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An 1888 illustration of the Weems Electric Railway sitting on the tracks at the future site of the Laurel Park racetrack.
An 1888 illustration of the Weems Electric Railway sitting on the tracks at the future site of the Laurel Park racetrack. (HANDOUT / Baltimore Sun)

The Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914) saw remarkable technological advancements in every facet of daily life. Two from this period — electricity and steel — came together to form the basis for the electric railway, which was seen as a replacement for steam locomotives.

Steam locomotives had been in use since the early 1800s. But the smoke that billowed from steam engines was unhealthy, polluting and sometimes dangerous.

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As urban areas became more populated, tunnels were used to route trains under cities. The smoke in tunnels could be lethal. In the west, long tunnels bored through mountains and train crews wore oxygen masks to avoid asphyxiation. Visibility in tunnels could also prove dangerous to rail traffic, as proven in a Park Avenue Tunnel collision in 1902, after which New York City banned steam locomotives south of the Harlem River.

Cast-iron rails rusted and sometimes failed under stress. Due to improvements to the composition and manufacture of steel in the 1860s, it replaced cast iron as rails.

For years, electric railways became the focus of research and invention. All the problems identified with steam locomotives could be abated with electricity, but electric railways were much more expensive. They required more infrastructure, such as overhead lines or a third rail, substations and electrical control systems.

The first successful electric passenger train was a small locomotive and three cars that traveled 8 mph. It resembled trains commonly run at amusement parks today. Unveiled by Werner von Siemens at the Berlin Industrial Exposition in 1879, it was a sensation. The train carried 18 passengers around a 300-meter circular track surrounding the exposition grounds. Following Siemens’ success at Berlin, the race was on around the world to produce electric railways for mass transportation of people and cargo.

Weems the inventor

Baltimore was a major player in the rush to develop major electric railways. In 1895, the B&O Railroad became the first in the country to open an electric portion of its rail system. A four-mile section of railway, including the Howard Street tunnel under the city, was converted to electric. Northbound steam engines were connected to electric locomotives at the south end of the line and pulled through the tunnels under Baltimore. The service was not needed for southbound trains, which went downhill; trains simply coasted through the tunnels.

All this innovation did not escape the notice of Baltimore inventor David G. Weems, whose family traced its Maryland roots back to the 1700s. His father’s will, available through the Maryland State Archives, indicates that David was one of five children. When the will was prepared (prior to the Civil War), the family lived on a large estate in Anne Arundel County, where David Weems was born, and the elder Weems owned nine slaves. The will stipulated when each of the slaves was to be freed.

The first successful electric passenger train was unveiled by Werner von Siemens at the Berlin Industrial Exposition in 1879. It was a sensation and sparked a worldwide race to produce electric trains for commercial use.
The first successful electric passenger train was unveiled by Werner von Siemens at the Berlin Industrial Exposition in 1879. It was a sensation and sparked a worldwide race to produce electric trains for commercial use. (Courtesy Siemens AG.)

David Weems, a pioneer electrical engineer, was a prolific inventor who owned dozens of patents. He also dabbled in real estate, and throughout the 1880s The Baltimore Sun was flush with classified ads from Weems looking for funding for his real estate and inventions.

Based on his research at Laurel, he rubbed shoulders with the upper crust. In 1891, at the formation of the Inventor’s National Association, Weems was named to its board of directors. Members of this organization included Dr. R.J. Gatling, the inventor of the gun that bears his name, and Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law, himself an accomplished inventor. Thomas Edison, who built his own electric train at his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory, archived newspaper clippings about Weems in his papers that are housed at Rutgers University.

It started in Laurel

Weems quickly jumped into the electrical railway sweepstakes. It’s unclear why Weems chose a site in Laurel (which became the Laurel Park racetrack in 1911) to build his experimental track. According to the Baltimore Sun in February 1888, Weems was “now examining various localities in the suburbs of this city for a site on which to erect a generating plant. The idea is to build at an early day a test line between Baltimore and some not too distant city on which a series of experiments will thoroughly test the principals that are the basis of this kind of rapid transit.” He also stepped up his search for investors to fund the expensive experiment.

