William F. Howes Jr., a retired CSX executive and rail historian, stepped aboard a sleeping car late Wednesday at Amtrak's Jacksonville, Fla., station, en route to Baltimore aboard the Silver Star.
The former Guilford resident was riding the northbound train to attend this weekend's symposium on the Garretts and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion on Mount Vernon Place.
He was the symposium's first speaker and after dinner last night presented a talk illuminated with slides on the history of B&O passenger service.
His subject was one dear to his heart, as he was the railroad's last director of passenger services, which ended with the creation of Amtrak in 1971.
Howes had the unhappy duty of ringing down the curtain on 141 years of transporting passengers that began on May 24, 1830, when the first scheduled passenger train with horse-drawn coaches clip-clopped along the original 13-mile route from Pratt Street to Ellicott Mills on the Patapsco River. The B&O was chartered in 1827 as the nation's first common-carrier railroad.
Howes, who grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., went to B&O in 1963 after earning a master's in civil engineering from Purdue University.
By that time, Howes said in his prepared remarks, "Such `name' trains as the Diplomat to St. Louis and Cleveland Night Express, as well as the Royal Blue and Daylight Speedliner, had already vanished from the timetable."
"Still," he said, "B&O's commitment to quality passenger service remained strong."
Soon, however, competition from automobiles, buses and airlines doomed the once lucrative rail passenger business, which had been eroding since the end of World War II. Another critical loss of revenue occurred in the late 1960s, when the U.S. Post Office and the Railway Express Agency switched to air and highway carriers, Howes said.
As deficits soared, the railroads launched new marketing initiatives and offered amenities such as a way that let passengers take their cars on trains operating between Washington and Chicago.
By early 1969, around the time Howes became the B&O's passenger services director, "we were coming to grips with the inevitable - the end of B&O's intercity passenger service - and were trying to face it with a stiff upper lip," he said.
As the clock ticked down to Amtrak's takeover of the nation's passenger trains on May 1, 1971, Howes was determined that the B&O would go out in the same stylish manner that passengers had come to expect.
He rode the last roundtrip journey of Nos. 5 and 6 - as the Capitol Limited was known in railroad lingo - between Camden Station and Chicago's Northwestern Station.
"We brought back the famous B&O salad bowl and even found a few Deer Park spring water jugs and had a special menu," Howes recalled in an interview. "We included dome cars and had such a good crowd that we had to add extra sleepers," he said.
Starting out, Howes said, they weren't sure whether it was really the last run because labor unions had mounted a challenge in federal court that might have derailed the Amtrak takeover.
It wasn't until the trains reached Martinsburg, W.Va., on the eastbound run of the Capitol, that Howes learned that the court effort had failed.
"Then we knew it was the end," he said. "It was really quite emotional. I remember we circulated our special menus among the crew and we all signed them. ... And for the crew, many of whom had 30 or 40 years with the railroad, it truly was the end because Amtrak wasn't running on the B&O."
Howes became a well-known presence to many rail fans during the Chessie Steam Specials in 1977 that celebrated the B&O's 150th birthday. He retired from CSX in 1988.
Last year, Howes, who is president of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, pooled research and photographs from his vast railroad archive with co-author Joe Welsh and published Travel by Pullman: A Century of Service (Motorbooks International, $34.95).
Howes enjoys riding passenger trains locally or cross-country with friends who share his passion for the flanged wheel on the steel rail.
The symposium continues today and tomorrow. For tickets, call 410-539-6914.