Long history of subway ideas


This week, Maryland transit officials unveiled their latest expansion plans to get riders to abandon their autos and hop aboard new subway and light-rail lines that, if built over the next 20 years, will speed them to White Marsh, Dundalk, Towson, Fells Point, the Inner Harbor East or Arundel Mills Mall.

Ambitious? Yes. New? Not really.

For nearly a century, Baltimore transit planners and officials of the now-vanished United Railways and Electric Co. and the Baltimore Transit Co. have offered plans on how to relieve Baltimore of its transit woes and offer comprehensive and reliable service.

Talk first surfaced of building a four-mile cross-town subway system after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, when Bernard N. Baker, a Baltimore businessman, proposed the construction of a subway system. The suggested east and west route would have had strap-hangars traveling in subway cars beneath Baltimore Street. A common exchange point, or station, would have allowed riders to transfer to a north-south route, built in a tunnel beneath St. Paul and Light streets. Lateral lines would branch off from the main stem.

Nothing happened.

In 1916, Bruce W. Duer, a transportation expert with the Public Service Commission, told The Sun, "Within 10 years the traffic problem in this city will have become so serious that only by the building of subways will there be a possibility of solving it."

What prompted Duer's remarks was increasing streetcar congestion. Later that year, Mayor James H. Preston appointed a commission to study the need for a subway system in Baltimore.

"The congestion on Fayette Street at Charles and at Howard and Fayette and at other centres is fast becoming a serious problem, and it is one that only a subway system can solve. New York, Boston and Philadelphia solved their problems that way, and it is now time for Baltimore to act," John D. Spencer, a city councilman, told The Sun.

Naysayers buttressed their opposition to the subway by explaining that "Baltimore was too spread out," thus making such service "useless from a money-making standpoint."

"The proposal that subways be built to relieve the street traffic downtown, lately discussed rather listlessly in the Sunpaper, is one that I brought forward at least 10 years ago," wrote H.L. Mencken in 1916.

"Soon or late of course, Baltimore must come to it, and perhaps the sooner the better ... All other large cities, at home and abroad, have had to build subways. Baltimore begins to need them acutely, if only because of the move of the population to the suburbs," he wrote.

Mencken's one transit prejudice was elevated railways.

"One thing is sincerely hoped: to wit, that no boomer will ever talk of building elevated lines in Baltimore. They are infernal nuisances, and have damaged property in New York enormously. ... Third and Sixth, for example. Both are unutterably shoddy ... ," he observed.

A 1925 survey conducted by United Railways declared that until Baltimore's population doubled and there was appreciable suburban growth, that a subway system could not operate without deficits.

It was also estimated that building a double-track subway line from downtown Baltimore to Pimlico would cost $5,080,000 per mile, a financial adventure United Railways wasn't prepared to underwrite.

The curtain fell again on subway talk until 1929, when Bancroft Hill, a Baltimore-born and-raised engineer, who was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put together his own plan to save the city from its deepening transit problems.

Hill, who had worked for years as a harbor engineer for the Port of Baltimore, joined United Railways in 1925 as a valuation engineer. He later served as president of United Railways from 1936 to 1945.

After making a detailed survey of Baltimore streets and observing traffic patterns, he secluded himself in his Mount Washington home, and emerged June 12, 1929 with a plan for building a subway.

"Subways had been thought of before as a solution to Baltimore's transit problems," reported The Evening Sun. "But Mr. Hill, so far as the records go, was the first person actually to plan in detail a subway system to meet the peculiar needs of Baltimore."

The Hill plan proposed a system of six parts, "so planned that each of them was capable of independent construction and operation as the need arose and financing permitted," reported the newspaper.

The suggested underground routes were: Northern: Under the bed of St. Paul Street to North Avenue; Northeastern: Under Gay Street to North Avenue; Eastern: Under Baltimore Street to Exeter, to Central and Eastern avenues, then under Eastern Avenue to Oldham Street; Southern: Under Hanover Street to Heath Street; Western: Baltimore Street to Gilmor Street; and Northwestern: Principally under Pennsylvania Avenue to North Avenue.

"The heart of the scheme is the loop in the center of the city. This is ingeniously designed to provide the utmost in safety and flexibility. All movement of traffic in it would be in one direction, to the right," reported the newspaper.

"That eliminates all shifting and reversals of direction. Cars entering from any route could proceed around it on either of its two tracks to the place of entrance or onto any of the other five arteries. Thus the looping two tracks have the efficiency of a four-track line through the center of the city," said the newspaper.

The loop would follow Baltimore Street on the south and Eutaw Street on the west, Lexington Street on the north, Holliday Street on the east. All surface trolleys would be removed from city streets. Traffic could move about freely, unhampered by streetcars starting and stopping at every corner.

The cost was estimated to be $2 million a mile. Not an easy sum to raise during the Great Depression.

Hill explained his plan this way: "If the subway were built at a cost of millions of dollars, it would accomplish no more in the relief of traffic than could be accomplished by the elimination of parking in the downtown area."

Hill died in 1957, and the first subway train from Charles Center to Reisterstown Road Plaza didn't roll until 1983.

Sun researchers Dee Lyon and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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