Unearthing a bit of Baltimore tunnel history

The B&P is the city's oldest rail tunnel, having opened in June 1873. Today it carries 140 trains a day.

Aged rail tunnels cross under Baltimore, seeing heavy use without much notice — until there's trouble.

That arrived this week when 13 cars of a CSX train derailed at the northern entrance of the venerable Howard Street Tunnel.

The city's tunnels are currently the subject of two federal studies that could determine what the future holds for them. They were not cheap to build; they will be more expensive to replace.

The history of Baltimore's tunnels has long fascinated me, perhaps because my very first rail trip was from Camden Station to Mount Royal via the Howard Street Tunnel. The ride cost 10 cents.

The Howard Street Tunnel took more than four years to complete in the 1890s, and when it was done in 1895, contractor John B. McDonald was hired to build New York's first subway, the Interborough Rapid Transit.

The tunnel begins on the south end near the Ravens' and Orioles' stadiums, and runs below Howard Street. Today, it is used exclusively by freight trains, many of them stretching for long distances.

When I see a train pass at 26th and Sisson streets, I know that its locomotive has passed by the old Hutzler department store basement while I'm still observing the box cars rumble through Remington.

I often ride through the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel buried under West Baltimore. Amtrak says the Northeast Corridor trains that use this tunnel account for one-third of its revenue and one-fifth of all its trips.

In addition to being the underground route most heavily used by passengers, the B&P is also the city's oldest rail tunnel. It opened in June 1873 and was something of a marvel for the speed of its construction.

The origin of the tunnel stretches all the way to Southern Maryland, where farmers wanted a way to get their tobacco to market at Baltimore's harbor. A line to Pope's Creek in Charles County, with another set of tracks to fast-growing Washington, began construction in 1866.

The line was essentially completed from Washington to a tiny temporary station in West Baltimore called Lafayette in 1872. As an interim measure, passengers boarded stage coaches at Lafayette Station and rode into downtown Baltimore until the tunnel was completed a year later.

The Baltimore-Washington main line's contractor was Thomas Seabrook — who got a station and community named after him in Prince George's County.

The pair of contractors who built the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, Thomas Rutter and Thomas D. Owens, were not so famously honored, though they were feted at a banquet at John Beck's restaurant on Cathedral Street on June 11, 1873.

Perhaps the workers should have gotten the meal: News accounts in The Baltimore Sun described the rugged tunnel construction work, which began in May 1871 and lasted two years.

Workers had to blast through rock on the side of the Jones Falls Valley as far west as McCulloh Street. They then encountered sand, clay and underground streams — which at times were more problematic than the rock.

"The soil has generally been so sandy that as fast as the workmen dig downward, the sides of the excavation had to be supported by immense framework," The Sun reported in 1872.

Some 500 men worked daily in construction gangs. The flooding they encountered kept three steam-powered pumps working continuously.

The entire tunnel was dug, by hand, in sections. There were steam-powered elevator buckets that lifted the excavated material to the surface. The tunnel's inside was lined with layers of brick.

A substantial home at Eutaw Place and Wilson Street was damaged by the excavation. The railroad company bought it, refurbished and resold it.

When all was said and done, the tunnel, which stretches 1.5 miles, opened on schedule. Today, it exists pretty much in the same state — 143 years later.

The big difference? Now it carries 140 trains a day.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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