Harry G. Gesser Jr.

Had been an active member for more than four decades of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum

  • Harry Gesser
Harry Gesser (Handout, BALTIMORE SUN )
April 04, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Harry G. Gesser Jr., a retired Bendix Radio engineering draftsman and a lifelong rail and streetcar fan, died March 16 of kidney and heart failure at St. Agnes Hospital.

The former longtime Woodlawn resident was 85.

Mr. Gesser was born in Baltimore and raised in West Arlington. After graduating from Forest Park High School in 1943, he began his career working for Bendix on East Joppa Road in Towson.

He entered the Navy in 1945 and, after serving for a year, resumed his career as an engineering draftsman.

When Bendix moved operations to Virginia in 1971, Mr. Gesser went to work for American Instrument Co., a division of Baxter Travenol, diagramming kidney dialysis machines and other medical equipment.

Mr. Gesser then worked briefly for Case Communications before retiring in 1986.

"His true passion was for riding the rails — of steam locomotives and streetcars," said a daughter, Carol L. Gesser, a former Baltimore Sun copy editor, who lives in Stuart, Fla.

Ms. Gesser said she and her sister often accompanied their father on rail excursions to Western Maryland where they "got cinders in [their] eyes" from puffing steam engines.

"With family or rail fans in tow, he rode many lines and visited museums up and down the coast, as far north as Maine and Toronto," Ms. Gesser said. "When he wasn't aboard for a particular excursion, he'd crisscross the countryside by car, 'train chasing.' "

Mr. Gesser also accumulated a large library related to railroading and streetcars.

"Albums of photos and reels of 8-millimeter films document his trips on the B&O, C&O, Ma&Pa, Allegheny Central, Maryland Midland, Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia, East Broad Top and Strasburg in Pennsylvania, Edaville Railroad in Massachusetts and others," his daughter said.

He was also an avid model railroader and spent hours drafting detailed plans for his HO-gauge rolling stock, and built a small N-gauge layout in the clubroom of the Woodlawn home where he had lived for 50 years.

Mr. Gesser was a lifetime member of the National Model Railroad Association. He had been a member of the National Railway Historical Society since 1960 and had served as president and vice president of the organization's Baltimore chapter.

Through the years, he organized slide shows and other entertainment for the Baltimore chapter's meetings and banquets. When the chapter offered trips, Mr. Gesser often worked as a host aboard the passenger cars.

Anxious to get his hands on the real thing, Mr. Gesser joined the Baltimore Streetcar Museum in 1967, a year after its founding, and trained as a streetcar motorman and conductor. He had also been a museum trustee.

"He proudly wore badge No. 124 on his cap when he served as a conductor or motorman on trips" aboard streetcars that traversed the museum's Falls Road tracks, according to his daughter.

"He was a member of the operating crew for many years that would operate the Wednesday school charters," said Charlie Plantholt, a museum member since 1970.

"He was a very outgoing and an all-around friendly person. He also had a lot of ideas to help the organization," said Mr. Plantholt. "If you knew Harry, you liked Harry."

Mr. Gesser also spent hours organizing railroad- and streetcar-related material at the Maryland Rail Heritage Library, which resulted from a merger of the holdings of the Baltimore chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and the Baltimore Street Car Museum. The library is in the streetcar museum's Falls Road headquarters.

"He was a driving force behind the library for more than 20 years," said Mr. Plantholt.

"When 'Mr. Library' passed the reins to others, his old stomping grounds upstairs at the museum was designated 'Gesser Tunnel,' " his daughter said.

Bob Janssen, also a longtime BSM member, was an old friend. "I've known Harry for 50 years," said Mr. Janssen.

"He did a great deal of research and was great at making lists. He spent at least 20 years researching and compiling a list of every fan excursion that ever operated on both rail and streetcars out of Baltimore," he said. "And now we now have a complete chart listing when an excursion ran and on what line. It's a very useful product."

"Harry also had a big hand in producing 'The History of Baltimore Streetcars,' the revised work of Mike Farrell's 1973 original title of 'Who Made All Our Streetcars Go,'" said Andy Blumberg, the museum's director of public relations.

"Harry was in charge of the photo sections for the book and also performed copy editing," said Mr. Blumberg.

Mr. Gesser was also a member of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Historical Society, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society and the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum in Alna, Maine.

Other interests included swing music, jazz, bluegrass and country music. He also had been a fan of the old Baltimore Colts and the Orioles.

He had been a member and usher at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church before joining St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church on Liberty Road.

Mr. Gesser and his wife of 58 years, the former Elizabeth Veronica Ratas, have lived since 2007 at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville.

Services were March 19.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Gesser is survived by another daughter, Patricia A. Gesser of Ellicott City; and a granddaughter.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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