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The B&O Railroad Museum, at Pratt and Poppleton streets, is often said to be a birthplace of American railroading. The roundhouse was used to repair passenger cars.
The B&O Railroad Museum, at Pratt and Poppleton streets, is often said to be a birthplace of American railroading. The roundhouse was used to repair passenger cars. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore you are never far from a working railroad, and a new book shows just how vast the web of steel rail really is.

Once a dominant player in the city’s economy, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (chartered in 1827, today the CSX) still seems to be everywhere.

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“B&O in Baltimore, 160 Years of History in the Charm City Area” shows the footprint of this rail empire stretching from Hawkins Point to White Marsh. And while there is a text, this volume employs rare and largely unpublished photos to show parts of town and railroad property that were either off-limits or dangerous to visit.

The book, the work of volunteers at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historical Society in Eldersburg, celebrates 40 years of that organization. It shows the members’ devotion and loyalty to this mighty operation.

The volume is a homage to Baltimore as a hard-working industrial city that over the past 40 years has shed its blue-collar image, notably along its waterfront. But while some of the freight yards and waterborne barges have disappeared, this rail carrier remains a busy presence within Baltimore and under Baltimore, thanks to the line’s Howard Street Tunnel.

It is no surprise that the railroad named so many of its towers, those miniature elevated trackside structures where operators directed the operation of the line, with Baltimore locations. Their names show how the line threaded itself within industrial and residential Baltimore — Relay, Halethorpe, Curtis Bay, through to Locust Point, Mount Royal, Waverly and Clifton Park.

B&O freights once delivered goods along Bond and Thames streets in Fells Point along a thicket of trackage within a pre-sanitized Inner Harbor area. There were spurs to a John Deere warehouse, the Hearst Corporation’s newspaper plant and Scarlett Seeds along the downtown Pratt Street corridor. These freights tended to operate at night, unseen by most downtown office workers.

The book does not portray the B&O as a glamorous carrier of 1940s business executives or Washington-bound commuters. It allows other publications to describe the dining car food served on blue-and-white crockery. This a realistic historical portrait that shows the nitty-gritty of Baltimore freight moving. That little freight station in Highlandtown is shown within the context of how important hauling coal was as a source of revenue. This is a book about iron bridges, grain elevators, freight warehouses and coal piers.

The book explains the inner workings of the Poppleton neighborhood’s Mount Clare Shops, the historic 10-acre industrial heart of the railroad surrounded by Baltimore’s rowhouses.

The expression “watch out for the third rail” was no joke in the Howard Street Tunnel or along the path the B&O takes to enter and exit Baltimore on the north side of the city (Remington, Charles Village, Waverly and Clifton Park.) Until the mid-1950s, the railroad used powerful electric motor-driven locomotives attached to traditional steam-powered engines to boost trains up the steep and curve-filled grade from Camden Station to Waverly. It also cut down on smoke within a long tunnel.

Once a northbound train reached Waverly, and the flat stretch of Northeast Baltimore, the puller motor units uncoupled and left the steam locomotives on their own, bound for Aberdeen and Philadelphia.

Excellent documentary photographs reveal the complicated operation of how the railroad used a powerful, electrically charged iron rail to accomplish this task. It also explains that trains heading downtown from Waverly did not need the power boost; they were going downhill and the force of gravity was just as potent as an electrical current.

There are a few Baltimore neighborhoods where the B&O left no imprint of tracks. It did not call in Roland Park or Guilford. Not exactly, but then, consider how many B&O executives lived on Goodwood Gardens or Lambeth Road.

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