TRACKING A PASSION For half a century, Herb Harwood has been quietly, obsessively documenting trains. His mission is clear: He simply wants to save the rails


There are all kinds of stories to tell about Herb Harwood, which shouldn't be surprising, since he has had all kinds of adventures taking photographs of trains, stations and nearly everything else associated with railroads for most of his 65 years.

At first thought, that seems to be the most prosaic thing on Earth to do -- aim a camera at a piece of chuffing iron and steel coming around the bend. But when you do that as often as Herbert H. Harwood Jr., and publish 10 books on railroad history in the meantime, you attain a kind of mythical status.

There was the time when Mr. Harwood, just a teen-ager then, was taking photos of trains leaving some buildings in central New Jersey. He was rudely approached by men who asked tough questions as to his intentions. It turned out that this time, in the mid-1940s, was not a good one to be photographing trains exiting a place where atomic research was going on. Hours later, the puzzled boy was allowed to ride his bicycle back to his grandmother's house.

After all, he was only taking pictures of trains.

Another time, a few years ago, Mr. Harwood was mugged while shooting photos for his latest book, "Baltimore's Light Rail: Then -- and Now." He calls the incident "just another urban experience." He had just taken a shot of three vehicles near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum when he was approached by a thug who wanted his money and his camera.

It was 10 o'clock in the morning, and perhaps the mugger's bravura was due to the appearance of his potential target: a thin, graying man in his early 60s, wearing glasses and a perpetually thoughtful, distracted look. Mr. Harwood managed to fend the mugger off, though, keeping both camera and money.

And the photo survived, too. When "Baltimore's Light Rail" was published last fall by Quadrant Press of New York, on Page 69 was this honey of a shot featuring a 1944 PCC 7407, a 1902 open car No. 1164, and a contemporary light rail train in the distance making its way downtown.

"That's where the mugging happened," Herb Harwood says matter-of-factly, pointing to a bridge off to his left. It's a crisp December day, and he is taking a ride on the light-rail system from Baltimore County, where he lives, to the Camden stop downtown.

He's meeting his elder son, George, 32, who is restoration shop supervisor at the B&O; Museum. George, a soft-spoken, unobtrusive man much like his father, is in the fourth generation of Harwoods to be associated with the railroads. The elder Mr. Harwood's grandfather and father both worked for the New York Central; Herb Harwood spent 31 years with the Chesapeake and Ohio and the B&O;, retiring in 1986. He was writing railroad books before the retirement, and here he is, 10 years later, still plugging away.

"Baltimore's Light Rail" is full not only of railroad lore and dozens of his own photographs, but of nuggets of local history as well. Mr. Harwood is a serious man, obviously, as one might expect of a person whose life has been marked by a quiet obsession. But he's got a sharp, dry wit. As the light-rail train hums quietly southward, he observes wryly that some communities served by the Northern Central railroad in the 19th and early 20th centuries -- Riderwood and Ruxton, among them -- were the most stubborn opponents to its descendant, the light-rail system.

Along the ride, he points out objects of interest -- now, the Mount Royal Station, opened in 1896 and one of many stations in Maryland designed by E. Francis Baldwin. "His impact on the contemporary landscape is enormous, yet hardly anyone knows who he is today," Mr. Harwood muses.

It's a common theme for Mr. Harwood these days -- that as railroads slowly recede in importance in everyday life, so, too, will their legacy. That's what drives him these days, he says. What began as a youthful enthusiasm for trains in New York and New Jersey in the 1930s and '40s now has become for this serious man something, well, more serious.

"I'm beginning to view my work with railroads as a sense of mission, not entirely for myself," he says thoughtfully. "I'm 65 and reaching the end of my life. I've devoted a large part of it to this -- writing books, documenting railroad history. I'd like to make it meaningful in another way, for future generations. But future generations may not care." He gives a small laugh.

He turns back to the tour. At every stop, he throws in a concise commentary about a station, an old factory or the construction of a rail line. Mr. Harwood's grasp of details is impressive -- he seems to know the history of every building on the light-rail route (he just finished a chapter on the city's industrial architecture for a book on Baltimore buildings to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press). And so it becomes readily apparent that Herb Harwood is an unusual railroad historian, interested not just in the machinery but also the people who propelled it and the society that was affected by it.

