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Piece of city's rail history being dismantled


Each day there's a little bit less of an old railroad relic left near Maryland Avenue and Falls Road.

Workmen are disassembling a 1911 trackside switch and signal operators' tower board by board, window sash by window sash, roof tile by roof tile. The building, vacant since 1988, sits in the path of a planned light rail extension. It is being crated and moved to Bowie, where it will be put back together.

That's a lot of care and money for one of the forgotten sidelights of American railroading.

In rail parlance, this is the Baltimore and Potomac Junction Tower, a two-story Dutch Colonial building where eagle-eyed operators supervised train movements from the days of the steam engines pulling dark red coaches to the modern, stainless steel Metroliners.

The tower sits about two blocks west of Pennsylvania Station, close by the Jones Falls Expressway, the Jones Falls stream and the Howard Street Bridge.

Many expressway drivers have zoomed by it without knowing its role within the life of a railroad.

Elevated above the tracks, the block operators who worked here served as the railroad's traffic cops.

In the days when Pennsy expresses, Western Maryland locals, freights and work trains passed through this narrow part of the Jones Falls Valley, these traffic controllers could be frenetically busy.

Robert Williams, a Lutherville resident and former AMTRAK tower operator, worked to save the B&P; tower, which has long been a sentimental favorite of his.

He notes that in 1912 there were 212 train movements here in an eight-hour period. That is about 27 trains an hour, or nearly one train every two minutes.

"I have the original drawings of the architect of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He signed them but his handwriting is so squiggly you can't make out his name," said Williams, who plans to write a book on Baltimore's Penn Station.

The spot is still a good one for watching trains. One afternoon last week, three long passenger trains passed in a 15-minute period.

It was the job of the block operators to route dozens of trains through Baltimore's maze of signals and switches, as well as the notoriously skinny Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, the heavily-used, 19th-Century piece of engineering that runs under the Bolton Hill, Upton and Sandtown

Winchester neighborhoods.

It was also here that trains diverged. Some went on to Washington and the South. Others were switched northward, to York and Harrisburg via the old Northern Central route. Some went West, to Cumberland, via the Western Maryland Railway.

When AMTRAK converted to a computerized track and signal control system, headquartered in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, the labor-intensive hand/mechanical system of switch throwing passed into the attic of outmoded technology.

The microchip and computer screen replaced cumbersome but colorful pulleys and levers, crackling telegraph keys and old telephones connected to scissors extensions.

In railroading language, these towers were known as interlocks. They contained the interlock equipment, an assemblage of levers, relays and circuits.

They are also called interlocks because the controlling machines were built so that each successive rail

movement occurred in the proper sequence. They were set so that trains never hit the wrong switch.

"If you can't do 10 different things at once you might as well not work here," said Randy Hatman, an AMTRAK employee who worked in the B&P; interlocking in the 1980s.

Baltimore once had a pair of interlocking towers flanking the east and

west ends of Penn Station.

The eastern tower was known as Union Junction. It was of similar architecture and was torn down when rail tracks were relocated near Guilford Avenue. Parts of it went to the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

The west side tower was B&P; Junction Tower. A well designed structure, its top floor has a bank of lookout windows so the operators could see the tracks at all time.

The tower operators were responsible for speed and safety.

Intercity passenger trains travel at about 120 mph near BWI Airport as they approach Baltimore. They must decelerate to 30 mph before entering the B&P; tunnel. When they approach the Penn Station area, their speed drops to about 15 mph before stopping.

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