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Retro Baltimore

Retro: Proposals for building a crosstown subway date back to the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904

For Baltimore transit advocates, there is hope for expanded services as Gov.-elect Wes Moore has expressed an interest in reviving the proposed cross-city east-west Red Line that exiting Gov. Larry Hogan shelved in 2015, calling it at the time a “boondoggle.”

There is also talk of new transit options for Towson and Lutherville, with Greenmount Avenue and York Road being a transit corridor, possibly with a subway running beneath it.

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Baltimore has wrestled with transit woes and how to move people quickly and efficiently for more than a century. And with climate change, what is the best way to accomplish those goals and reduce dependence on gas guzzling, air polluting automobiles, buses and trucks that course over an endless spaghetti network of roads throughout the city and stab into the nearby counties?

It was Bernard N. Baker, a Baltimore businessman, who first proposed a 4-mile crosstown subway for the city after Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904.

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The projected route was beneath Baltimore Street with passengers given the option to transfer to a north-south route, that would be constructed in a tunnel underneath St. Paul and Light streets. Additional lateral lines would branch off this main system.

“Why not a subway from the centre of the city to Peabody Heights and beyond?” H.L. Mencken wrote in 1911 in The Evening Sun. “All that region between Twenty-fifth street and Belvedere avenue is rapidly developing. In a dozen years it will have a population of 50,000 and within its bounds will be $25,000,000 worth of property.

“At present it is reached by two cars, and both run, for the first full mile, north of Baltimore street, along very crowded streets. Baltimore, growing rapidly in area, and (counting the suburbs as part of the city) as steadily in population, must come to subways soon or late.”

Mencken envisioned that “No doubt the Baltimore of 1950 will have at least three mainlines of subways — one running from Charles and Baltimore streets to Roland Park, another from end to end of Baltimore street, and the third from the City Hall, or thereabout, to what is now Walbrook, with perhaps a fourth running to Locust Point.”

Nothing happened until 1916, when Bruce W. Duer, a transportation planner with the Public Service Commission, told The Sun, because of increasing streetcar and motorcar congestion, “Within 10 years the traffic problem in this city will have become so serious that only the building of subways will there be the possibility of solving it.”

John D. Spencer, a city councilman, pointing to New York, Philadelphia and Boston, which had launched aggressive subway building programs, told The Sun, “Now is the time for Baltimore to act.”

The anti-subway contingent said that Baltimore was “too spread out” and that subways would be “useless from a money-making standpoint.”

Mencken roared back in a 1916 article: “Soon or late of course, Baltimore must come to it, and perhaps the sooner the better ... All other large cities, at home and abroad, have had to build subways. Baltimore begins to need them acutely, if only because of the move of the population to the suburbs.”

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The one option Mencken heavily lobbied against was building elevated lines, which he described as “infernal nuisances, and have damaged property in New York enormously. ... Third and Sixth, for example. Both are unutterably shoddy.”

By 1925, United Railways, which operated the city’s streetcar system, reported in a survey that until Baltimore’s population doubled along with appreciable suburban growth, a subway system would be laden with deficits.

The company estimated the cost of building a double-track subway line from downtown Baltimore to Pimlico to be $5,080,000 per mile.

Subway talk vanished until 1929, when Bancroft Hill, a native Baltimorean who had been educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined United Railways as a valuation engineer, came forward with a plan to build a system composed of six lines, “so planned that each of them was capable of independent construction and operation as the need arose and financing permitted,” reported The Evening Sun.

The aim of the plan was to remove streetcars from city streets, which meant vehicular traffic would no longer be hampered by streetcars stopping and starting at every corner.

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The estimated cost to United Railways was a staggering $2 million a mile during the time the nation was sinking into the Great Depression.

Once again, subway talk slumbered until 1942, when during World War II, the Hill plan was revived. It was to be used as a pattern for building underground air-raid shelters, and at war’s end, would be turned over to the transit company for the laying of subway track.

Again, as the threat of American cities being bombed by enemy aircraft faded, nothing happened until 1965 when the Mass Transportation Plan put forth a Metro Subway plan.

Construction began during the 1970s, with the first subway train rolling from Charles Center to Reisterstown Road Plaza in 1983.


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