Hostelries and `mealing stations'

WAY BACK WHEN

Railroad-built inns eased journey for travelers in the 1800s

Back story

March 25, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

It remains to be seen whether guests staying at Amtrak's 72-room hotel proposed for Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station will have their nocturnal reveries disturbed by the parade of rumbling trains or by gurgling MARC diesel locomotives idling overnight.

However, there was once a time when railroads built, owned and operated hostelries for the convenience of passengers. For Amtrak, the Penn Station project would mark its entrance into the hotel business.

In the late 19th century, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began building hotels along its route. The railroad completed three in Maryland, none of which is extant today, during the administration of B&O presidents John Work Garrett and Robert W. Garrett from 1858 to 1887.

"The Garretts seemed to have had a hotel fixation during the 1870s, and I don't know quite why. I'm not sure what the rationale was because by that time the railroad was operating dining and Pullman cars," said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive and railroad historian and author.

The building boom culminated in 1872 with the opening of the Deer Park Hotel, a stylish white- and yellow-trimmed summer resort in Garrett County.

For a time, Deer Park was called the nation's "Summer Capital," because presidents Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison and Taft and the fashionable set arrived there aboard B&O passenger trains to escape the insufferable heat of Washington.

But Deer Park's days were numbered: The coming of the automobile and competition from other resorts combined to spell its doom. By 1911, the B&O discontinued operating the hotel and sold it in 1924. Two decades later, wrecking crews arrived and pulled down the gracious old hotel that hadn't booked a guest or welcomed a Saratoga trunk in years.

Also in 1872, the B&O unveiled its Queen City Hotel in Cumberland, a rambling combination-brick railroad station and hotel whose long porch, a perfect place for promenading while waiting for a train, was decorated with whimsical cast-iron curlicues reminiscent of those found in New Orleans.

Closer to Baltimore was the Viaduct Hotel, a three-story, turreted Victorian fortress built of Maryland gray granite that stood in Relay.

The station-hotel was shoe-horned into a pie-shaped piece of land between the railroad tracks of the 1830s-era Old Main Line, which carried trains to the West, and the Metropolitan Branch, which sent trains on to Washington.

Sitting on a bluff above the swirling waters of the Patapsco River and just a stone's throw north of Benjamin H. Latrobe's historic Thomas Viaduct with its eight stone arches, the Viaduct Hotel was built as an overnight hostelry and "mealing station" for travelers who feared the consequences of the night air and hazards of traveling after dusk.

Even though elaborate parties and banquets had once been held in its rooms and it served as a social center for the citizens of Relay, by the early 1900s, the Viaduct Hotel was fading in importance and closed.

Faster trains between Baltimore and Washington made an overnight stop there unnecessary, and an agent and ticket office continued until 1938, when they were eliminated. Several commuter trains still continued to call there for commuters, who huddled in the hotel's weary porches on rainy days.

Eventually, the old building was boarded up and weeds took over its manicured flower beds and yard, while it stoically awaited its fate at the hands of the wreckers who finally arrived in 1950.

The Queen City Hotel was perhaps the most elaborate of the B&O's hotel projects when building of the four-story building began in 1870 in Cumberland. It took two years to complete.

"The elaborately intricate ironwork that decorates the porch, the cavernous central hall that once could seat over 400 people at dinner, and the remains of marble fireplaces in all the bedrooms upstairs suggest the time when ladies and gentlemen paused in their railroad journeys for an eagerly awaited dinner or the comfort of a night's rest at the famous Queen City Hotel," wrote John Dorsey, a Sun reporter, who visited the crumbling old hotel in 1967.

Even by today's standards, everything about the Queen City was first-class. It was built with 3 million Baltimore bricks, and it included a distinctive cupola and a huge wine cellar in its vast basement.

Frescoed ceilings and walnut wainscoting greeted eyes of visitors who could wash the aroma of anthracite coal smoke from their hands at 32 iron washstands before going into dinner. The 6,542-square-foot building, which occupied 1 1/8 acres, had 147 rooms that were illuminated with 500 gas jets.

The hotel was popular not only with rail travelers but also with local residents who dined there and welcomed many a new year in its ballroom. But the clock was ticking, and the old hotel closed after World War I. It lingered through the ensuing decades as station, division office and lodging for rail crews until the early 1970s, when the railroad planned to demolish the deteriorating building.

A classic battle between preservationists and Chesapeake & Ohio/B&O officials came to an end in 1971 when federal Appellate Judge Simon E. Sobeloff refused to halt the demolition. In the fall of 1971, Howard J. Fetter held little sympathy for its storied past.

As his crew went about their demolition work, Fetter told newspaper reporters, "All I look for is to make money. ... There is nothing worth anything left here."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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