City's change in mass transit after the war

WAY BACK WHEN

Book explores why streetcars became extinct in Baltimore

January 24, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The recent death of John Brooke Duvall Jr., a former Baltimore transit official who presided over the demise of the city's streetcar system in the 1940s and '50s, sort of coincided with the publication late last year by Johns Hopkins University Press of Baltimore Streetcars: The Postwar Years.

The book's author is Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive who has written nearly a dozen books and is a critically acclaimed rail and transit historian.

Duvall's death brought several calls and letters from trolley fans - a hardcore group if there ever was one - who still think of him as the bogeyman who robbed them of their beloved streetcars, replacing them with fleets of un-romantic, diesel-smelling buses.

Harwood, the son of a New York Central Railroad executive, has been photographing, writing about and chasing trains, trolleys and subways for more than 60 years.

His book really is a two-tier production. Not only does it chronicle the changes in mass transit in Baltimore in the years after World War II, it also offers a glimpse of the variety of streetcars that once served 425 miles of trolley trackage.

On another level, if one's eyes wander a bit, the background views of buildings and city street scenes are of an earlier Baltimore, with an Inner Harbor buzzing with maritime activity.

Lexington, Howard, Baltimore and Liberty streets, then the city's retail heart, were crowded with people. Streetcars swayed through the business district on imaginative track patterns designed to fit narrow and wandering city streets.

In addition to his own photographs, Harwood has included pictures from Edward S. Miller, George J. Voith, Robert Janssen and Robert Crockett, among others, who were trackside in those final years as the cars trundled in, out and across the city to such destinations as Towson, Sparrows Point, Catonsville, Parkville and Ellicott City.

But the streetcars were on their way out, the victim of maintenance problems, sagging Baltimore Transit Co. finances and a public that was discovering the freedom of having an automobile.

During World War II, gasoline and tire rationing forced many people to use public transit. At war's end, writes Harwood, there were still 29 separate car lines in operation and "almost everything worthwhile was on a car line anyway. There were fewer routes than in today's MTA bus system, but those of 1945 carried more people and ran more often." Fares were 10 cents.

But once the war was over and Detroit converted from wartime production to the manufacturing of automobiles, transit riders abandoned the streetcars en masse for the snappy new models arriving from the Motor City. As the postwar building boom surged through the suburbs - many out of reach of streetcar lines - the auto became a necessity of suburban living.

These developments brought drastic change in the operation of the Baltimore Transit Co., which was taken over by National City Lines, a Chicago-based holding company that liked buses and despised the streetcar.

"The drastic drop in ridership created a cash flow crisis just as modernization was most necessary. It seemed clear that the economics of streetcar operation were questionable, even if the capital could be found to rebuild lines and replace the cars," writes Harwood.

The arrival in Baltimore in 1953 of Henry A. Barnes, the traffic wunderkind, signaled a major change in how traffic would move in and out of the city.

Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who brought Barnes to Baltimore, described the city's streets as being like the "jigsaw puzzles I used to make as a young man."

"Barnes's concepts of `free-flow' [for autos] with one-way street systems and expanded traffic lanes, simply were incompatible with tracks and trolleys," observed Harwood.

During the summer of 1963, when 100 General Motors air-conditioned buses arrived in the city, Duvall called it the dawning of a new and more comfortable era for area transit riders.

At 6:34 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1963, a Sunday, car No. 7407, chartered by trolley fans, had the dubious honor of bringing to an end 104 years of streetcar service in Baltimore as it swung off Frederick Road into the darkness of the Irvington carhouse.

"Not only was Baltimore no longer a streetcar city, but it never could be again," writes Harwood.

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