Passenger comfort was the 'benchmark' of the Royal Blue Line's service on B & O Railroad, historian tells Aberdeen audience

Visitors get a taste of Aberdeen's rail history during Wednesday night presentation

Aberdeen has a long history as part of the East Coast passenger and freight rail corridor, and part of that history was celebrated with a presentation on the Royal Blue Line, the B&O Railroad's luxury passenger line between Washington, D.C., and New York.

"There's something about trains which never leaves the American psyche," Paul Bridge, a volunteer historian with the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, told an audience of about 25 people gathered in the meeting room of the Aberdeen Library Wednesday evening.

Aberdeen's B&O station was a stop along that Royal Blue Line. The Historical Society of Harford County and local citizens' groups are working to restore the unused wooden Victorian structure that has been a fixture along West Bel Air Avenue since it was built in 1885.

Bridge, a Carroll County resident, talked about the Royal Blue Line and the overall history of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was chartered in Baltimore in 1827, making it one of the oldest railroads in the nation.

The Royal Blue was in operation from 1890 to 1958. It was created to compete with the rival Pennsylvania Railroad's D.C.-to-New York passenger service, according to Bridge.

"The B&O could not enter New York because of the presence of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who controlled that whole region," he said.

Bridge noted the B&O had to build its own rail line to Philadelphia during the 1880s because of the Pennsylvania Railroad's dominance in the Northeast.

The Royal Blue was known for its Pullman cars with their distinctive blue-and-gray color schemes, and its top-notch service, which included dining cars, observation cars and even baby-sitters and nurses for children.

'You can be sure you were going to get first-class service," Bridge said.

The trains were pulled by steam and diesel-powered locomotives. Bridge showed a photo of a diesel Streamliner locomotive from the early 1950s.

"That's what you usually think of when you think of the Royal Blue Line and its rolling stock," Bridge said. "The real benchmark, though, was passenger comfort."

Wally Hawtin, 83, who grew up in Aberdeen, asked Bridge when the B&O Railroad fully converted to diesel-powered engines.

The Bel Air resident said he remembers steam-powered trains stopping at a water tank north of the city and seeing train crews put water on the engines.

"I can still smell it," Hawtin said.

Bridge said the B&O introduced its first diesel engine in 1937, but World War II slowed the conversion to diesel by about a decade as wartime production and rationing meant railroads had to use the assets they had at the time, which were still mostly steam engines.

"I always considered the early '50s the beginning of the diesel age," he said.

The Royal Blue was known for its service and image, but the B&O struggled to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad's passenger service on the same corridor because of speed and convenience, according to the book "Royal Blue Line" by Herbert Harwood Jr.

The book, author and Royal Blue itself were profiled in The Baltimore Sun in 1990. Harwood described the Royal Blue's Achilles' heel, which was that it did not go all the way to New York City, but stopped in Jersey City, N.J. Passengers had to get off in Jersey City and then take a ferry across the Hudson River to Manhattan, according to The Sun article. That's because the Pennsy, as the PRR was known, built and controlled the tunnel under the Hudson that carried its trains into midtown Manhattan.

Benjamin Bates, 53, brought a copy of the book, which had been autographed by Harwood, to Bridge's presentation Wednesday night. The Joppatowne native, who lives in Towson, said he grew up watching trains go through his hometown.

"I developed an interest in the railroads that were closest to where I grew up, so that included the B&O, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which went over the Gunpowder [River] and the Ma & Pa," Bates said.

He noted the B&O and the Pennsy maintained competing rail lines through Harford County.

The B&O was acquired by a competing railroad, the Chesapeake & Ohio, in 1963, and it eventually became part of CSX in 1980.

Aberdeen's B&O station is along the CSX-owned freight line that was home to the Royal Blue trains.

Members of the audience, which included a number of rail enthusiasts, educated Bridge on the history of the station, which was designed by architect Frank Furness.

Bridge said he admires the work of Furness, who designed a number of stations in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Robert Tarring, who is part of the group Friends of Restoration of the Maryland B&O Station, encouraged Bridge to visit The Aberdeen Room Archives & Museum, a repository of Aberdeen's history dating to the 1800s.

"You'll find out all the history of [the station] because they've done some copious research on it," Tarring said.

Tarring said he remembers taking the Royal Blue "back and forth to Philadelphia and New York and Baltimore with my grandmother."

Hawtin said he grew up in Aberdeen, two doors from the B&O station. He said he remembers seeing Royal Blue trains go by his house.

"I remember them," he said. "They were beautiful."

Library officials invited Bridge to speak Wednesday as part of its week-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of their library being housed in its home at Franklin and Parke streets in downtown Aberdeen.

"It's close to everything," librarian Ann Kershner said. "It's in the heart of the community; we're part of the community and we love it."

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