LINE GROWS SOUTHWARD Stellar sights unfold to riders


As soon as the light rail car left Camden Station, a woman said, "Get ready for the white-knuckle ride."

She was right. The motorman soon had the southbound test car going 48 mph along a marvelous concrete roller coaster through South Baltimore's back streets and old industrial heartland. There's even a water slide -- across the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

The state Mass Transit Administration's 3.2-mile extension of the light rail line opens to the public at 11 a.m. Sunday with new stations at Westport, Cherry Hill and Patapsco Avenue. The original 14-mile line runs from Timonium to Camden Yards.

Beginning Sunday, passengers will be able to ride from Patapsco Avenue to Timonium. The extension is part of the Central Light Rail Line that will eventually work its way southward to Ferndale via Linthicum.

The extension has some stellar attractions to recommend it to riders.

Overall, it's like an aged industrial back alley, its tracks weaving through coal furnaces, gas holders, elevated highways and back yards. Along the way are unexpectedly expansive views of the downtown skyline and parts of the harbor that only a sea gull normally sees.

The high-tech streetcars fly over a new bridge at the old Spring Gardens neighborhood in South Baltimore. Below the rail is a quiet and forgotten arm of the Patapsco River's Middle Branch.

The other day, the only people seen in these parts were a couple of boys goin' fishin'. There was a sky full of sea gulls, too. The birds love to perch on the steel railings on the light rail bridge. When the white-and-blue car shot through, they seemed annoyed with the interloper.

The elevated line runs parallel to Interstate 395 and South Howard Street. Passengers will view vistas of Baltimore's industrial history. It's the best way to see the south portal of the famed Howard Street Tunnel, the massive old B&O; subterranean passageway for freight trains that is used many times a day.

The line crosses the Hamburg Street and Ostend Street bridges and the bed of Stockholm Street. The Stockholm Street crossing is appropriate. Much of the light rail car was made in Sweden. This is also the place to look down on the city's Animal Shelter and its fleet of dog-catcher trucks.

The train shot by the Victorian cupola and fancy iron weather vane that were preserved from the old Knabe piano factory, which once stood on what is now a parking lot for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The cupola, which now rests on the roof of a cabinetmaking firm, is a look-alike for the one atop the Mount de Sales Academy of the Visitation in Catonsville, a building that's visible from the elevated line when the air is clear.

Many other South and Southwest Baltimore landmarks can be seen by passengers, among them the old Montgomery Ward store on Washington Boulevard.

There's ample evidence of Baltimore's religious history, too. Riders can spot church steeples and towers aplenty -- Holy Cross, St. Joseph's Monastery, St. Jerome's, St. Peter the Apostle, St. Martin's, St. Benedict's and the old Fourteen Holy Martyrs, which is no longer used as a church.

The car shoots close to the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s Westport plant. This industrial relic, which once burned coal, is still used by the utility when it needs to furnish extra power.

In the distance, riders can see the city's boathouse on Waterview Avenue. If you look hard, you might see some rowers on the water in their lightweight boats.

The new route delivers a roller coaster-like thrill coming into Westport, the city rowhouse neighborhood. Here, riders have views of wooden back porches, wash lines and local taverns. On this stretch, the ride has the feel of an elevated rapid transit line.

Soon, the car cuts through the red clay banks of Cherry Hill and leaves the industrial area behind.

The scenery changes. From here to Patapsco Avenue, the look is green and woodsy, full of sumac, holly trees and pines that give the landscape more of that relaxed, tidewater feel so appropriate for an August day.

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