On venerable No. 1, Hilda Stanton is first lady of public service


There aren't too many city bus lines where the driver greets a passenger with a cheery, "Good morning, my dear."

But when Mass Transit Administration driver Hilda Stanton is at the wheel of the neighborly and old-fashioned No. 1 line, such pleasantries are routine. This first lady of public service has a kind word for the anybody awaiting the arrival of her coach.

The No. 1 takes a path from Druid Hill Park to Fort McHenry. The line was originally established in the 1860s by plodding horse-drawn cars. It crisscrosses old city neighborhoods in search of people. And over the decades, as a horse car, electric streetcar, trackless trolley and finally gasoline-powered bus, the No. 1 has retained its unassuming character.

On a recent Wednesday, driver Stanton was well aware of the day's responsibilities. She was on a midmorning shift, after rush hour. At 10 a.m., the line's many older riders are dressed and ready for errands, shopping, medical attention.

"Make no mistake, Wednesday is the day they like to go to their doctors," said Stanton.

Indeed. Along the way, one World War II veteran used his aluminum cane to board the bus downtown. "I just got out of Loch Raven [The Baltimore Veterans' Administration Medical Center]," he said.

"You'll be feeling better," Stanton replied.

Her bus leaves a concrete loop in a grassy corner of Druid Hill Park at Fulton Avenue and Auchentoroly Terrace. This particular end-of-the-line is one of the most famous places in local transit history.

In the 19th century, Druid Hill Park had the same stature of today's Inner Harbor. Thousands of Baltimoreans took horse cars to the park. One of the poorly maintained horsecar waiting terminals sits just a few feet away from the No. 1's turn-around loop.

Not so many people take the bus to the park these days, but plenty use it as a neighborhood jitney. The coach rambles through the Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Franklin and Union Square, Poppleton, Otterbein, South Baltimore and Locust Point neighborhoods, plus downtown.

Many older people ride it for trips of only three or four blocks.

The mid-day passengers are attired for a warm Baltimore July day. Many of the retired gentlemen sport woven straw hats. The ladies are in their pastels prints and floppy sun hats. Some carry umbrellas as sun shields. Many are liberally dusted with sweet-smelling talcum powder.

It seems to be No. 1's house rule that baggage is required -- plastic shopping bags, bearing the names of Lexington or Cross Street Market merchants. Nearly everybody carries a bulging bag.

Passengers are full of questions. They seek the subway entrance, the amount of the fare, the location of the Inner Harbor Friendly's ice cream shop. These discussions at the farebox impede the steady intake of passengers waiting on the curb.

Driver Stanton delicately handles the situation with a diplomatic request: "Step in, baby! Are you ready?"

For a trip through the remnants of 19th century Baltimore, there is nothing like a ride on this vehicle. It passes the old Park Terminal, still used by the MTA, then heads south on Fulton Avenue, a once-grand boulevard flanked by 1870 rowhouses.

The route then leaves the less personal main street and travels along Riggs Avenue. Here it passes street A-rabs with cargoes of watermelon, open-air barbecue pits fashioned out of fuel tanks and illegal billboards. From a seat on the No. 1, it's possible to observe fastidious neighbors washing down Calhoun Street front steps or Hershey ice cream being delivered to neighborhood convenience stores.

In Locust Point, as the bus heads for the loop at Mt McHenry, it passes a statue of St. Lawrence O'Toole, with a stone hand extended, seemingly giving his blessing to those who pass his permanent Fort Avenue perch.

"Down here, everybody is family," Stanton says. "I take sisters, children, whole families."

She also recommends restaurants, coffee shops and submarine sandwich shops along her route.

Then she stops for a group of Hispanic sailors at Andre Street and Fort Avenue, a few blocks away from their ship's berth. She helps them with their U.S. currency and takes off again.

"You see, we even get the international trade on the No. 1," she said.

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