Railroad's glory revived

Train: Pulled by a restored 1950s locomotive, the Western Maryland Railway is again in operation, if only for a weekend.

July 15, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

For years the Western Maryland locomotive sat unused, its puppy dog face - windshield eyes and a light-bulb nose - slowly but surely rusting away.

Four years of dedicated volunteer work brought the classic 1952 freight engine back to life, its personality and inner workings restored.

During the weekend, it had its debut as the striking black-and-yellow showpiece of the Western Maryland Railway's 150th anniversary celebration. Once again the workhorse had a job to do: pulling hundreds of train lovers up and down a mile of track in Baltimore.

"This locomotive looks better today than the day it rolled off the assembly line," said Ed Williams, deputy director and chief curator for the B&O Railroad Museum, the host of the celebration. "It does - it glistens."

The Western Maryland Railway isn't the first take-all-comers railroad in the nation; the 175-year-old Baltimore and Ohio holds that honor. But there's something about the one-time B&O competitor that attracts devoted fans.

"I never worked for the railroad, but I fell in love with it," said Frederick resident Bob Shives, a longtime member of the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society. "Immaculately maintained right of ways; the equipment was always kept well; the engines were always washed before they went on the road. ... The Western Maryland became my railroad."

In its heyday, it had roughly 800 miles of track, reaching from Baltimore northwest to Connellsville, Pa., and southwest into Elkins, W.Va.

The company slowly disappeared in a series of mergers that brought it together with the B&O and the Chesapeake & Ohio, now under the name CSX. Only half its lines are operated nowadays, and no longer do locomotives have "WM" on their noses.

But a dozen times Saturday and yesterday, the Western Maryland rode again.

Air horns blasting, the No. 236 locomotive pulled out at 10:30 a.m. yesterday on what was the first mile of commercial railroad line in America.

Museum volunteer John Biggers was driving, and for good reason: The 236 owes its transformation to him more than to anyone else. The Severn bus mechanic spent four years of Saturdays on the locomotive, cleaning, rebuilding and repainting. He even brought the two air horns home to repair them in his garage.

Trains have fascinated him since he was little, when his father took him out on rainy days to watch the B&O locomotives and cars whoosh by.

"I've always been fascinated with them, always wanted to work for the railroad," said Biggers, 43, standing in the 236's 12-foot-high cab. "This is as close as I could get."

Retired in 1979 to the museum's lot, the engine has a sleek design after which many toy trains are modeled. Biggers likes to get out of the cab and admire it in full: the last surviving Western Maryland F-7 locomotive.

The "F" stands for "freight." Now its cargo is people - 1,100 on Saturday and 750 yesterday.

Seven-year-old Troy Fosdick of Woodbridge, Va., was among those boarding the 10:30 train yesterday morning. It was loud. It was bumpy.

The boy with the train T-shirt was thrilled. He could see old freight cars out his window as his passenger car rushed past.

"I loved it!" Troy said, grinning.

When the noon train pulled out, he was on that, too.

Eric Dolin, who visited the museum for the first time yesterday with his wife and two children, peeked into locomotives predating the 236 and thought their enduring popularity wasn't hard to understand.

"They connect you to the history of America," said Dolin, 40, of Garrett Park. "There's something very romantic and powerful about these old trains."

The B&O Railroad Museum's celebration of the 175th anniversary of railroading in America continues through July next year with events on selected weekends. Information: 410-752-2490.

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