Instead of extending to another city, the experimental railway he built in Laurel was a 2-mile, 24-inch gauge rail in the form of a circle, with 29 changes in grade to the extent of 108 feet to the mile. According to the Engineering News from 1888, the rails were encased in a barbed-wire cage to “save the lives of dogs, pigs, lambs, and such small game, as well as those of the intoxicated gentlemen whose penchant for the railway track as a sleeping place is well known.” There was also a third rail for power overhead inside the cage. The railway cost $5,000 per mile to construct. The grounds also contained a generating plant and sheds for workshops and storage of the rail cars.

Weems envisioned an electric railway specifically to move mail and newspapers. Not having to worry about human conductors or passengers, he was able to construct a small locomotive and cargo cars. The cigar-shaped locomotive and cars were 18 feet long and 2½ feet square in size.

By January 1889, the railway circuit and experimental cars were up and running at Laurel, and the virtues of the system were breathlessly explained in that month’s inaugural issue of Electrical Power, a magazine for the fledgling industry.

“This electro-automatic arrangement … will deliver letters almost with the promptitude of the telegraph sending a message. Its development will create new fields of usefulness not now thought of. A series of experiments have been made at Laurel, Md., to show what the Weems railway system will do. A visitor to this experiment sees many things to surprise him. All who have witnessed the successful trials at Laurel are impressed with the great stride made in the matter of rapid transit by electricity.

Fellow engineer Joseph Wetzler witnessed some of the trials at Laurel and, in 1890, wrote about the experience in The Electric Railway of To-Day.

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“When it was recently inspected by the writer, with his watch in hand, he noted a speed of the electric locomotive of nearly one hundred and twenty miles an hour. … The curiously-pointed ends of the car, which might by some be considered fantastical, have their raison d’étre in the fact that, at the high speeds at which this car is run, the resistance of the air is by far the greater retarding influence; much greater, in fact, than the resistance due to the axle and rolling friction, which at lower speeds is predominant. … There is certainly nothing in the new system which could prejudice its feasibility under suitable conditions.”

At the same time, the city of Laurel was involved in exploring electric railways. Starting in 1888, the same year Weems built his track, various companies, through mergers, bankruptcies, and legal actions, undertook building an electric railway commuter service from Washington to Baltimore through Laurel. The Washington-to-Laurel route was finally opened in 1902, terminating at Main Street and Sixth Ave., but Laurel to Baltimore was never completed. None of this, however, was related to the Weems railway undergoing trial runs barely a mile away at the other end of Main Street.

By July 1889, after a year of successful trials, Weems received patents on virtually every part of his electrical railway. Plans were announced to build a five-mile track on Long Island in New York to expand the experiments and get ready to roll out a commercial railway from New York to Philadelphia.

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According to the New York Times, Weems was so confident in his railway, not to mention the accompanying publicity for potential investors, that he offered to build a slower version for passengers to circle the grounds of the 1893 World’s Fair should New York City be selected. Weems boasted to New York’s organizing committee that his railway “would be more interesting than the Eiffel Tower,” which was the sensation of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Unfortunately for Weems, Chicago was chosen for the 1893 fair.

What happened to it?

After garnering so much publicity for the early results of his invention and the trials at Laurel, Weems saw his dream evaporate. According to the 1940 book “Maryland, A Guide to the Old Line State,” “At the trial of its utility the engine reached a speed of 120 miles an hour and maintained it for 22 minutes, but the superstructure collapsed under the tremendous strain. After the destruction of their equipment the company was forced to suspend the experiments for lack of funds.”

In 1971, a Smithsonian curator responded to a request from the News Leader about the fate of the system.

“It is my understanding that an accident put an end not only to the Laurel experiments but also to the prospects of the company. The Weems electric railway was never utilized commercially, nor were any lines built aside from the experimental road at Laurel.”

There are no newspaper clippings describing an accident, so when it happened is a mystery. However, news reports about the railway system continued through the end of 1892.

Weems donated his experimental electric locomotive to the Smithsonian Institution sometime in the 1890s. No one currently at the Smithsonian knows if it was ever on display and there are no plans to do so. For over 120 years, the locomotive has been in a crate in “an inaccessible storage area,” according to the museum.

An illustration of inventor David G. Weems next to his experimental rail car in 1888. The grounds of the Laurel Park racetrack were first used for an electric rail car.
An illustration of inventor David G. Weems next to his experimental rail car in 1888. The grounds of the Laurel Park racetrack were first used for an electric rail car. (From Engineering News (1889))
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