There's nothing to rail about on quiet visit to Hillen Station

July 13, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

Life was just less complicated on a quiet Saturday when my mother rounded up her children and shepherded us on a quick trip to the railroad station. No rides, no souvenirs, no lunch, just a little city trip.

Our destination was the Hillen Station, the downtown Baltimore terminus of the old Western Maryland Railway, founded 150 years ago - and whose birthday is being celebrated this weekend by the B&O Museum in Southwest Baltimore.

That museum is displaying a newly restored diesel engine that might well have been sitting on the tracks that Saturday in the 1950s. As I recall, the Hillen Station had not changed much. It was classic 19th century, solid, high ceilings, chaste, nothing modern, maybe some oak benches, some electricity and telephone lines. At that time in Baltimore, a lot of things were delightfully stuck in a deliberate slow speed. And this station, tucked on the somnolent, Oldtown end of downtown, was no bustling rail hub. It was asleep. Then we arrived.

I'll credit my parents for their abiding love of Baltimore and all her treasures. Every corner had a story; every building a tale. We arrived on Hillen Street via a yellow No. 8 streetcar. Leading the pilgrimage was my mother, whatever number of her children she had in tow, plus an added chaperone, her neighbor and dear friend Dorothy Croswell.

Along the way we were instructed in various sights: the anchor at St. Ann's Church, the walls of Green Mount Cemetery, the Public Welfare Department, where both women worked at one time, the public bathhouse, then still in operation (and a real oddity to us children), and the Belair Market, where we probably had lunch.

There were other sights, including the rickety Null antique shop, so ancient its outside walls were wood. The guides at Colonial Williamsburg had less to say than our two group leaders, whose respect for their city and its residents was a joy to witness.

I can remember how open and little patronized the station was; Saturday was a slow day on a railroad that was withdrawing from the passenger business.

What the Western Maryland was not, however, was a dirty railroad, despite all the coal it hauled. I can well remember the scene on the platform. I had never seen so many soapsuds in my life - and crews foaming and soaping down the stately old coaches lined under the Bath Street Viaduct. A work crew - fairly burly women with their heads wrapped in rag caps - used long-handled brooms to whack and brush every speck of Washington County dust off. It was railroad housecleaning at its best.

So often when I visit museums today and observe trains - and especially automobiles - they are overly restored. Never once did the trains I rode nearly half a century ago look as polished and clean as the ones the curators show us. But, I might make an exception for these Western Maryland coaches. They were spotless.

My mother was also good at selecting activities that would separate us from the "buy me this" situations that children so often find themselves in. She loved to shop, but would shop for the things you really needed, not useless keychains and postcards you'll never mail. (Never the censor, she allowed us to go to Walt Disney movies. She just got annoyed when one of my siblings emerged from Peter Pan and demanded a $19 Tinkerbelle lamp.) The Hillen Station was perfect; even the trains weren't running.

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