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Shrouded in darkness, Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel is a workhorse rail artery

A work truck backs into the northern end of the Howard Street Tunnel at Mount Royal Station.
A work truck backs into the northern end of the Howard Street Tunnel at Mount Royal Station. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Now that construction money appears to be coming to make the aged Howard Street Tunnel able to accommodate double-stacked CSX freight trains, it’s time to explain this workhorse rail artery.

Built from 1890 to 1895, the tunnel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed by prominent civil engineer Samuel Rea, it is part of a rail network known as the Baltimore Belt Line, which connects South Baltimore (Camden Station), Howard Street, Remington and 26th Street in Charles Village, Waverly and Clifton Park eastward to Bayview.

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Long diesel-powered freight trains, bound for the Northeast U.S., carry automobiles, bulk cargoes and oil, as well as steel shipping containers marked Yang Ming, OOCL and Hapag Lloyd through its cellar-like confines.

The tunnel took 2,400 laborers about five years to hand dig. Their biggest headache was the water they encountered below the streets. Work began on the tunnel in 1890 at Preston Street and Park Avenue. Five years later, it was ready. The biggest construction nightmare was a stream the diggers hit at Howard and Centre streets. That stream remained a persistent issue, and almost 100 years later, in 1997, it created an urban sinkhole nearby at Park and Franklin.

By Christmas Day 1891, the tunnel was sufficiently underway for the railroad to host sightseeing parties. Those wishing to venture underground descended at temporary shaft entrances at Redwood, Saratoga and Madison streets.

There was damage to a neighboring landmark building. In August 1892, the walls of Baltimore City College cracked from the construction. The building — it faced Howard Street — had to be dynamited and demolished. “The scene in front of City College is one of havoc,” The Sun said. “Crowds of curious sightseers and former students visited the ruins during the day.” The railroad later reimbursed the city for the damage.

The tunnel was constructed by John B. McDonald, born in Cork, Ireland, who received a majority of the $7 million contact for its building.

While McDonald and his army of laborers dug under Howard Street, another contractor, Lawrence McCabe, built the Belt Line from Bayview to Huntingdon Avenue. McCabe’s job was to excavate the portion of the line that runs in a depressed open cut. He also built the short tunnels along 26th Street.

A locomotive tested the big dig on Feb. 1, 1895. To ensure it was functional and safe, the experimental train included 22 cars filled with West Virginia granite. It passed the test, and The Sun declared “A Railroad Triumph.”

Rea went on to a noteworthy career with the B&O’s rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. He saw his railroad construct the mighty Hellgate Bridge in New York. He also was memorialized in a life-size bronze statue at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

John McDonald, who built the Howard Street Tunnel, was rewarded with the contract to build New York’s first subway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Co. He died in 1911 while living at the Dakota apartments facing New York’s Central Park. That building was later used in the filming of the 1969 movie “Rosemary’s Baby” and was also the home of John Lennon. As for the tunnel, the modest McDonald said it was “just like building cellars.”

The Howard Street Tunnel and the Belt Line remain something of a Baltimore enigma. Both are underground, with their approaches off limits to sightseers. But there are clues to their presence. The approaches to the tunnel in Southwest Baltimore have grade crossings: when a train passes, traffic gets tied up. And there is also that familiar Baltimore sound, a long, mournful locomotive whistle, a sound that travels for miles. It might just be a freight headed to that dank man made-cavern, the Howard Street Tunnel.

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