Dan Rodricks: Vanished faces of a West Virginia boom town

All aboard for a sentimental streetcar journey to Old Hilltop

I indulged a transportation mirage, thinking of how I would have gotten to Pimlico in the days of streetcars.

On a trip this past week, fellow bus passengers were describing a trip to Pimlico to watch Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist work out in the early morning in preparation for today's Preakness.

As I eavesdropped, I considered the historic track, its history and place in Baltimore.

Just that day, I had been looking at 1938 newsreel footage of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral race when my eye caught a streetcar along the Pimlico backstretch.

I indulged myself in a transportation reverie — thinking of how I would have gotten to Pimlico in the days when it was served by trolleys that approached via the Mount Washington and Park Heights neighborhoods.

Buses perform the same service today, but trolley service would have been time-efficient. I thought to myself, I could sleep until 6 a.m., get to the corner of 26th Street and Huntingdon Avenue, wait no longer than seven minutes — according to the 1938 schedule — and be at the Pimlico backstretch about 25 minutes later.

No slight intended, but today's bus schedule is far less frequent.

Of course, auto ownership was not as prevalent in 1938. Hence, there was a need for more streetcars and more frequent runs.

In the era when streetcars served every Baltimore neighborhood, the No. 25 line connected downtown Baltimore with Mount Vernon, Old Goucher, Remington, Hampden, Medfield, Cross Keys, Roland Park, Mount Washington and Upper Park Heights.

The old schedule reveals that by 6:30 a.m., a car would pass every seven minutes; at 7:51, service would increase to every five minutes.

I thought of the route to Pimlico from my neighborhood. I would board at 26th and Huntingdon just as a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train passed in the deep cut known as the Belt Line.

After a few blocks, we'd sail over a now-vanished bridge connecting the Hampden and Remington neighborhoods over Stony Run. It was a streetcar-only viaduct that spanned what is officially Wyman Park. No autos were allowed, though I'm sure a few intoxicated drivers tried it.

Today, a few lengths of old streetcar track serve as guard rails at the northern end of Huntingdon Avenue. The 1893 span disappeared in 1949 when the streetcar service here was converted to buses.

In my journey of the past, the streetcar would climb the hill at Chestnut Avenue and pass modern-day spots such as the Rocket to Venus pub, then turn at the Charmery Ice Cream shop, which this week is featuring Pimlico Mud (normally the flavor Maryland Mud).

Given the weather forecast, the name might be spot on.

The trolley would parade along the 36th Street Hampden business district, passing the old Sandler's department store (today a Royal Farms), a couple of neighborhood movie theaters and shops.

On a morning run, laborers would have filled the No. 25. The Jones Falls Valley, which the line parallels for a distance, was full of cotton mills, manufacturing plants and foundries. Everything from Noxzema skin cream to Schenuit tires was made here.

Streetcars would then head up Falls Road in the lightly populated area around Baltimore Country Club, where fewer passengers would have been waiting at the concrete stations.

At Kelly Avenue — absolutely no relation — the rails turned to the west, and the No. 25 would traverse Mount Washington, passing the A&P grocery and Levin pharmacy, then climb toward Old Hilltop. Developers named a part of this neighborhood Hilltop Park near Crest and Arden roads.

The nickname Old Hilltop was derived from the Pimlico infield's slight rise. The term stuck long after the terrain had been leveled.

As the streetcar approached Pimlico, certainly the grandstand and clubhouse were picturesque — a welcome sight just before a betting passenger would pull the buzzer to alight from the car.

The rails traveled along Ken Oak Avenue in Mount Washington, a street of mature trees and large wooden and stucco homes. Cars crossed what we now call Northern Parkway and wound around nearly three-quarters of the racetrack property at Pimlico Road, and then the line terminated at the old Belvedere Loop in the Arlington neighborhood.

That final leg of the journey is a little harder to imagine. By then, I'd be at the daily double window.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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