James D. Dilts, author and historian who wrote about railroads, architecture and preservation, dies

James D. Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author who wrote widely on railroads, architecture, historic preservation and jazz and led the effort for the restoration of the historic Peale Museum in Baltimore, died at Union Memorial Hospital on Tuesday from heart failure and multiple myeloma.

The Evergreen resident was 81.

“Jim was an iconic figure to anyone even remotely interested in the B&O and its embryonic fits and starts. His masterwork,‘The Great Road,’ is a must read. His early history of the railroad is unparalled,” said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum and a longtime friend.

“His written works, love for Baltimore and its buildings, his kind words and contagious laugh will keep him alive and in the hearts of many,” Mr. Wilson said.

Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a noted railroad author and historian and a retired CSX executive, called Mr. Dilts a “first-class historian.”

“Jim’s book on the B&O is a virtuoso job,” said Mr. Harwood, a Cross Keys resident. “You can’t pick at it one way or the other.”

James Dothard Dilts was born in New York City, the son of Mervic Stryker Dilts and Helen C. Aitken. His father was a wholesale paper salesman, and he was raised in Three Rivers, N.J., and several other New Jersey towns, Buffalo and Providence, R.I.

His father was a huge influence on his life, introducing his young son to the colorful neighborhoods, characters, taverns and architecture in the cities where they lived. His father also revered several authors, and introduced his son to celebrated 1920s, ’30s and ’40s writers such as H.L. Mencken, Jim Tully, James M. Cain, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner and Dashiell Hammett.

Mr. Dilts grew up in a televison-free home. His father preferred the radio, encouraging imagination when listening. It was also a home filled with newspapers, books and magazines.

Growing up in urban environments, Mr. Dilts developed a passion for cities, architecture, public transit and trains.

After graduating high school in Providence, he enlisted in the Navy. After being discharged, he obtained a bachelor’s degree on the GI Bill from Northwestern University in Chicago.

Fired from jobs in advertising and promotions, Mr. Dilts decided to come to Baltimore in 1963 when he took a job on the Johns Hopkins Magazine. He often related how he had to look up Baltimore in the encyclopedia because the only things he knew about the city were that it was the home of H.L. Mencken and Johns Hopkins University — and that the Chesapeake Bay was nearby.

He was later let go from Hopkins and decided to try his hand as a newspaperman.

“This began my real education in Baltimore. Being a journalist was the best introduction I could have to my new home,” he wrote in a 2012 article for Baltimore Brew. “I got to meet most of the players and tried to figure out how things worked…. I decided that far from being uninteresting, Baltimore had a colorful and truly Byzantine political culture, more characters per square block than any place I’d ever been outside of New York City, and, oh, yes — historic buildings.”

In 1965, he joined the staff of the old Sunday Sun Magazine. He moved over to The Sun’s city desk, and covered mass transit, blockbusting, unprincipled landlords and the East-West Expressway — which became known as the “highway to nowhere.”

In his weekly column, “The Changing City,” he observed and chronicled the physical changes that were occurring during the late 1960s and early ’70s that were reshaping city neighborhoods and waterfront.

“Jim liked people, eccentrics, eccentric places and neighborhoods, and wanted to see what made them tick. He was not interested in job titles or status,” said Mark Reutter, a former Sunday Sun colleague and longtime friend. “He understood Baltimore and saw it in a visceral way.”

He described Mr. Dilts as an “elegant writer” who was “worthy of the New Yorker.”

With his carefully cropped beard, horn-rimmed glasses, tousled hair and herringbone tweed caps, he looked the part of a writer, college professor or artist.

“He had a great sense of humor and that great cheshire cat grin that went from ear to ear,” Mr. Reutter said. “And he never lost that New Jersey-New York accent.”

Through the years, he became something of an eccentric himself. He liked riding his bike and could be seen coursing along city streets or walking.

He took the advice of his “Old Man” — his affectionate term for his father — and preferred a shot and a beer when drinking. He also liked puffing an occassional dark leaf cigar almost the size of a railroad flare.

In 1970, he purchased a 19th-century three-story brick house on Thames Street. It took him nearly 20 years to restore it; he did most of the work himself.

His first book, “A Guide to Baltimore Architecture,” was written with a Sunday Sun colleague, John R. Dorsey, and was published in 1973. He and co-author Catharine F. Black later published “Baltimore’s Cast-Iron Buildings.”

He was fascinated with the B&O, the nation’s first common carrier railroad that built westward from Baltimore in 1828, and undertook a history of the line. He began researching and writing while still a newspaperman, then left the paper in 1976 — optimistically figuring his B&O book would be a one-year project because he narrowed its scope to the line’s first 25 years.

“I wasn’t off by much — only 16 years,” he told The Sun in a 1993 interview, when “The Great Road, the Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, The Nation’s First Railroad, 1828-1853,” was published by Stanford University Press.

“Jim was never a B&O railroad romantic — he wasn’t a foamer, as rail fans are called. He liked good stories and railroads were great stories,” said Mr. Reutter, a Poplar Hill resident who himself is the author of “Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might.”

“He was always intrigued by history and great events. He liked delving into history and pure research,” said Mr. Reutter.

Mr. Dilts immersed himself and had mastered reading the small type from microfiled newspapers from the 1820s and 1830s with “a seriousness that only a zealot could possess,” wrote Sun columnist Jacques Kelly in a book review.

He spent years poring over minutes from B&O board meetings, diaries and anything else he could find relating to the line. In order to grasp the enormity of what he was writing about, Mr. Dilts spent years hiking the entire 514-mile line from Mount Clare to Wheeling, W.Va., often in the company of friends such as Mr. Reutter.

Mr. Harwood first got to know Mr. Dilts when he was researching his own B&O history, “Impossible Challenge.”

“He was writing a history of the B&O’s early days, as I was,” he recalled. “He opened up everything he had to me. You don’t find many scholars or researchers willing to do that. He was extremely generous.”

Mr. Dilts’ last book, “The World the Trains Made: A Century of Great Railroad Architecture,” will be published in September by University Press of New England.

Mr. Dilts also had a lifelong interest in jazz and worked with the Left Bank Jazz Society, bringing noted jazz musicians to Baltimore. More recently, he and several friends founded the Jazz in Cool Places series, where musicians perform in historic city venues.

His appreciation and profound knowledge of architecture and history came together with the Friends of the Peale, whose mission was to restore the 19th-century historic home of Rembrandt Peale on Holliday Street. He was president of the organization, which joined with the Baltimore Architecture Foundation in restoring the Peale, which had been the city’s first City Hall as well as an African-American school and the site where gas illumination was demonstrated by the company that eventually became BGE.

“He was pretty tenacious when it came to that 200-year-old building,” said Walter Schamu, a partner in SM+P Architects and member of Friends of the Peale. “Its survival became a passion for Jim.”

Under Mr. Dilts’ leadership, Friends of the Peale was able to lead successful fundraising efforts for the building that is now the Peale Center.

“He wanted it to be a center of Baltimore and architectural history,” Mr. Schamu said. “He knew the building could be saved and he just stuck with it.”

“He accomplished a great deal in his life,” Mr. Reutter said.

Plans for a celebration of Mr. Dilts’ life are incomplete.

He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Penny Williamson, a medical consultant; a son, Jordan Dilts of Santa Fe, N.M.; a daughter, Cara Suzannah Latil, also of Santa Fe; a stepdaughter, Jessica Hannah of Kansas City, Mo.; and a granddaughter.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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