New book chronicles the Patapsco & Back Rivers Railroad

The Patapsco & Back Rivers Railroad has never enjoyed the undying veneration and saturated scrutiny by the rail fan community in word and picture, for a variety of reasons.

It never had on its tracks the speeding limiteds pulled by powerful locomotives with exotic-sounding names that caught the traveling public's imagination, nor did it ever serve steaming tureens of Terrapin a la Maryland or aged prime Kansas beef in plush dining cars.

In fact, when one considers all the railroads that have served Baltimore and environs through the years — the Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, Western Maryland Railway, the Maryland & Pennsylvania and the Canton Railroad, and now CSX and Norfolk Southern — the least known is the Patapsco & Back Rivers Railroad.

Its anonymity has much to do with its isolation and inaccessibility. The line ran on the sprawling Sparrows Point peninsula, which has been the site of the Pennsylvania Steel Co. since 1887 — later the Maryland Steel Co. — until its purchase by Bethlehem Steel Corp. in 1916.

For decades, it was the largest steel mill in the world and employed thousands, many of whom lived, worked, shopped, and went to school and church in Sparrows Point, the company town that housed workers.

Because the PBR is an industrial railroad — big, brawny, gritty and hardworking — and on private property, its operations have always been hard to observe from what limited public roadways penetrate Sparrows Point.

Until now, that is.

Elmer J. Hall, 68, a Sparrows Point native and retired Baltimore County public school educator, set himself a task some years ago when he decided to research and write a history of the area.

He has already written and published "Diary of a Mill Town" and "Shipbuilding at the Sparrows Point Yard: A Century of Pride and Tradition."

Hall's recent publication of "The Patapsco and Back Rivers Railroad: Chronicles of the Push, Bump, and Ram" is the third installment of his projected historical quartet. It will no doubt find favor with rail historians and rail fans who have always wondered what went on behind the chain-link fences and in the car-choked rail yards and holding tracks.

Hall's book is lavishly illustrated with photographs — some in color — and detailed maps to show the reader where the tracks go and help underscore and explain the operation and destinations of its numerous trains.

The work here was involved in nearly every aspect of steel making. Trains moved in coke and hauled out finished steel products along with trainloads of slag, a byproduct of the ore-making process.

And the work went on around the clock, seven days a week, including Christmas Day.

Hall has artfully combined first-person accounts gleaned from railroaders both present and retired who keep the book moving with informative and colorfully told anecdotes.

"I'm not a rail fan," Hall said with a quick laugh, which means he's more interested in the day-to-day operations and history of the railroad whose first locomotive started steaming around Sparrows Point in 1887, at the same time ground was broken for the first two blast furnaces.

"All I wanted to do was preserve the memories before it was too late," Hall said in a telephone interview the other day. He was given a plant pass and free run of the railroad, plus a driver-escort to take him where he wanted to go. "They were very forthcoming with access," he said.

By 1889, Hall writes, "the fledgling steel mill was producing pig iron. The railroad was a beehive of activity, with trains bearing coke, ore and limestone coming from Lower Canton wharves to the stackhouse."

The original railroad, the Baltimore & Sparrows Point Railroad Co., was incorporated in 1887 as a standard-gauge railroad. Its line was constructed from Colgate Creek to Penwood Park in Sparrows Point, a distance of 5.46 miles. It opened for operation in 1889.

The Patapsco & Back Rivers Railroad, which takes its name from the Patapsco River to the west and the Back River to the east, was officially established in 1918.

Gray's Station is the railroad's connection to the outside world, where it interchanges with the CSX and NS.

The PBR also maintained locomotive and car shops where workers repaired equipment. It was initially steam-powered, but by the 1930s the first diesels were beginning to appear on the railroad. By 1947, its entire fleet of 20 steam switchers had been retired.

By 1959, the PBR had 1,380 employees, in 40 to 50 crews, who worked 24-hour shifts, operating trains at Sparrows Point.

Hall writes that it wasn't uncommon in those years for the railroad to move 920,000 railcars per year.

Times were changing, however, and the glory years when more than 30,000 worked at "The Point" in three shifts were coming to an end.

Today, fewer than 2,500 work at the facility that began fading in the early 1980s, when Bethlehem closed the rod, wire, pipe and nail mills.

By 2003, Bethlehem itself was gone, when it was sold to International Steel Group. Two years later, ISG sold the Sparrows Point facility to Mittal Steel Co.

After the U.S. Justice Department ordered Mittal to sell the facility, it was purchased by Severstal, a Russian company.

"Only the tin mill is operating and now the shipyard is gone, and with the recent news coming out of there, it doesn't look good for the railroad," Hall said.

Today, employment has fallen to 68, including management, with 12 crews per day operating a fleet of 16 locomotives rolling over 160 miles of track. They are responsible for moving 30,000 cars annually.

Hall said his book took four years to complete.

"I found a couple gold mines and people who had tons of information and photos," Hall said. "I love the research and detective work. That's the fun part."

He combed the state for retired and present PBR workers, whom he mined for information.

In order to gather rail yarns, he became a regular at the third-Tuesday breakfast meetings of retirees who gather at Steve's Restaurant on Pulaski Highway.

"My wife said no more books for a while," Hall said with a laugh, as he prepares to work on his final book, a history of the steel mill at Sparrows Point.

Hall is cautiously hopeful about the PBR's fate but is content that he was able to compile its history.

"It has survived the demise of the steel industry, the collapse of one of the largest steel mills in the country, and the turmoil of several different owners in a span of six years," he writes. "Somehow, it has managed to stay in operation. Hopefully, it will chug on into the future."

The book is available at Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley and the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society in Dundalk.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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