Charles S. Roberts, train line expert, dies at 80

Charles Swann Roberts, an author and co-founder of publishing company Barnard, Roberts and Co. Inc. known for his extensive histories of the Pennsylvania Railroad, died Aug. 20 from complications of emphysema and pneumonia at St. Agnes Hospital.

The Halethorpe resident was 80.

Mr. Roberts was working in his Willow Avenue office in Halethorpe, which overlooks the former Pennsy mainline (now the Northeast Corridor) when he was stricken, said a daughter, Jean R. Schweitzer of Catonsville.

"He was working until the end of his life. That was his passion," said Mrs. Schweitzer.

Mr. Roberts, whose father and grandfather were veteran B&O railroaders, was born in Baltimore and raised in Catonsville. He was also a great-great nephew of Charles Swann Roberts, who was president of the B&O from 1848 to 1853. Mr. Roberts caught "railroad fever" in his childhood.

After graduating from Catonsville High School in 1947, he worked for the old Herald-Argus newspaper and as a copy boy at The Sun's old Sun Square building at Charles and Baltimore streets.

In 1948, he enlisted in the Army and, after being discharged in 1952, he joined the Maryland National Guard.

During the 1950s, Mr. Roberts launched his career in advertising, working at VanSant Dugdale & Co. and Emery Advertising Corp.

In 1958, he founded Avalon Hill Co., a Baltimore game publishing company that specialized in war and other mental combat games such as "D-Day," "Stalingrad," "Battle of the Bulge," "Gettysburg" and "Victory in the Pacific."

He later expanded the line of board games to include such rail-related board games "Rail Baron," "Dispatcher," and "B&O/C&O."

The company, which he sold to Parker Brothers in the early 1960s, took its name from Mr. Roberts' home in an old Avalon iron mill on Gun Hill Road, overlooking the B&O's historic Old Main Line.

Mr. Roberts had been vice president of Barton-Cotton Inc., a graphics and printing firm, and had been a former vice president and general manager of Forms Inc., in Willow Grove, Pa.

In 1973, Mr. Roberts and his second wife, the former Joan Barnard Lynch, a widow, established Barnard, Roberts and Co. Inc., which they operated first in Elkridge and then in their Gun Hill Road home.

Since 2005, the business has been at its present home in Halethorpe.

Mr. Roberts and his wife, who later divorced, found instant success in 1978 with the publication of "Q," which was a definitive history of a class of B&O steam locomotive.

Rail fans clamored for their "Great Photo Series," a spiral-bound, paper-covered book that featured 50 photos and covered such railroads as the B&O, Maryland & Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York Central.

Herbert H. Harwood Jr., who was then a CSX executive, and Mr. Roberts became friends in 1972 in the wake of Tropical Storm Agnes. They were both exploring the B&O's original granite railroad ties at Ilchester along the Old Main Line, which had been exposed by floodwaters.

Mr. Roberts told Mr. Harwood that he was doing a series of books on the B&O in Maryland to Harpers Ferry, and would he be interested in joining the project?

He was.

Soon thereafter, Mr. Harwood, who is a nationally known railroad historian and author, began writing several of the "Great Photo Series" books, and in 1979, his book, "Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Maryland," was published by Mr. Roberts.

"I soon was in over my head because of the wealth of material, and Charlie kept saying, 'Keep going. Keep going.' He let me go berserk with it," he said.

"Charlie made an enormous contribution to railroad history, especially Eastern railroading," said Mr. Harwood.

"He did five significant books on the B&O and its facilities and nine on the Pennsylvania. He was the kind of guy who when he made up his mind to do something, he put everything he had into it. He was a perfectionist and demanding. He was a very challenging and highly energetic individual," he said.

He said that Mr. Roberts did not suffer fools gladly or writers who ignored deadlines.

"Charlie would set a highly rigid deadline, and he wanted it done, come hell or high-water," Mr. Harwood said, laughing.

"He could be a difficult person to work with, but he wanted things done and he wanted them done right," he said. "He was on my back the whole time, but he spurred me onto doing something I otherwise wouldn't have done."

Mr. Roberts' own lasting legacy is serving as author or co-author of nine books in the "Triumph" series, a highly detailed historical and pictorial examination of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The most recent, "Triumph IX: Salt Sea to Bays, Valleys, Dells and Firestorms 1927-2009," was published last year.

Mrs. Schweitzer said that her father had nearly completed "Triumph X," and plans for its publication this fall are "on schedule."

"He had all ready been talking about 'Triumphs XI and XII," she said. "Also, we are planning to keep the business in the family."

Mr. Roberts was also a museum-quality model builder of B&O locomotives and cars, which he operated on a 20-foot-by-40-foot HO-gauge model railroad that replicated the railroad's West End, including the fabled Sand Patch grade in Meyersdale, Pa.

Mr. Roberts loved hosting operating sessions of his railroad but had one hard and fast rule: "If you run my equipment, no drinking. If you brought your own, the bar is open," friends recalled.

"His lasting contribution is that he worked diligently to make as much information as possible available to the public and pursued subjects that heretofore had languished or were halfheartedly covered informally," said Frank S. Wrabel, an author and noted Pennsylvania Railroad historian.

"He did this largely single-handedly while coming to grips with some daunting personal issues, — while others sank — remarrying and finally a divorce late in life," he said.

"He was a model of perseverance in the face of extreme challenge," Mr. Wrabel said.

At his death, Mr. Roberts had shepherded, written and published 33 books.

Unlike most publishers, in a reader's note at the back of "Triumph IX," Mr. Roberts had written: "We have always guaranteed full satisfaction. If you are not happy, we will refund your money. Thanks for your patience and understanding."

His wife of 21 years, the former Patricia Kirwin, a registered nurse, died in 1971.

Graveside services were held Tuesday for Mr. Roberts at New Cathedral Cemetery.

Also surviving are five sons, Mark C. Roberts of Baltimore, John S. Roberts of Perryville, Paul S. Roberts of Catonsville, Robert M. Roberts of Towson and Kevin B. Roberts of Sandy, Utah; four other daughters, Betsy Roberts of Chicago, Gail Ways of Severn, Joanne Greene of Swanton and Bonnie Roberts of Catonsville; a sister, Jane R. Stern of Greenbelt; and 12 grandchildren.