom still live in and around Baltimore, while they're still alive.

The museum recently got a $12,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for oral historians to record the workers' memories. And it plans to bring the group together again for more sessions of organized reminiscing.

They'll be telling stories like these:

`Little Maggie'

"Black shoes will be kept well polished," says the rulebook from 1944. "Coats will be kept buttoned. Porters will keep themselves neat and tidy in appearance at all times."

In a rusty carrying case a baggageman made ugly so no one would steal it while she was working, Maggie Hudson has kept these rules nearly 60 years.

She's also kept the following from her career as a "porterette" on the B&O: A black bowtie. A timetable from April 27, 1969. An old-fashioned key to the coach bathrooms. A "bid sheet" with a list of the trains she preferred to work. Still-shiny lapel pins she never got to use, wrapped in tissue paper.

Growing up in Shuqualak, Miss., Maggie Hudson never thought about working for the railroad. One of 17 children, she had set her sights on being a secretary. But secretarial school didn't quite work out. She moved to South Baltimore in the early 1940s to be with family and got a job with a local shoe factory. But the factory laid her off after Hudson left for five weeks to care for a sick brother in Alabama.

That's when a cousin's boyfriend mentioned it: Because of the war, the B&O was "hiring girls."

Hudson was 22, but she looked 14. The railroad had to be convinced she was old enough. Her fresh face, it turned out, was just what they wanted: A few years later, they made her the model for the new dark blue, custom made uniform for "porterettes," who would now be called "attendants."

The attendants worked for the conductors. They helped passengers on and off the train. In the dark, they stayed awake to make sure customers didn't sleep through night stops. When the railroad was showing movies on board - part of its attempt to shore up its flagging base of passengers with extra amenities - the attendants were the ones to operate them.

But the "road" also kept Hudson from having a family of her own. After a marriage at 17 lasted just two years, she never wed again. There were offers - from a man she saw for some 28 years - but Hudson could never quite bring herself to trust the institution.

"I went on the road and I'd see the things that people were doing that they weren't supposed to be doing," she says. "I guess the travel did something to me. Your mind don't be the same."

But she fashioned herself a different kind of family. Older workers looked after her, tried to shield her from some of life's vices. During layovers in Pittsburgh, they'd dine at the Italian restaurants. In Chicago, they'd ride the El to the South Side. One night on the train, she met the singer James Brown.

"Seemed like everybody liked little Maggie," she remembers. "They spoiled you."

It wasn't perfect. There were passengers now and again with ugly ideas, about both blacks and women. Sometimes they'd call Maggie names. She came up with a standard retort: "Oh, is that what you are?"

But the railroad was home. She worked the trains for 28 years, until the day in 1970 when the bosses transferred her to their central building in downtown Baltimore to clean the offices at night. Hudson says she didn't mind. She worked there nine more years. And she still has the transfer list with her name, hidden in that inconspicuous traveling case.

Traveling in style

Aboard the Capitol Limited, William Selby acquired a taste for the finer things.

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