A train derailment this week near Pennsylvania Station showed me how confused we are about the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, where the mishap occurred. This 1873 work of engineering burrows under West Baltimore neighborhoods for 1.4 miles, but its role in local transportation remains little known. I winced when a radio news reader described its location as "south of Baltimore."
Though many assessments say that this 140-year-old engineering relic needs to be replaced, it has not happened. It is traversed by every Washington-to-Boston Amtrak passenger train, as well as Penn Line MARC commuter trains. Use of the tunnel will increase substantially next month when weekend MARC service commences. Oh, yes: Over its 140-year-history, there have been tunnel collapses and lawsuits.
One of the reasons the tunnel's location remains so little known is that it just disappears under the West Baltimore cityscape. You can walk its entire route on the surface and have no idea it sits about 60 feet beneath. Friends who live in Bolton Hill say they can feel the trains rumble when they are in their basements. You are more likely to hear the loud and mournful locomotive whistles, but because Baltimore is so crisscrossed by rail routes, it is difficult to tell where the sound actually emanates from.
I began my tunnel-top tour at Wilson Street in Bolton Hill, just east of Park Avenue. The cavity is sometimes called the Wilson Street Tunnel, because it follows that thoroughfare for about half its length.
The first landmarks here are the handsome, dark-red-brick Maryland Institute College of Art dormitories that flank the tunnel route. Merchant Thomas O'Neill, who gave his fortune to build the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, lived at 1731 Park Ave., at Wilson. Competitor David Hutzler lived two blocks west, on Eutaw Place, above Wilson.
The Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at the old Cornerstone Baptist Church, at Wilson and Bolton streets, on one of his visits to Baltimore. The church burned and was replaced with a small park that was named for novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived a good bit to the south on Park Avenue.
Many years ago, I watched the crew of the film "Avalon" shoot an exterior scene at Wilson Street and Linden Avenue. In a nice and coincidental touch, an old apartment building here is named the Avalon. The other major topside landmark here is the Marlborough, the apartment house where the art-collecting Cone sisters lived and displayed their canvases. It is now a residence for senior citizens.
As Wilson Street crosses Eutaw Place, it enters the heart of the historic African-American west-side neighborhood known as Upton. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall lived just south of Wilson Street on Division and was born on McMechen Street, a parallel street near the tunnel.
This stretch of Wilson Street offers a visual clue about just what lies below. Many rowhouses that once sat atop the tunnel tube are no longer there. This no man's land created by the disappeared housing seems eerie.
There was once a Pennsylvania Railroad neighborhood station at Pennsylvania Avenue, where the tunnel emerges for a brief run to Gilmor Street. Some remains of the old platform and stairs remain. The station site is now occupied by a variety store.
At this point, the rails bend slightly and travel under Winchester Street westward to Monroe Street, where the trains finally emerge from the tunnel. But before the rails reach a long stretch of uncontested daylight, there are still some mini-tunnels under Mount Street and Fulton Avenue in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
The Winchester Street route also gave rowhouse builders a pause. I noticed that homes are set back here, creating a visual corridor, a wide path that offers up no clue about the presence of Amtrak's busy Northeast Corridor below.