Robert Hamilton Jr.

[ Age 90 ] Catonsville machinist constructed a working steam railroad on 8 acres at his family home.

February 27, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Robert Bruce Hamilton Jr., a retired machinist and rail fan who built a scale-model miniature railroad that he operated on the spacious grounds of his lifelong Catonsville home, died of complications from heart disease Friday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 90.

Mr. Hamilton was born and raised at his family's estate, Emerald Hill, and graduated in 1933 from Catonsville High School.

Because of the Depression, he abandoned his dream of studying medicine and went to work for American Hammered Piston Ring in Baltimore, which later became part of Koppers Co.

He swept floors for several months before being promoted to lathe operator. Mr. Hamilton eventually became a machinist while taking night classes for 11 years at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he earned first honors in mechanical drawing.

Mr. Hamilton was deferred during World War II because of his war work at Koppers making precision piston rings used in aircraft engines.

In 1951, he and his brother, Douglas W. Hamilton Sr., founded Hamilton Associates Inc., a machine shop that later expanded and moved to Meadows Industrial Park in Woodlawn.

Mr. Hamilton's interest in model-building began at an early age, when he designed and built model airplanes. Several of his models were to become part of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

After retiring in 1977, Mr. Hamilton turned his attention to building the Patapsco Valley Railroad and its motive power, which he installed on 8 acres at Emerald Hill. He began by reconditioning a used backhoe, which he needed to clear and grade the railroad's right of way.

By 1979, he had laid 1,800 feet of track and built a trestle 13 1/2 feet high and 180 feet long, and a bridge over a pond.

Mr. Hamilton spread and graded 125 tons of ballast, upon which he laid the 10,000 railroad ties that took him three months to cut from two-by-fours. He estimated that the Patapsco Valley Railroad's 7 1/2 -inch tracks were held in place by more than 45,000 hand-hammered spikes.

"He single-handedly did 99 percent of the work. He'd work eight or more hours five or six days a week," said his son, R. Bruce Hamilton III of Monkton.

"This was probably physically as hard as anything I've ever done, because I was older. The toughest part was doing the labor every day regardless of weather or how you felt. The love of the project spurred me on," Mr. Hamilton told The Evening Sun in 1979. "This has been in my head for years."

He also built support facilities including a machine shop, coal and water facilities, and layover tracks, where engines waited while getting up the required 120 to 130 pounds of steam pressure before pulling off onto the main line.

Using original blueprints, Mr. Hamilton built one-eighth-scale replicas of the President Washington and President Adams, two high-speed Pacific class locomotives that once pulled the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Capitol Limited and Royal Blue passenger trains.

"They were painted Pullman green and had gold striping and red highlights, just like the originals that were built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1927," said Glenn McComas, a rail fan and longtime friend. "These were museum-quality engines, and they worked flawlessly."

Mr. Hamilton estimated that he had spent 4,500 hours constructing each engine, which, with its tender, was 13 1/2 feet long and weighed 3,000 pounds.

"When I say make from scratch, I literally mean from inception," Mr. Hamilton said in the interview.

The coal-fired locomotives - which use bituminous coal and are still operating - can pull several passenger cars and 10 people up a sloping grade at 20 to 25 mph.

"He was devoted to his hobby - almost driven. When people asked him how he built his engines, his favorite reply was, `One piece at a time,'" his son said.

He also built two other working steam models, a New York Central Railroad J-3 class Hudson, and a copy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad's 614.

Mr. Hamilton was a founding member of the Chesapeake & Allegheny Steam Preservation Society and worked closely with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in getting the society a permanent home in Leakin Park.

Since the early 1980s, the society has operated miniature steam and diesel-powered trains on three miles of track that take visitors coursing through 10 acres of bucolic parkland on weekends in the warm-weather months.

In 1989, Mr. Hamilton's President Washington was shown at the National Geographic Society's "Romance of Model Railroading" exhibition in the society's Explorer's Hall in Washington.

Mr. Hamilton often held meets at his home where enthusiasts could run their engines, and he remained active until his health began to fail about a year ago.

He was a communicant of St. John's Episcopal Church, 9120 Frederick Road in Ellicott City, where services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Also surviving are his wife of 63 years, the former Lydia K. "Sparky" Kingsbury; two daughters, Lydia H. Chalmers of Ellicott City and Lee Hamilton Glatzer of New York City; a brother, Douglas Hamilton of Butler; a sister, Elaine Hamilton O'Neal of Catonsville, and six grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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