"He really is a gem," says Robert J. Brugger, history editor at Johns Hopkins University Press. "It's safe to say that his writing is flourishing and that it coincides with the maturation of the history of technology as a field. He's among those early writers exploring the interrelationship of technology and society."

"Herb is probably one of the leading industrial historians around," says John H. Ott, executive director of the B&O; Railroad Museum. "He goes beyond railroad history. He's got no official credentials as a historian, but he does good research and knows how to go to original sources."

Mr. Ott has a Harwood story. He was visiting his mother-in-law in a railroad town along the Hudson River in New York when he saw a man loping along the street ahead of him.

"I look up and I think, 'That guy over there taking pictures looks awfully familiar.' It was Herb. He was on the way back from [a vacation in] Montreal and stopped by the town to take some pictures. He said the architecture was interesting, and there he was, going block by block, taking pictures of buildings. You never know when you will stumble onto him."

James Dilts has another kind of Harwood story, one that illustrates the man's near-legendary status in local historical and railroad circles.

Mr. Dilts' 1993 book, "The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1855," is considered one of the best recent railroad histories. He recalls that "when I first started work on my book in the mid-1970s, [Mr. Harwood] was recommended to me as someone to talk to in Baltimore. He was very helpful to me in telling me things -- what I should look at, where I should go for information. He didn't need to be that helpful, because I was the new boy on the block. Some other railroad historians might tell you nothing, or feed you disinformation."

Mr. Dilts continues: "Herb is unique in his command of railroads in Maryland. He's different in that he spent a number of years in the railroad, and knows it from top to bottom. Railroad history can be deadly dull, but his isn't. He's a pretty lively writer, and he has this great grasp of information. He's a real treasure house. His subjects have been regional, but he's known quite well outside the region."

Inside his own home, however, his fame wasn't always apparent. "He's been so quiet about this," says his wife, Janice, an art historian who has taught at local colleges. "About 10 years ago, a friend of ours told me, 'Do you know that your husband is a famous railroad historian?' I said, 'He is?' "

When he was courting Mrs. Harwood in Cleveland in 1960, this very unassuming, self-deprecating man didn't say much about his abiding passion. "He kept it so quiet I hardly knew it existed," she says.

After they got married in 1961, they went on a honeymoon to Washington and, according to Mrs. Harwood, "visited two railroads and seven art museums." Later, after his devotion to trains became apparent, she asked why he had kept it under wraps. He told her, "I was just being cautious."

Cautious, perhaps, but awfully determined. The Harwoods moved to Baltimore in 1963 when the Chesapeake and Ohio took over the Baltimore and Ohio, and in the next year Mr. Harwood's first book, about a small railroad line in Northern Virginia, was published.

Over the years, the photographs have accrued. Mr. Harwood won't say how many, but he is considered to have one of the best collections of railroad photos in the country. In addition to the pictures he has taken, he has acquired many negatives from other sources. The collection spans from 1900 to the present and features railroads from the entire country.

Mr. Harwood takes most of the photos for his books, which are local and regional railroad histories. They're published by small specialty presses and are known mostly by the group of train aficionados known as "railfans."

Ah, yes, the railfans. You can see them holding forth at any railroad museum, discoursing lovingly about this 4-4-0 steam locomotive or that ancient line that used to stop at their old hometown. "They're the most fanatical of all fanatics," Mr. Dilts says.

While the railfans' enthusiasm is laudable, their single-mindedness can be excruciating. Though he considers himself a mild railfan, Mr. Harwood admits to an uneasy relationship with the more zealous types. They comprise much of his audience but he probably has little in common with many. For starters, he's not that crazy about traveling on a train. "Unless the view outside is interesting, a train trip can be pretty boring," he says, an admission most railfans would find heretical.

He doesn't even like most railroad museums, which he finds "are really about pieces of steel and not the people behind them." After he left the B&O;, he served as interim operating director of the B&O; Museum for about six months, encouraging both a concerted effort to raise money and an effort to "put a human face" on railroad history.

He fears that too many railfans "approach railroads from a purely mechanical or technological vantage point." There are railfans who can tell you, " 'That is a GP35 because it has five louvers on the side of the hood instead of four.' There are people who really get off on that."

