The streets in Baltimore's County's Halethorpe have always gotten me twisted into pleasant knots. This unincorporated community looks like a life-size Baltimore Christmas garden, with whistling trains passing the tidy bungalows, front porches, and lilacs and crape myrtles.
I'll confess to low (none, really) resistance to the sound of a train. On a warm spring morning, I'll visit the MARC Halethorpe station, where throngs of Washington-bound commuters board the coaches for Union Station and Capitol Hill. Maybe a speedy Acela will rattle by.
As I learned in a new publication, Halethorpe, A Story of a Maryland Community ($24.95 and sold through the Baltimore County Public Library's Arbutus branch), this rail platform was not always so busy.
In fact, there was a time in the 1960s when one solitary passenger boarded the morning train to the District of Columbia. The intrepid commuter was Charles J. Kokoski, who explained to me that it took the energy cost spikes of the 1970s to awaken others to the practical realities of rail service between Baltimore and Washington. Halethorpe is now one of the busier stops on the Penn Line.
The Halethorpe history book is a grand community effort. There are seven contributing authors listed; Barry A. Lanman, who directs the Martha Ross Center for Oral History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote the text. More than 60 people were interviewed, Lanman told me yesterday, and it took him 1,100 hours and three years to pull the photos and interviews together in this hardbound, 218-page book.
The work has all the virtues of other community histories -- it's unpretentious and informative. There's a shot of a J.W. Crook grocery store branch. The Crook chain was once a thriving independent market force before Food Fair and other grocery giants came to town.
Who knew that Rettberg's sausages were sold at the 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse's concession stands? The fair was a hot ticket that fall -- and was Baltimore's best and only shot at hosting a national exposition, a kind of poor-man's world's fair sponsored by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for its centennial. My father still talks about his trip to Halethorpe for the fair.
One of the charms of this community was its separateness -- and the fact that it was once served by a twisting streetcar line and later something called the Q bus.
As a child I heard a cautionary Halethorpe tale. Eileen McGinn was a close friend of the family who was always attending Roman Catholic church events -- and once set off in a car to the Church of the Ascension in Halethorpe. It might have been for a carnival or bingo game.
As the story goes, the McGinns' car stalled on one of the railroad grade crossings in the neighborhood. The driver ordered everyone out of the vehicle immediately, even though no train was in sight.
Within a few minutes, a train slammed into the McGinns' Ford, leaving it a total wreck. The family was safe. But when the train came to a stop, there, on the front of the locomotive, was a cake bought or won at the church event -- unscathed, no cracks, the icing perfect.