He kept traffic moving at Pratt and Light

WAY BACK WHEN

`Podge' McKeldin was urban legend

July 10, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Charles Graham, who has maintained a lifelong interest in Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, twice Maryland governor (1951-1959) and twice Baltimore mayor (1943-1947 and 1963-1967), called me the other day.

He had read a story in The Sun about an $18,000 face-lift scheduled for McKeldin Plaza near Harborplace.

He insisted the $3.6 million fountain and plaza at Pratt and Light streets, designed by Wallace, Roberts & Todd in 1981, was named for William Frederick "Podge" McKeldin, a Baltimore police officer and brother of the former mayor and governor.

For years, Podge's daily beat was the intersection of Pratt and Light, right where the plaza stands. It is a fact, however, that it could honor both brothers.

"Ted McKeldin was the guy who put us into the Inner Harbor and we still remain the model for harbor development," said Martin L. Millspaugh the other day.

Millspaugh, who had been chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc. that oversaw development of the harbor, is now vice president of Enterprise Real Estate Services Inc. in Columbia.

It was Theodore R. McKeldin who envisioned the vast Inner Harbor redevelopment project that resulted in today's Harborplace with its multiplicity of attractions.

"Podge," the other brother, became a mounted police officer, and for 18 years directed traffic at Pratt and Light streets, where he and his horse, Bob, became urban celebrities.

Old-timers will recall when the intersection at Pratt and Light streets, was no ordinary city crossroads. It was one of the city's most notorious as trucks and autos mixed it up with streetcars, horse-drawn wagons and pedestrians. Into this battlefield stepped Officer McKeldin who was sent to bring order out of vehicular chaos.

Today, it's difficult to imagine that, where diners now sit sipping chardonnay at City Lights or eating steamed crabs at Phillips while watching visitors walk along the quay or recreational boats darting in the harbor, this was once the heart of the city's working waterfront.

And that in those pre-Beltway, Harbor Tunnel and Interstate highway years, most north- and southbound traffic flowed through the city right through Pratt and Light.

When Officer McKeldin began his watch at Pratt and Light there was no traffic signal at the intersection. He controlled the flow of mechanized humanity from a 6-foot high platform to which was attached an upright pole. On the pole was mounted STOP and GO signs which he turned to get traffic flowing or halted.

Several years later, a small traffic kiosk was built by the city from which McKeldin continued to reign supreme over the cars and trucks that passed his way.

While McKeldin was inside the kiosk, Bob was tied up outside. He had been trained to shift positions with the traffic.

When the light changed, "Bob would move his body, paralleling himself with the oncoming traffic. Bob was a live median strip," observed The Evening Sun.

Besides his signal turning (which later became a traffic light), McKeldin added hand-waving and a loud whistle to his repertoire.

"He is known most widely, perhaps, for his whistling. He carries a regulation whistle but never uses it. He can do better by whistling through his teeth -shrill, sharp blasts that can be heard three blocks away," reported The Sun Magazine in a 1952 profile.

"Scores of vacationers, Florida-bound in the fall, northbound in the spring, have come to know the mounted patrolman as sort of a landmark. They whistle at him. He whistles back. Many have asked to snap his picture. If it won't hold up traffic, he lets them," said the magazine.

One time a St. Louis truck driver passed through the intersection and, not seeing McKeldin in his usual place, became concerned. He wrote to the police department inquiring what had become of the "whistler at Pratt and Light?"

McKeldin, who suffered a leg injury in 1955 that kept him off his horse, was transferred to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, where he remained until retiring in 1960. He died two years later.

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