When President Joe Biden came to Baltimore this week he outlined plans to create a new rail tunnel under Reservoir Hill, Upton and Sandtown-Winchester. It’s an ambitious undertaking and comes not a minute too soon. Construction of the new tunnel will take years.
The rail tunnel it’s replacing will turn 150 years old this year, making it older than City Hall and most buildings in downtown Baltimore.
The new tunnel has been named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Curiously, it runs near the old Frederick Douglass High School on Carey Street. There also was a one-time commuter passenger railroad station on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of West Baltimore’s African American community.
The tunnel is used by commuters to Washington, D.C., and passengers passing through Baltimore on their way to East Coast destinations. Schedules indicate that 130 trains, both Amtrak and MARC, traverse the tunnel daily.
It is Baltimore’s most elderly rail tunnel. It opened in June 1873 after its construction progressed a good clip.
Southern Maryland farmers wanted a faster way to bring their tobacco crops to shipment out of Baltimore’s harbor. Beginning in 1866, rail laborers constructed a line to Washington, D.C., with a branch line to Pope’s Creek in Charles County.
The thorny problem was how the railroad brought trains into Baltimore City. Passengers for a few years boarded and disembarked at a small station on West Lafayette Avenue where horse-drawn conveyances then pulled them to and from downtown.
Contractor Thomas Seabrook built the mainline to Washington from Baltimore and was rewarded by having a Prince George’s County station named after him.
The building of what was then called the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel required a pair of contractors. When the work of the builders, Thomas Rutter and Thomas D. Owens, was complete, a banquet was held June 11, 1873, at John Beck’s restaurant on Cathedral Street to celebrate the event.
Laborers spent a little more than two years hand digging the tunnel. Work began in May 1871 and they were forced to blast through the rocky sides of the Jones Falls Valley as far west as McCulloh Street.
After that point, the diggers met clay, underground streams and sandy deposits. The Sun’s news accounts said the unsteady subsoil was more problematic than the rock.
“The soil has generally been so sandy that as fast as the workmen dig downward, the sides of the excavation had to be supported by immense framework,” The Sun reported in 1872.
The paper said that 500 men labored daily in construction crews. A trio of steam-powered pumps worked continuously to draw out the spring water that flooded the digging.
While mostly hand labor, steam-powered elevator buckets lifted the excavated clay and sand to the surface. Then the bricklayers arrived and lined the walls.
Breaking News Alerts
The bricklayers also constructed a pair of 60-foot-high chimneys to act as ventilators to draw out the smoke from the steam locomotives that eventually pulled the trains.
The 1.5-mile tunnel did its job until May 1924, when a city water main broke at the intersection of North Avenue and McMechen Street, flooded the tunnel and caused a section of its ceiling to collapse. It made a grand mess — and took until August to repair.
No trains were running at the time of the mishap.
“Hundreds of impatient and confused passengers besieged information clerks at the ... station,” The Sun reported in 1924.
The city’s streetcar operator, the United Railways and Electric Co., was forced to route its busy North Avenue-crosstown line on temporary tracks that skirted the cave-in. Parts of Mount Royal Avenue near the cave-in had to be totally rebuilt and new trees planted.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was forced to run its trains over the rails of its local rival, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, for a time.
Structural engineers have known of the tunnel’s age and weakness for decades. In 1982, four West Baltimore homes suffered structural damage. The tunnel’s 150-year history presents a lesson in urban infrastructure. You do need to worry about what you don’t see.