George W. Hilton, a retired college professor, author and transportation economist whose works on railroads and shipping included the seminal history of Maryland's Ma & Pa Railroad, died Aug. 4 of heart failure at Lorien Health Park in Columbia. He was 89.
"George was a great historian for lost causes and great failures like narrow-gauge railroads and the Ma & Pa," said Herbert R. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive and a nationally known railroad historian and author. "That resulted in the definitive histories of the American narrow-gauge railroads, the electric interurban railway industry, cable-powered street railways, overnight steamships along the coasts and in the Great Lakes.
"In all of these, he was obsessive about detail but then could summarize everything into a big picture explained simply, directly — usually with a few memorable bon mots along the way," he said. "He described the hilly, ever-curving Ma & Pa, for example, as 'the route of the screaming flanges.'"
"One time we were talking about his legacy and George said he didn't want to be remembered as an economist, but rather as a transportation historian," said John Teichmoeller, a longtime friend who lives in Ellicott City, where he is the coordinator of the Rail-Marine Information Group. "He had many dimensions to him."
The son of Lucius Hilton, a hospital administrator, and Florence Anderson Hilton, a homemaker, George Woodman Hilton was born in Chicago and raised on the city's South Side.
During his childhood in the Windy City, he became transfixed by trains and ships. He reveled in smoky railroad yards with their panting steam engines and long lines of freight and passenger cars, and the sights and sounds of Great Lakes steamers as they whistled away from their piers.
He was a graduate of Hyde Park High School and was a summa cum laude Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1946 and a master's degree in 1950.
After beginning his teaching career at the University of Maryland, College Park and Stanford University, he joined the faculty in 1962 of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught economics and transportation regulation until retiring in 1992.
Dr. Hilton was the author of 15 books, mainly on transportation, and numerous articles.
His first book, "Cable Railways of Chicago," was published in 1954. It was followed by "The Truck System," written with John F. Due, and "The Electric Interurban Railways of America," both in 1960.
In 1962, his book "The Great Lakes Car Ferries" was published, and "The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad" followed the next year. The Ma & Pa was a single-track railroad that shambled 77.2 miles across Maryland, and whose trains chugged 20 mph between Baltimore and York, Pa. It stopped operating in 1958.
James H. Bready, the late Evening Sun editorial writer and columnist, wrote in a 1968 "Books & Authors" column that with the publication of Mr. Hilton's Ma & Pa book, he "assured the railroad enduring national fame among rail fans."
"The book had much merit as economic history," said Robert J. Brugger, a Baltimore author and historian, who is an editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press, which reprinted the book in the 1990s. "It sold quite well, so the Ma & Pa after its death achieved success after all."
"George Hilton's book also was the likely single most important thing that got both the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society and the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society started or formed in 1985," said Rudy Fischer, the archivist for the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society.
Another of Dr. Hilton's books was "The Night Boat," which chronicled the era of overnight packet boats that once steamed on the nation's rivers and bays. The Old Bay Line's City of Norfolk commenced its last voyage April 13, 1962, sailing from Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore.
"The book he was most proud of was 'Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic,' an examination of a 1915 disaster, published in 1995, in which an excursion boat capsized while docked in the Chicago River, killing more than 800 people," William Hyder, a former Sunday Sun TV critic, reporter and longtime friend, wrote in a biographical sketch.
In 1964, Dr. Hilton was appointed chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Transportation Policy, where he coordinated a study of the Transportation Act of 1958 published by Indiana University Press.
"George wrote two giant, influential landmark articles on the Interstate Commerce Commission for Trains magazine, which played a role in the deregulation of the railroad industry and resulted in the passage of the Staggers [Rail] Act in 1980," said Kevin P. Keefe, vice president-editorial of Kalmbach Publishing Co. in Waukesha, Wis., publisher of Trains magazine.
Dr. Hilton's first article in Trains magazine on the Tennessee Central Railroad was published in 1946, and in the intervening years, he wrote more than 25 articles for the magazine.
Dr. Hilton also wrote widely and was an expert on a variety of topics that included British soccer, Gilbert & Sullivan, Sherlock Holmes and theater organs. He also had edited a newsletter for collectors of breweriana.
He was considered an expert on major league baseball — the Chicago White Sox was his favorite team — and was the author of "The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner." For years, his car's license plate was "Sox '06."
After he retired, Dr. Hilton moved to Columbia in 1992.
At Dr. Hilton's request, there will be no services.
He is survived by two stepsons, Eric Gabler of Silver Spring and Grant Gabler of Littlestown, Pa.; and four stepdaughters, Amy Stefhon of Columbia, Carol Kelly of Westfield, N.J., Karen Smith-Adams of San Diego and Ebony L. Smith of Colorado. His first marriage of four years to the former Phyllis Bartlett ended in divorce in 1975. His wife of 22 years, the former Constance Slater, died in 2005.