Baltimore's electric el line on Guilford Avenue was nation's first

New York City could long boast that its first elevated line opened for service in 1868, using cable-pulled cars that were soon replaced by diminutive steam locomotives that pulled the cars.

And Chicago established “el” service in 1892, Boston in 1901, and Philadelphia’s Market Street El began transporting commuters and other passengers in 1907.

But Baltimore’s 4,000-foot-long Erector Set-looking el — which stretched at its southern end between Saratoga and Lexington streets, where it made contact with the terra firma, and its northern end at Chase Street, where it landed on the surface of Guilford Avenue — has the distinction of being the first electrified elevated line in the country, according to noted rail and streetcar historian Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive, who lives in Cross Keys.

It was built 1892-1893 by the Lake Roland Elevated Railway because the bed of Guilford Avenue was clogged by a spaghetti network of Northern Central Railway track, later the Pennsylvania Railroad, that served Calvert Station and a myriad of industries and warehouses that lined the street.

“The first electric car was run over the elevated line of the Lake Roland elevated Railway on North Street [now Guilford Avenue] yesterday,” reported The Baltimore Sun when the line opened on May 3, 1893. “The trip was successful, and the construction of the elevated way was pronounced a good piece of mechanical engineering.”

Harwood, author of “Baltimore Streetcars: The Postwar Years,” said the line was the “fastest and most direct” of the downtown routes, he wrote, but it suffered low-density ridership because it was away from the commercial and residential areas.

Passengers had to climb stairs at the Pleasant Street, Madison Street or Centre Street stations, and suppress their acrophobia, to reach the high platforms in order to catch a No. 8 — the last streetcars to use what Baltimoreans called the “viadock or trestle” — for Towson or Irvington.

Riders in open-windowed cars during the warmer months were often subjected to the coal smoke and cinders that swirled into the cars from the belching steam engines below.

“My mother used to bank at the old Equitable Trust in the Munsey Building, which necessitated a trip on the No. 8,” recalled Jim Genthner, 74, of Timonium, who was 5 at the time when he rode the el. “It was a lively ride for a tiny tot.”

Genthner recalled that a favorite Halloween prank of schoolboys was to soap the rails at the end ramps, which raised the ire of motormen as their cars spun their wheels, unable to get on the el.

The el’s last day of operation was New Year’s Day in 1950, and six months later, with its dismantling, it was nothing more than a memory.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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