He concedes, good-naturedly, that he himself has been considered a little suspect over the years -- but for another reason. When he was working for the B&O; from 1963 to 1986, he didn't talk much about his work in railroad history. He says, sardonically, that he was viewed in the office as "something of a village idiot."

"Railroads really don't appreciate railfans much," says Mr. Harwood, who held positions in marketing, research, planning and personnel for the B&O; before retiring as director of commercial administration. "They think they're nuts, and they're quite correct most of the time. So when you're working for the railroad, you're circumspect about letting people know you love the railroad.

"It's funny. I had two kinds of railroad lives. One was the working life, where I was in an office most of the day. It was almost like working for General Motors -- it was just headquarters-like work. And then there was my extracurricular life, which was also centered around the railroad, in taking pictures of trains and doing histories of railroads."

That meant taking every available minute to shoot trains, or plodding through dusty and tedious old books. When his children came along -- besides George, there's Jeffrey, now 28 -- Mr. Harwood would pack up the family for a Sunday car outing that invariably ended up with Dad taking photos of you-know-what. "I remember being taken around for various shots and waiting for hours," George Harwood recalls with a tolerant smile.

"I got to be quite good at changing babies and fixing lunches in the back seat," Mrs. Harwood says. "We did it joyously for several years, until the boys started to complain."

Because Mr. Harwood wouldn't want to get out of the car unless he was taking a picture. He'd say, "What, another bathroom stop?"

He would stake out a potential subject for hours. Sometimes a train would come and go without his being able to capture it on film. Usually, though, he did the picture, even if it meant standing around in snow or 100-degree weather to do so.

Early on, Mr. Harwood says, this compulsion to document the railroad didn't have the patina of respectability it does now. He was just some guy with an obsession few could understand -- including himself. By way of explanation, he says now that he was born old, with one eye always on the past. "I started thinking about doing railroad histories in high school, just as a fun thing to do. I have always liked doing research, poking around."

But railroads also hit him at an emotional level: "I grew up in the steam-locomotive era, and to me there's nothing like a steam locomotive. It's the nearest mechanical thing to something human, in that you can sense that it is breathing and working."

His mind was always working, too, always looking for connections, which is why an interest in trains spread to such related areas as railroad architecture, bridges, labor relations and industrial history.

"My mother's father was interested in history and would take me, when I was a very young child, on a drive," he says. "He would point out some path that went on into the woods and say, 'That was where the old railroads used to run.' There wouldn't be anything left there -- just a clearing in the woods, but that for some reason hooked me. I suppose you could use the cliche that it was nostalgia -- the old railroads were long gone, and I would wonder [about them]. I picked up a sort of romanticized view of railroads. I liked the atmosphere -- the locomotives, the passenger trains that disappeared over the horizon."

Trains were disappearing quite literally over the horizon when Mr. Harwood graduated from Princeton University in 1953 with a degree in history. Airplane travel was becoming affordable for many people, and the interstate highway system was about to make interstate travel much easier. "I knew the railroad industry was dying, but I didn't care," he says. "I just wanted a job on the railroad."

He latched onto the Chesapeake and Ohio and stayed with the company when it and the B&O; merged in 1963. For someone with an interest in railroad history, the chance to work for the B&O; was a godsend.

The Baltimore and Ohio railroad had long trumpeted itself as America's first railroad, and had helped transform Baltimore, Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region. Mr. Ott, of the B&O; Museum, estimates that in 1926, 3,000 people worked for the B&O; in Baltimore alone. With perhaps 35,000 people working for several area railroads -- the B&O;, the Pennsylvania, the Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Western Maryland, among others -- in the 1920s and '30s, Baltimore was the quintessential railroad town.

"Railroads helped determine the city's architecture -- look at such familiar names today as Camden Yards and the Mount Royal Station," Mr. Ott says. "Baltimore would not be what it is today without the railroad, and such people as Herb constantly remind you of its impact in this city and this country."

Mr. Harwood recalls that "I had always liked the B&O;, even though I had come from a New York Central family. The B&O; had always seemed more of a human institution, with its own esprit de corps, its own atmosphere."

