Railroad company has rich freight of history


Then & Now

December 09, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN REPORTER

We can't let the year end without mentioning the 100th birthday of the Canton Railroad Co. which for some reason or other, passed by in May unnoticed.

Since 1906, the Canton's fleet of locomotives and its hearty band of railroaders, has kept freight moving to and from local industries and moving through the port of Baltimore.

A visitor to the railroad finds it located in a part of industrial Baltimore that is still hardworking and grimy, while not too far to the west, Edwin F. Hale Sr.'s First Mariner Bank building, a component of his Canton Crossing development, sprawls on a 65-acre waterfront site, a symbol of the new Canton.

However, the railroad continues operating in its old neighborhood, better known as the Canton Industrial Area.

Some of the new residents like the railroad, and some don't.

Cars and trucks traveling on Boston Street bounce over an endless spaghetti network of railroad tracks, and sometimes the impatient are forced to wait while trains switch an industry.

"We try to be a good neighbor," said John C. Magness, the Canton's president and chief executive officer, the other day. "We recently moved a switch and tell our crews not to block Boston Street."

Magness, 49, is a 26-year veteran railroader. He reigns over a 17-mile railroad (which once had 39 miles of track in Baltimore and Baltimore County) from a headquarters building in the 1800 block of S. Newkirk St.

Interstate 95 soars over the building on huge concrete piers that cast deep shadows, while diesel-powered trucks bouncing down Newkirk Street kick up great clouds of dust. Trains slowly moving in and out of nearby Penn Mary yard add to this industrial symphony with their squealing flanged wheels.

Inside the office, railroad operations are directed by several men hunched over grayish computer screens, while diesel locomotives outside trundle back and forth making up trains and shoving cars.

The Canton is strictly blue-collar and all-business. During its long history, it never operated named passenger trains, nor was it ruled over by wealthy plutocrats. It's very much a workaday railroad in workaday surroundings.

It was an offspring of the Canton Co., which was founded in 1828 by some of the same Baltimore businessmen who founded the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1827.

Peter Cooper, the New York industrialist who constructed the B&O's first steam engines, was also one of the influential forces behind the Canton Co.'s founding and early success.

The Canton Co.'s charter "empowered it to purchase and improve land, lay out streets in the vicinity of Baltimore on or near navigable water, and erect wharves, slips, factories, stores and dwellings," wrote Gary W. Schlerf in his 1996 book, The History of the Canton Railroad Company.

"The company intended to develop an integrated community with factories, businesses and homes, along with the roads and wharves providing necessary transportation. ... It was a bold new concept for the time."

Magness grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 1975. He is a University of Maryland graduate and earned a master's in business from Loyola College.

Magness, who had several railroaders in his family, began his career with CSX in sales.

"Believe it or not, I'm not a rail fan and I don't collect trains," said Magness, who joined the Canton in 1995. "I took my first railroad job only until I could find something better, and I never left it. I'm very happy here."

Magness has 30 employees who work for the railroad, which has been owned and operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority since 1987. The authority owns all of its stock.

The Canton operates four locomotives and has 90 freight cars. It operates two shifts and generally is closed on Sundays unless a shipper has a particular need.

"In that case, we'll send in a crew and an engine. We are very customer-oriented," Magness said.

In addition to its switching routine, it also connects local shippers with CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads.

"We receive no state subsidies and we operate for a profit. Last year, we moved 8,135 cars and had an annual revenue of $3 million," he said.

It serves 30 industrial customers including Seagirt Marine Terminal, GAF Corp., Weyerhaeuser Co., Rukert Terminals, C. Steinweg Co. and Unilever.

Recent losses in traffic generators would be the closing of the Broening Highway General Motors plant and the Western Electric Co. Point Breeze plant in the 1980s.

"We don't want to be squeezed out," Magness said. "I try to work with property owners or acquire buildings. We are doing what we can to stem the tide."

Magness likes to play on the "good neighbor theme."

"We are involved with an award program at Hampstead Hill Elementary School called the Spectacular Express. We give the kids gifts. It is a behavioral-based program and we teach a little rail safety, too," he said.

"We're here not to just be in the community. We want to be a safe operation and work with all kinds of people," he said. "In the end, it pays off."


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