Cabooses near end of the line

Longtime Lansdowne landmarks are to give way to Baltimore County streetscape improvements

September 22, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,SUN REPORTER

For nearly two decades, the antique cabooses have sat near the train tracks on Hammonds Ferry Road.

Children have swung up the metal steps to play conductor and all sorts of folks have sat on the cabooses to watch the passenger trains speed by or count the cars on rumbling freight trains.

Although their paint is chipped and fading, the cabooses are a landmark, Lansdowne residents say, and a reminder of the important role that trains have played in this southwestern Baltimore County community, once home to many employees of the B&O Railroad.

But now, the cabooses are about to depart.

Jacob "Shorty" Miller, the longtime community leader who refurbished the train cars and set them along the tracks, is preparing to hand them over to a private buyer before the end of the year. The county plans to purchase his land for a street improvement project.

"I just wanted to do something for Lansdowne," Miller says of the cabooses, which he had once hoped to make into a museum. "I thought that they would be there forever, but then again, I didn't think that I was going to get old either."

At 75, Miller finds it harder to keep up five cabooses, the oldest of which dates to 1931, and the wooden train station replica he built in a lot next to the Lansdowne Inn.

In the 1980s, he used the money from an injury settlement - he says he was shocked by a powerful current of electricity while working at a brewery - to purchase the parcel of land from the company that was then still called the B&O Railroad.

He spent a couple months building the one-room train station by hand, based on plans from the original structure that had burned down years earlier. He says he would cut and hammer pine timbers by day, then sleep inside at night on the concrete floor, half-waking every hour or so when the trains clattered past.

He bought the cabooses from a train station in Cumberland in 1989 for a sum that he does not want to disclose. Engineers transported them to Lansdowne on the tracks and lifted them onto Miller's property with a large crane. He refurbished them, painted their metal sides in bright circus colors and rented out three as stores.

In those days, Miller seemed to have a hand in nearly every thing that went on in Lansdowne, community members say. He ran an antiques store and an auction house opposite the cabooses on Hammonds Ferry Road and he served as president of the Lansdowne Improvement Association.

Along with his wife, he organized an annual street festival called Lansdowne Day, complete with pony rides, pit beef and, of course, tours of the cabooses, which area residents call "the trains."

But all that changed when Rose, his high school sweetheart and wife of nearly half a century, died nine years ago.

"When she died, I died," Miller says. "I walked out of the antique store, locked the door and didn't turn back."

In time, the stores in the cabooses closed and Miller opened the little train station to the public less often. Now all are crammed with odds and ends-old walkers and canes, and dusty wheels of fortune and yellowed plush animals left over from Lansdowne Day.

Miller says that he's grown weary of replacing windows broken by vandals and cleaning up graffiti scrawled on the sides of the train cars.

When the county offered to buy his land - but not the cabooses - to create parking and install benches as part of a streetscape project, Miller agreed. So far, he's found a buyer, whose name he won't divulge, for two of the cabooses, but still needs to sell three others.

While many residents welcome plans to spruce up the aging business district, they say that Lansdowne won't be the same when the cabooses are gone.

"I hate to see them go," says Patricia Charron, who cuts hair across the street at Karin's Barber Shop, where the window, left over from a grocery store once located there, still advertises "Coca Cola" and "Quality Meats." "I remember when I used to take my kids over here to climb on them."

"You'd be amazed how many people come by here and take photographs," she says.

Her husband, Harold, bought his first skateboard - a Billy Ruff - from a store in one of the cabooses. On a recent afternoon, Tracy Kinser, her 9-year-old son, Anthony, and her nephew, Steve Shore, 17, sold snowballs from a white van parked in front of the cabooses. A CSX train painted with the Tropicana logo clanged to a stop on the tracks behind them.

Anthony says that he likes to sit on the cabooses - he prefers the red one - to watch the trains go by. "Some are fast and some are slow, but if they're slow you get to watch them for a long time," he says, adding that the cabooses remind him of the stories of the Wild West that he has read in school.

Craig Rankin, the current president of the Lansdowne Improvement Association, is hopeful that the street project, as well as a Wal-Mart slated to open soon, will breathe new life into the community.

"The trains have been there for some time, but they've seen better days," Rankin says, adding that he would like to see a plaque commemorating the area's train history erected in the spot where the cabooses now stand.

The county plans to start work early next year on a $2 million project to create parking and improve lighting, gutters and curbs along a stretch of Hammonds Ferry Road, says Ray Heil, a program manager for the county's office of community conservation. He says the county intends to buy Miller's land but no price has been set.

Miller says that he'll miss the cabooses but not the headache of maintaining them. Calling bingo at the Lansdowne Senior Center and playing pinochle are enough to keep him busy these days.

It will be hard to drive down the road and no longer see the cabooses, he says.

"It's going to be lonesome. It's going to be a memory of my past gone," he says, "But like I say, it had to be."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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