Former county historian turns to city's past in book of historical photos

Long before Towson resident John McGrain became the historian for Baltimore County, he began taking photographs of Baltimore City.

He took his first photo 65 years ago, said McGrain, who was the unofficial county historian for years before he became the official historian in 1998. He retired from that post in 2006.

It has been said of McGrain that he not only knows where the bodies are buried in the county, he knows what they were wearing.

That first photo was of the Spanish cannon in what is now the Towson Courthouse Gardens. It was in easy walking distance of his home, the house his father built in Towson Manor Village in 1943.

But young McGrain, fresh from Loyola High School's camera club, soon focused on Baltimore City, which in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was, for the most part, a different place than it is today.

He describes it in the introduction of the book of 150 photos he put together entitled, "Dickensian Baltimore: Survivals of a City's Infrastructure Photographed Over 65 Years."

He took most of the images himself.

Baltimore was, "an ancient city, with all sorts of corners and odd neighborhoods that at least before urban renewal, had never been disturbed," he said.

He said he was using the term "Dickensian" long before the New York Times used it to describe crime stories on the TV drama, "The Wire."

The city was a place of "crumbling wharves, railroad clutter and installations, ugly bridges, tanks, silos, pipe lines, towers, hanging wires and cables, warehouses with oddly well-designed cornices and corbels and crooked streets."

It was "endless row houses, magnificent churches, spacious school houses, docks, factories, peopled by various ships and trains, all of which were on the edge of obsolescence."

It's hard for him to believe, he said, that he traveled on the side-wheeler steamer, The Tolchester, or rode behind coal-fired locomotives, or traveled down the Chesapeake Bay in the stateroom of a chugging steamboat.

"The stateroom bedsteads transmitted the chunking of the engine into one's body and discouraged sleep," he said.

The city was home to "overnight boats, merchant ships that used to dock deep downtown, trains, trolleys and vegetable carts operated by A-rabs," and streets frequented by prosperous businessmen, as well as alleys frequented by servants.

Even into the 1950s, switching locomotives used to move boxcars around in the public streets and park them at factories at night, he said.

A summer job with the Fedder Company, a local business that specialized in distributing fliers and samples, provided him with first-hand knowledge of the slums. That job, he said, was his own "grand tour" of a dense and mysterious city.

"We gave every family unit a sample box of Cheer (detergent)— when it came in powder form," he said. "A family was defined as any group with a kitchen. Many row houses had three families packed into them and numerous stoves — some supporting sizzling kettles, symbolizing the family hearth."

"Even in dirt-poor neighborhoods, there used to be the scent of delicious meals cooking, especially fish dishes."

Yet many of the photographs he took were hardly reminiscent of the quasi-slums that English novelist Charles Dickens chronicled.

"The first picture I shot in the city was a snow scene looking north on Charles Street from the top of the Washington Monument," said McGrain, who is now in his late 70s."My climbing equipment will never take me to that vantage point again, and there is still no elevator."

"Dickensian Baltimore," was issued in September and is for sale for $20. It was printed by Jack L. Shagena Publishing of BelAir. McGrain financed the publishing himself. The book is available at the Historical Society of Baltimore County, in Cockeysville and the Maryland State Archives book store, in Annapolis.

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