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Archive: A dank relic lies below Howard St. Tunnel

Sun Staff

As Orioles fans walk to their ballpark seats, just below their feet flowsa giant freight conveyor belt, known as the Howard Street Tunnel and all butunknown to those passing overhead on the sidewalks and asphalt.

Some 30 million bricks went into this sturdy relic of railroadengineering. Excavated more than 100 years ago, the tunnel is used now by CSXTransportation, which says it is the largest subterranean conduit of railfreight along the Atlantic Coast.

Most days, about 40 trains pound through this cavern, a 1.7-mile channelof Stygian darkness and dank, musty air infused with a dense humidity born ofoutside water seeping down the curving masonry walls. Drainage shouldersbeside the rail tracks ooze industrial slime.

"Inside there, it feels old. It feels wet and dark. It's definitely got anancient feeling," said Bob Blanding, a CSX track maintenance worker.

The tunnel's construction bankrupted the Baltimore and Ohio railroad whenit was built in the 1890s, and it was lightly used for decades. But that isnot the case anymore.

Virtually all the Tropicana orange juice sold in the northeastern UnitedStates flows under Baltimore in huge orange refrigerator cars that make upwhat railroaders call the "juice train." It stretches almost a mile long andcarries citrus juice to a New Jersey distribution plant.

Other long trains haul tons of Fila-brand athletic shoes and tank carsfull of oil used in Frito-Lay snacks. Jumbo-sized freight cars filled withautomobiles, General Motors Astro vans, John Deere tractors and coal allrattle through the tube.

The tunnel also has a second use. An MCI fiber-optic cable trunk linesuspended on the tunnel's west wall carries thousands of long-distance phonecalls.

Civil engineers consider the tunnel shallow, with not much fill on thetop.

At Camden Street, its top layer of bricks is but 3 feet below the surface.At its deepest, at Madison Street, the tunnel is 49 feet below ground.

A single CSX freight track runs in the middle of a rounded cavity coveredwith a century's worth of coal and foamy-looking diesel soot deposits.

The rail tube runs alongside the cellars of such downtown landmarks as theBaltimore Arena, former department stores, Maryland General Hospital andHoward Street's antique shops.

The entire structure stretches from a point alongside the lots at OriolePark at Camden Yards to just above the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The oldest part of the tunnel was built between 1890 and 1895 by acontractor born in Cork County, Ireland, who went on to construct New York'sfirst subway. That original portion was lengthened in the late 1980s toaccommodate Orioles' parking and light rail construction.

What was new and marveled at in 1895 is today overlooked, often forgottenby Baltimoreans.

When unveiled by the old B&O railroad, it was the longest soft-earthrailroad tunnel in the United States. It also had a world-class status withthe first section of mainline railroad electrification anywhere.

No passengers

The one rail classification that does not go through Howard Street ishuman -- passenger trains use different tunnels in and out of Baltimore.

Passengers have been shut out of the Howard Street Tunnel since 1958 whenthe B&O withdrew from running passenger trains north of Baltimore.

Other than railroad employees, students at the Maryland Institute Collegeof Art probably know the tunnel best. Nearly 30 years ago the art schoolbought Mount Royal Station, an 1896 Romanesque Revival building set in agrassy bowl at the tunnel's northern opening. The Mount Royal platforms arethe best spot from which to observe the rushing rail traffic.

It is here that remnants of 1890s railroading are most evident.

An iron-framed train shed arches overhead like a metal tent where catbirdsfly in and out. Graceful wrought-iron fencing screens off the rails forsafety. There's a stand of wild raspberries growing near the tunnel portal anda cornerstone inscribed with its construction history.

Even the most impatient train spotter is rewarded here:

First there's a slight movement of air. Scraps of discarded paper getlifted off the ground as a train enters the tube at the Oriole Park end.

As the locomotive charges north (there's normally a 25 mph limit here),the engine seems to push air through the cavity. It's roughly the same effectof blowing air though a soda straw.

There's still no train in sight at this point, but air begins to rush outof the yawning, dark space. Then, in the distance, is a sound that resemblesthe lowest note of a huge tuba. The notes grow more audible until a shaft ofreflected light glimmers on the train rail. Soon after, three dieselheadlights appear.

It can take more than three minutes for a long freight train to passthrough Mount Royal Station, cut through a minitunnel at Mount Royal Avenueand twist under the Jones Falls Expressway and the North Avenue bridge.

While the tunnel is fairly straight, train engineers heading north winceafter they leave it and head into a rail corkscrew of reverse curves in theSisson-26th streets-Huntington Avenue area.

The tunnel's history began Sept. 12, 1890, when tunnel contractor John B.McDonald signed the papers. His results were so well regarded that he wasselected to build New York's first subway, the Interborough Rapid Transit(IRT).

"The tunnel was undoubtedly the most expensive project the railroad evertook on. It drove the line into receivership in 1896," said Herbert H.Harwood, a B&O historian who has written several books about this line.

Early plans

The tunnel was part of the B&O's grand scheme to get its trains throughBaltimore to the north from the Camden Station area.

McDonald's construction crews worked a little less than five years on theproject, formally called the Baltimore Belt Line, the terminology used for therailroad track girdling Baltimore. The first regular passenger service toPhiladelphia and points north began May 1, 1895.

The B&O's attempt to go after the northeast passenger business was not aroaring success.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, its principal competitor in the Washington-NewYork route (the B&O went only as far as Jersey City), won out.

The Howard Street Tunnel, though an amazing piece of engineering, wentdown as an all-too-costly exercise in business rivalry.

A 20th-century plan to locate a subterranean platform below Lombard Streetdidn't pan out either. The rough brick walls and unadorned arches of a stopthat never saw passengers remains as an eerie reminder of an aborted corporatedecision.

But with major changes in East Coast railroading in the past 25 years, theHoward Street Tunnel has come back strong.

"Now they [CSX] are handling virtually all the freight on the Northeastcorridor. It's a much more vital artery than anyone ever anticipated," Harwoodsaid.

Tunnel facts:
LENGTH .. .. .. ..1.7 miles
GRADE.. .. .. .. .. ..1.35 dTC
SPEED LIMIT.. .. .. ..25mph
TIME TO BUILD .. .56 months
OPENED .. .. ...May 1, 1895

History of the tunnel

Until 1884, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad leased a railroad trackthrough Baltimore to connect its eastern and western routes. In 1884, acompetitor purchased the track, leaving the B&O with no way to get its trainsthrough Baltimore. The hills were too steep to build a track around thewestern edge of the city, so the B&O opted to build a tunnel under HowardStreet.

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