THE B&O; was the nation's first real railroad.
Its undertaking was probably the greatest business decision ever made in Baltimore. The downtown emblem of that daring innovation, Camden Station, sits abandoned and unused, as it has since its exterior was restored 10 years ago to serve as the frontispiece for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The best way to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the B&O; Railroad would be to return Camden Station to its traditional use.
It's the oldest major metropolitan railroad station in the United States. It still has train service, and it is an important light rail stop. The will and means to connect the building with these rail services are lacking, but such things can be overcome.
"No act of this board, it is believed, has been received with more favor by the entire community, than the location of this noble station," said B&O; President Thomas Swann in 1852, when planning began.
The railroad built Camden Station to accommodate the increased trade expected when its initial line opened to Wheeling, W.Va., on the Ohio River in 1853. Other aims were to consolidate the freight and passenger business near the downtown and the harbor, to take advantage of locomotive power (prohibited on city streets) and to centralize the company offices.
Designed by house architect Joseph F. Kemp, Camden Station was finished in 1865. It looked about the same then as now, since its restoration 10 years ago. (The interior is another matter.) The tower contained "an approved astronomical clock" whose meridian, relayed daily by telegraph to the 26 operators on the line who set their clocks by it, ensured standard time over the 380 miles of railroad between here and the Ohio River.
Camden Station's history alone entitles it to better treatment. Abraham Lincoln really did go through those doors on his first and last train trips through Baltimore, and in between, on his way to give a speech at Gettysburg. Important decisions were made in the upstairs executive offices that affected the course of the Civil War and other national events such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
After the Maryland Stadium Authority acquired Camden Station about 1990, two equally critical decisions were made concerning its future.
The first was declining to develop it commercially, as had been done successfully at Washington's Union Station. The reason was that the Rouse Co. was advising the Maryland Stadium Authority on uses for Camden Station and did not want competition with the Inner Harbor, according to Bruce Hoffman, then chairman of the authority.
The second was to cut off the tracks at Conway Street to avoid interfering with road access to the Orioles' main offices in the Camden warehouse. (Burying the tracks would have been prohibitively expensive.) This decision isolated the station from rail passengers and deprived it of its legitimate function.
The result is what we see today.
Cities all over the world, even including some in America, are renewing and rebuilding their train stations with bold new designs as they realize that the SUV and the air bus are not the ultimate answers to our transportation problems. It could happen here. Camden Station could again be the proud gateway to the city that it once was.
But it will only take place if Baltimore's leaders display the vision that Philip E. Thomas and George Brown, the men who conceived and built the B&O;, did 175 years ago.
James D. Dilts is a Baltimore writer who focuses on railroads and architecture. He is the author of The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853 (Stanford University Press, 1993) and Buildings of the United States - Maryland, to be published by Oxford University Press.
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