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Two local rail aficionados venerated the B&O and Pennsylvania railroads

In the hobo culture, they have a saying when one of their own dies: They've "caught the westbound."

Two who recently caught the "westbound" last month were students of American railroading, Howard Russell Simpson, 83, and Charles Swann Roberts, 80.

As far as I know, the two men never met, but Howard, who was a friend of mine for more than 30 years, certainly had Roberts' books on the shelves of his library in his Roland Park home.

Over the years, while I had never met Roberts but had spoken to him on the phone several times, I always found him to be cordial, helpful and accessible.

In addition to their love of trains, both men also shared something else and that was the B&O Royal Blue blood that coursed through their veins.

Simpson's father, a lifelong railroader who began his career as an office boy in the passenger department of the Central Railroad of New Jersey in 1912, later joined the B&O where he eventually rose to president, heading the railroad from 1953 to 1961.

Roberts, whose father and grandfather were B&O railroaders, was also the great-great-nephew of Charles Swann Roberts, who was president of the railroad from 1848 to 1853 and later mayor of Baltimore and a congressman.

Howard was born into railroading and loved recounting stories about his childhood in the early 1930s, going to the Elmora Avenue station in Elizabeth, N.J., near his boyhood home with his father to watch trains.

This was the steam era and what a show it was, more than enough action to keep a young boy enthralled for hours.

It was a four-track theater over which flowed the long-distance express and passenger trains of the B&O, in whose elegantly appointed Pullmans, coaches and diners rode passengers bound for Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis or Chicago.

If that wasn't enough, along came snappy Reading Co. passenger trains pulled by spidery Camelback steam engines, followed by the Jersey Central's own fleet of commuter trains that daily hustled New York-bound workers in and out of the city each day.

Then along would come slow-moving freight trains, those steady and faithful myrmidons of the railroad, which helped keep the cash register ringing.

Interspersed along with all of this moving steel drama were the long coal drags from the Eastern Pennsylvania anthracite coal fields bringing black diamonds to New York Harbor and surrounding cities.

As a Williams College student and later as a businessman, Howard would patiently seek out odd routings and scheduled trains that presented him the opportunity to ride off-beat lines and experience new vistas.

Even though he chose to work on Wall Street as a broker rather than in the railroad industry after graduating from college, his interest never waned. He became an expert in railroad securities and served as a member of the board of the Staten Island Railway, which was a subsidiary of the B&O.

He was an inveterate believer, user and proponent of public transit until the end of his life.

When living in Cockeysville in the 1950s, he rode a bicycle to the station each day, where he then boarded one of the PRR's Parkton Locals for Baltimore.

When the mighty PRR started to rattle the sword over accumulating red ink and declining patronage that began piling up on the Parkton Local operation in the late 1950s, Howard joined the Northern Central Railway Commuters' Association that sought in vain to keep the trains running. They vanished from the schedule in 1959.

He was a supporter of the light rail project that saw the resumption in 1992 of commuter service between Glen Burnie and Hunt Valley, which operates over the old bones of the PRR's former Northern Central Division north of Baltimore.

Before regular service commenced, on a dreary, rainy and chilly March Sunday morning, Howard and his old Northern Central Railway Commuters' Association friend, John Redwood Jr., a retired Ruxton banker who was then 92, had been invited to ride the special run that had Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other local and state officials on board.

While many of his neighbors eschewed the new service and continued driving downtown, Howard would walk from his home early in the morning to the light rail station at Mount Washington for the ride to his downtown office, and then home in the evening.

Howard was a longtime member of the Baltimore chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society, and about a decade ago, got wind of the possible resumption of passenger service between Boston and Portland, Maine, and of a special exploratory run over the old Boston & Maine line where the trains once traveled.

He couldn't wait to sign up for the trip and I remember him telling me the excursion train pitched, rocked and crept for hours at no more than 20 mph all the way from Boston's North Station to his beloved Maine, and how much he had enjoyed it.

Howard, ever the optimist, pronounced it a grand trip anyway, and was exhilarated when Amtrak finally rebuilt the line and inaugurated its fleet of Downeaster trains several years ago.

He took his final train ride on Aug. 13, fittingly aboard the northbound Silver Star, when his remains were sent by train from Baltimore for burial in Elizabeth, N.J., next to his parents.

James D. Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and railroad historian whose B&O book, "The Great Road," was published in 1993, described Charlie Roberts as "an original who talked in a blustery kind of way and I liked him."

He added: "He was like his ancestor, who was a very interesting figure in Baltimore's colorful political history."

When it came to his railroad books, herculean is the word that comes to mind, for they represented Charlie's breadth of scholarship and sheer determination to wrestle such a massive and complicated subject as the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad to the floor and make it understandable.

He could certainly be blustery and opinionated on paper and fearless when entering the sacred and venerated PRR temple.

In his "Triumph IX: Salt Sea to Bays, Valleys, Dells and Firestorms, 1827-2009," which was published last year, Charlie wrote that the Pennsy was "not very gentle in achieving empire status. They suborned legislatures, ignored court orders, stiffed competition, raided governments and employed such brutal tactics that they became the most hated railroad in the industry and they didn't give a damn."

But Charlie certainly knew how to impose the illustrative anecdote when he wanted to. He writes that Theodore Roosevelt became president in an "era when one asked the name of the president he was asked which one — PRR or USA," and he went on to explain that this "response illustrates the mood of the time and the power of PRR."

While I'm familiar with Charlie's work with railroad history, Tom Vallejos, a reader, wrote in an e-mail, "Mr. Roberts' contributions to the war gaming hobby, he practically invented it, have led to many annual awards to war-game designers, developers etc., known as the Charles S. Roberts Awards or 'Charlies.'"

Vallejos also suggested a correction in Roberts' obituary, which I also wrote. He said his company, Avalon Hill, was sold not to Parker Brothers but rather Monarch Services, who sold in 1998 to Hasbro, which maintains an Avalon Hill line of games.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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