The B&O; provided material for what's considered Mr. Harwood's finest book, "Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland," published in 1979 and reissued last year. But though he had been working for the railroad for some years, Mr. Harwood was no house man, as was Edward Hungerford, whose 1928 history of the B&O; was one long paean to the stalwart men who started it.

Hungerford, for instance, describes one of the railroad's 19th-century presidents, John W. Garrett, as "a man of vast powers and abilities" who "possessed all the great qualities of leadership." Mr. Harwood finds Garrett an impressive figure, too, but with reservations.

He says, "John W. Garrett was the guy who dominated the railroad and was president during one of the most critical times of the American railroads, when they were expanding and merging -- the real genesis of the industry. But there is a tremendous question about what John Garrett's mental state was like during that time. At least during the latter time of his tenure he was not mentally competent."

Mr. Harwood came to that dissenting conclusion while going through the unpublished memoirs of a Garrett associate. It was typical of his relentless approach to research.

"People might look at [Mr. Harwood] and say, 'That's an awfully laid-back, quiet guy,' " Mr. Ott says. "But he's just like the Energizer bunny -- he just keeps going and going."

"If you ask him a question, and it could be really arcane, he takes it upon himself as a personal mission," Mr. Dilts says. "And he will find the answer."

Mr. Harwood is unsure where his fascination with railroads will take him next. He doesn't have an idea for a new book, although railroad architecture interests him more and more. "That's how it has been -- I started out in one aspect of railroads, and then another unfolded itself and so on," he says.

Though he is a controlled man, he nonetheless cannot control this quiet obsession of his. He reflects upon this as he boards the light rail after meeting his son at the B&O; Museum. It's late in the afternoon. As the train whizzes past ice-bound Lake Roland, he muses about his five decades of tracking trains.

"There are times when I really do think it's a disease," he says with a slight smile. "I've waited up to 12 hours for a train to come -- one that I'm not even sure will be there. So there are times when I ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?' "

He mentions the support from his wife. "She's a fanatic in her own way, about art and art history, and we're both very independent," he says. "But I'm very lucky in that regard. Some wives of railfans are very bitter about all the time [their husbands] spend away from the family. I knew one railfan whose wife burned his photo collection after his death."

Mr. Harwood may have no worries about what will happen to his collection when he's gone, but he does have a pressing concern in the here and now: that his audience is shrinking.

"One of the things that bothers me is that railroads are disappearing from public vision, from public consciousness," he says quietly. "In my generation, even if you had no interest whatever in railroads, you still had a lot of touch with them. You rode on trains wherever you went; you saw them everywhere; your family, your relatives, your next-door neighbors worked for the railroad. There was this personal experience with railroads, so when you went to a railroad museum, you could relate to them, even if you had a casual interest.

"I worry that you just don't have that anymore. Railroads have a rich history -- you have an industry that essentially built this country. And, on the local level, you have something like this" -- he motions to the light-rail car he's riding in -- "which was responsible for the creation of suburban communities such as Ruxton. But nobody realizes that anymore."

A few minutes later, Mr. Harwood disembarks from yet another train. He doesn't take any pictures this time, but he could have. His camera is slung around his neck -- just in case.

A Trained Eye For Rail Shots

When Herbert H. Harwood Jr. is asked what railroad shots in Maryland he might suggest for photographers, he usually gives an evasive answer. That's because, as he points out, many potential sites are on private property. Also, there's always the potential of a dangerous incident involving a speeding train. But he does offer a these suggestions:

* "One of the niftiest railroad stations in Maryland -- or, for that matter, in the country -- is the one at Point of Rocks [near Brunswick on the Maryland-Virginia border]. That's pretty good if you get away from the tracks. It's a wonderfully photogenic station, built in the 1870s, the work of a very notable 19th-century Baltimore architect named E. Frances Baldwin."

* "In Laurel, there's a lovely 1884 station that you can shoot from a platform. It's a MARC station now and is very interesting from a historical perspective. So is the 1884 station in Sykesville -- again, built by the same architect."

* "Harpers Ferry has a lot of places with public access -- where the B&O; crosses the Potomac. And where, in fact, you can see three different generations of railroad bridges that cross the Potomac. You see the remains of the original bridge from the 1830s, the successor bridge from 1894, and the latest one."

TIM WARREN'S last piece for Sun Magazine was on minor-league baseball.

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