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Towson photographer's work chronicled grittier side of life in Baltimore

During the recent hoopla over the auction of the late A. Aubrey Bodine's photographs from The Baltimore Sun's archives, John W. McGrain, a Towson historian and photographer, quietly issued a book this fall of his Baltimore photographs that date to the late 1940s.

McGrain, 80, who retired in 2006 as Baltimore County historian and had been secretary of the county Landmarks Preservation Commission, has been a generous source and friend through the years. No request went unanswered and no question went unsolved. And if McGrain didn't know the answer, he knew someone who did.

He also has always shown a willingness and enthusiasm to share his voluminous knowledge, pictures and files with any reporter, historian or writer who reached him at his Willow Avenue home in Towson.

McGrain's love of photography began when he was a student at Loyola High School and a member of the camera club.

He took his first photograph during the summer of 1946, when he and a friend hoofed it to the courthouse in Towson and McGrain snapped a picture of the Spanish cannon on the courthouse lawn.

McGrain's love is local history, and he has spent years exploring, it seems, every inch of Baltimore County. Along the way, he has absorbed its stories, and studied and photographed its buildings that had historic or industrial significance.

And if a building was no longer standing, McGrain photographed its remains just to show that it had once existed.

He prowled through old deeds and maps, learning the names of the families who shaped Baltimore County as well as Harford.

He has also been a prolific writer on local historical topics, with his work appearing in the Maryland Historical Society Magazine, and in magazines published by the Baltimore County Historical Society and Harford County Historical Society.

For years, friends of McGrain have been nudging him to produce a book of his Baltimore images, and finally "Dickensian Baltimore: Survival of a City's Infrastructure Photographed Over 65 Years" made its appearance.

He began stalking city streets in the late 1940s when downtown Baltimore, and especially the waterfront, was a different place. It was before the wrecking ball began swinging its way through downtown streets.

"Baltimore was an ancient city with all sorts of corners and odd neighborhoods that at least before urban renewal, seemed never to have been disturbed," he wrote in the book's introduction.

"Crumbling wharves, railroad clutter and installations, ugly bridges, tanks, silos, pipelines, towers, hanging wires and cables, warehouses with oddly well designed cornices and corbels, crooked streets, and endless rows of houses," he wrote.

"There were the uptown rows of individually designed houses of the businessmen, and then there were the long uniform rows of their employees' houses," he wrote. "Behind the larger houses on the main streets were alleys and half streets inhabited by the servants, sometimes the descendants of ex-slaves of the affluent. It was all fascinating, Dickensian Baltimore as I called it one time."

And that was the title that McGrain chose for his book.

It begins at a time when there was no Jones Falls Expressway or Beltway. It was the era when there was a working harbor at Pratt and Light streets.

He was always fascinated with the business of the harbor and the bows of steamers that rose high over Pratt Street, and the shuffling and whistling Pennsylvania Railroad and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad engines that picked their way through city streets in the wee hours of the morning, delivering a box car here and picking up another there.

He recalled being one of two photographers standing on a Pratt Street pier in the early hours of April 14, 1962, to record the last voyage of the Old Bay Line's City of Norfolk, which ended the era of overnight bay packet boats between Baltimore and Norfolk, Va.

It was a time when the harbor air was redolent with the smell of coal smoke rising from the funnels of docked ships and fresh lumber that had arrived from the Carolinas on barges of the Norfolk, Baltimore & Carolina Line that were tied up at Pier 5, waiting to be taken elsewhere by rail or truck.

"When I was in the service, I used to get kidded. In those pre-Beltway days, people had to drive by thousands and thousands of white marble stairs, and that seemed to be their impression of Baltimore," McGrain recalled in an interview the other day.

"I began taking pictures before anything new came along. There were none of the new glitzy buildings in downtown Baltimore when I started," he said.

"There really had been no changes by midcentury. But when the buses that replaced the streetcars came along, well, they weren't very interesting," he said. "Also, at the time, you never had the sense that any of it would disappear."

Eventually, McGrain's photo archive totaled more than 8,000 photos, he estimates. He included 150 of those black-and-white pictures images in his book.

This is a very personal book that reflects its author's love of streetcars, trains, ships, buildings, a-rabs, tugboats, townhouses, rowhouses, overnight bay packet boats, and long-gone department stores and hotels.

"Industrial archaeology, as they call it, began in England, and then it came over here. You feel like a lunatic taking industrial pictures, and then you find out there is a national organization such as the Society for Industrial Archaeology, which gives it respectability," said McGrain.

Despite the passage of eight decades, McGrain is still out photographing things that catch his eye.

In early October, he was trooping through Harford County photographing old mills and, more recently, capturing images of the restored statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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