BSM worker a treasure to Baltimore

WAY BACK WHEN

November 10, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On a bright autumn day last week, members and friends of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum gathered to honor Henry S. Wells Jr., one of their longtime members whose warm smile and easygoing demeanor has greeted visitors to the Falls Road museum since 1968.

It was also Wells' 87th birthday, which was fittingly celebrated with a buffet luncheon, birthday cake and a ride on his favorite streetcar, No. 1164, a United Railways Electric Co. summer car built in 1902 by the J.G. Brill Co. in Philadelphia.

A modest man who was somewhat ruffled by all the fuss, Wells stood next to the motorman and the Oriole Bird, who made a surprise visit, and took a ride on his favorite car as it clanged its bell and noisily rumbled over switches and down the track.

All through the afternoon, the famous, wide smile never seemed to leave Wells' face as he greeted well-wishers and BSM volunteers.

For the last 33 years, he has spent every Sunday afternoon there staffing the gift shop, answering myriad questions about the collection or helping a child select a suitable souvenir.

And now, he has decided to retire and turn over the gift shop to a younger member. However, he'll still be on hand Wednesdays, when the BSM is open to schools and other groups.

No one has piled up more volunteer hours at the museum than Wells, who has been a charter member and trustee since the BSM was established in 1966.

"He made an initial $500 contribution to get the museum rolling and then established the gift shop, which is probably his biggest contribution. He got it going and kept it functioning continuously," said John S. Thomsen, the first BSM president whose friendship with Wells dates to the 1920s when the two were neighbors on Mount Royal Terrace.

"Henry is a very friendly and thoughtful person. If there was a member who was ill or had suffered a death in the family, Henry made sure that a card was available for members to sign and then would mail it. He's the kind of man who frequently sees things that have to be done, and then does them himself," he said.

John J. O'Neill Jr., BSM president and member since 1970, recalled the BSM's first gift shop, which was located in the carhouse until the current visitors center opened in 1978.

"He was a stalwart. No matter what the weather, Henry would be there in his overcoat and galoshes manning those two folding tables. And at the end of the day, he'd cart all the material back to the trunk of his car," he said.

Wells is one of Baltimore's imperishable treasures, a man who enjoyed sharing with others his passion for railroading and streetcars.

Wells has lived in the same Mount Royal Terrace rowhouse since 1926, where he was lulled to sleep by the squeal of streetcars as they made their way up and down North Avenue.

It was here as a child that he first became attuned to the whistles and sounds of the steam trains that huffed and puffed over the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad and Western Maryland Railway.

He also was influenced by his father, Henry S. Wells Sr., a streetcar fan who passed his love and knowledge of streetcars to his son.

On weekends, he'd plan elaborate streetcar excursions such as riding the No. 31 Garrison Blvd. car to the Belvedere carhouse, and then the No. 25 through Mount Washington back to North Avenue.

"You could only do that on Sundays," Wells said in a recent interview with museum officials.

Wells earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1937, and during World War II, he served with the Army's Chemical Warfare Service in the Pacific Theater of operations.

After the war, he worked for the Frieze Instrument Company, later the Environmental and Process Instrument Division of the Bendix Corp. He retired in 1979.

As his father before him, Wells enjoyed passing along his affection for the flanged wheel on fixed rail to children and other family members.

Andrew S. Blumberg, BSM trustee and director of public affairs, asked, "Where do you start with Henry? He's always been everyone's friend."

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