While passing a vacant Baltimore Street shop, I considered a March day 35 years ago. I'd slipped away from the old New American's city desk on a quick break and made a sharp, unexplained turn into that space, then occupied by a PanAm Airlines sales office. Although out for nothing more than a sandwich, I found myself spending Easter week in England.
A persuasive sales agent named Rita overcame all my natural Baltimore fear of destinations beyond New York and Ocean City.
My Baltimore travel reference points had been primitive. As much as I reverenced the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, its two stations here were not thriving hubs. Mount Royal Station is far livelier today as a Maryland Institute College of Art academic building.
This is not to belittle Mount Royal, where trains emerged from the darkness of the Howard Street Tunnel. It had railroad atmosphere, but not much paying business, despite the presence of fireplaces and rocking chairs. As a station, it has been closed for 50 years, but praise goes to the college for filling its interior with students, keeping its signature tower clock lighted and noting rail tradition with an outdoor educational display of the depot's former life.
Its sibling, the B&O's downtown stop, Camden Station (now Sports Legends at Camden Yards) seemed to have somewhat more passengers milling about and was an endearing relic of old Baltimore. Spotlessly maintained, it radiated the goodwill and a non-arrogant style typical of B&O employees. Its Union News stand produced a knockout milkshake.
Camden also had staying power. Well into the 1980s, its golden oak benches and large overhead lamps were maintained in the same pristine condition as when they welcomed delegates to the 1912 Democratic Presidential Convention. When the Orioles arrived in Baltimore in 1954, they set foot at Camden Station after playing their first game of the season against Detroit.
Worlds away was dirty Pennsylvania Station, which was indeed a busy enterprise. I came along in the 1950s, when there were still many members of the military in seemingly perpetual transit. The soldiers and sailors often had layovers in Baltimore and would waste an hour at a bank of pinball machines that filled the grimy northern waiting room. Smoking was encouraged.
Now this was a busy station, and, unlike today, the traffic was not so many commuters going to Washington.
Our commuter trains are long conveyances compared with the aged red cars that rattled through West Baltimore, Halethorpe, Odenton and Bowie until the late 1970s. I would love to watch the meltdown if MARC's riders were forced to board coaches so primitive that only railroad buffs could savor their rattling charms.
Until it closed a few years ago, the no-frills Trailways station on Fayette Street was little changed since it opened. It could have been used in Hairspray's peppy number, "Welcome to the Sixties." Its Greyhound counterpart at Howard and Centre was cleaner and more orderly - and helped bring a little business to upper Howard Street.
Regional passengers still arrived by boat. As spring training ended, the 1955 Oriole team played its way up through the Carolinas and Virginia and took the Old Bay Line from Norfolk. As a child, I thought it very exciting to bid bon voyage to friends from an old Pratt Street pier. Even better was to watch this night boat, all twinkling in the summer twilight, glide down the bay.