The imposing, red, soot-stained former Baltimore Traction Co. car barn with the whimsical turret at Druid Hill Avenue and Retreat Street was a relic from the days when Baltimoreans thought cable cars were the transit technology of the future.
Ground was broken in 1889 for the massive Victorian Romanesque-style brick-and-stone powerhouse and car barn. Yesterday, it burned in a spectacular five-alarm blaze.
When built, it housed the cable machinery, blacksmith shop and storage room for 38 cars. A steam boiler and an adjoining coal bunker held the coal needed to generate the system's power.
In the basement of the complex was a series of vaults housing a spaghetti-like network of cable that powered the cars traveling rails embedded in city streets.
Service was inaugurated May 23, 1891, when it was estimated that some 60,000 Baltimoreans each plunked down a nickel to ride from Druid Hill Park to Patterson Park. Top speed was a dizzying 11 mph.
"Cable traction came to Baltimore in 1891 because of pressure from city officials who were fearful of those newfangled electric wires," said Herbert H. Harwood, a nationally acclaimed railroad historian and author of Baltimore Streetcars: The Postwar Years.
During the 1890s, cable cars operated all over Baltimore.
They conveyed fans to St. Paul and 25th streets, not far from the wooden ballpark where the 1890s Orioles teams played. Transportation companies regularly located their car houses adjacent to Druid Hill Park, then Baltimore's greatest recreational venue.
The cable system whose cumbersome machinery and steel pulleys once whirled under many of Baltimore's main streets came to an end in 1896 when the Druid Hill Avenue line was electrified.
The old car barn gave in to the new technology and remained a part of the streetcar system until the 1920s, when it was converted to a storage and maintenance warehouse. It saw use under owner United Railways and Electric Co. and its successor, the Baltimore Transit Co., which sold it in 1947.
"Of the powerhouse car barns in the city, this was the most architecturally impressive and ornate. It is a significant loss," Harwood said. "However, Baltimore has more powerhouse-car barns from the cable car era surviving than any other city I know."
A similar structure on Pratt Street near Central Avenue, built by the Baltimore Traction Co. and used to operate the eastern end of its system, still stands.
Another relic of Baltimore's cable railway system remains in daily use - but not for transportation.
It is the Charles Theater, at Charles and Lanvale streets, built in 1892 as a similar, cavernous, cable car powerhouse and storage and repair facility.
It was later converted into a motor-bus garage and then the Famous Ballroom, predecessor of the Charles Theater. In 1998, when the Charles was being enlarged, construction crews discovered sections of steel rails, rail spikes and wooden ties.
The old rails, their heavy foundations and the well-lighted pits where mechanics serviced the undersides of the cars proved a construction hassle for several weeks when steel risers for movie seats were being installed.
In the 1970s, city highway workers discovered more vestiges of Baltimore's cable car past. They unearthed several large, spoked iron wheels - called sheaves - used in the cable systems.
Workers removed them from the ground and placed one on display in the Otterbein neighborhood in South Baltimore. Another is displayed outdoors at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.