Robert W. Janssen, a career Chessie System railroader, transportation aficionado and volunteer firefighter, died Saturday from cardiovascular disease at his Carney home. He was 93.
“He was the ultimate railfan,” said Ken Van Horn, a 61-year member of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society and a founding member of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. “He took photos, wrote a book and a monthly column, ‘Travelin,’ for The Interchange [the museum’s newsletter].”
James A. Genthner, a Timonum resident who is also a member of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, called Mr. Janssen “a fixture in the hobby for over 70 years.”
“An era in railfanning has ended with the death of Bob Janssen,” he said.
Henry "Pete" Clements, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute graduate who went on to become a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and associate director of NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center, died of an acute cardiac event Aug. 10 in McMahan, Texas. He was 92.
Robert William Janssen was the son of John H. Janssen, a Baltimore firefighter, and Virginia Foard Janssen, a homemaker. He was born in Baltimore and raised on his grandparents’ farm in the Aldino community of Harford County.
After graduating in 1941 from Havre de Grace High School, he joined two uncles who worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, getting a job in the freight accounting department. He retired from Chessie System, a successor company, in 1986.
“Although the work might have been far away from the rails, it came with the perk of a railroad pass — which allowed him to ride on trains of the B&O and on those of other railroads,” Mr. Genthner said.
Mr. Janssen’s lifelong fascination with railroads began when he was a youngster watching steam-powered trains roll by the Aberdeen station. On weekends, he waited patiently at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s brick Havre de Grace station for his grandfather to return from Philadelphia, where he operated a stall in the Reading Terminal Market.
A high school graduation gift of a diary from a favorite aunt changed his life, launching him on a more than 50-year practice of documenting his travels by passenger train, taxi, plane, bus, interurban rail and streetcar. This culminated in the 2000 publication of his book, “Travelin’: One Man’s 50 Plus Years On The Move Across North America,” illustrated with photographs he took of his journeys.
At the time his book was published, he had recorded 1,570,443 miles — an estimated 500,000 by rail alone.
“What’s more, he managed to fill 34 bound diaries totaling some 7,000 pages with meticulously kept entries detailing miles traveled, routings, interesting sights along the way, restaurants, meals eaten, as well as good hotels and the flea bags to be avoided,” reported The Baltimore Sun in a 2000 interview.
“Other trip memorabilia such as postcards, photos and transfers are kept in carefully maintained permanent files for quick reference,” The Sun reported.
“He kept complete and exacting notes of the trips he took,” Mr. Genthner said. “He included routes of the trains and streetcars he rode, the people he met, and the places where he dined. If you want to know what was being served on the dining cars of the railroads he traveled on and the prices, you can find them in his writings.”
Bernard Siegel, first president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation who helped steer more its philanthropy to the city, died Aug. 19 from cancer at the North Oaks Retirement Community. He was 88.
Mr. Janssen never held a driver’s license or owned a car, proudly preferring to utilize public transportation to get where he wanted to go. He also never owned a computer, and used a typewriter for his correspondence instead.
An earlier article in The Sun, in 1948, reported on Mr. Janssen’s lifestyle, saying “his idea of a perfect weekend is to take a train to St. Petersburg, Fla., ride every streetcar line they have there, then board another train and get back in Baltimore just in time for work Monday morning.”
Mr. Van Horn, author of a history of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Greenspring Valley branch in Baltimore County, recalled a 1961 trip on the Stewartstown Railroad in Pennsylvania with Mr. Janssen.
“The railroad provided a couple of gondola cars for us, as they did not own any passenger equipment,” he said. “Bob requested if they could add a boxcar because he said he wanted to ride like a hobo. So, for the entire trip there he was, sitting on a folding chair between the boxcar’s two open doors.”
He described his longtime friend as a “quiet fellow who was dry-witted and very serious.”
Mr. Janssen was acquainted with all 425 miles of Baltimore’s streetcar lines and often rode on final days of operation as line after line was converted to buses in the postwar period. Mr. Genthner recalled meeting Mr. Janssen in 1955, riding a streetcar of the soon-to-be-abandoned No. 32 Woodlawn to Camden Station line.
“We were greeted by a slender man dressed in a coat and tie,” he recalled of his first encounter with Mr. Janssen. “I noticed that he wore a brown necktie with a Baltimore Transit Co. car painted on it. He still had that tie when I visited him several years ago.”
“Bob was a fixture on so many trips,” he said. “He will be sorely missed; he was a mentor and a source of knowledge about streetcars, trains and fire engines.”
Mr. Janssen was a member and historian of the Level Volunteer Fire Co. in Havre de Grace, and was honored in 2012 for his 55 years with the company.
He had been a member of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society and had served as its president, vice president, secretary-treasurer and chapter director. Since 1963 he retained the position of membership secretary.
“At the time off his passing, he was but months away from collecting the extraordinary rare 75-year membership in the NRHS — an honor only handed out once before,” Alexander D. “Sandy” Mitchell, a railfan writer and former Baltimore resident who now lives in Paulden, Ariz., wrote on the society’s Facebook page.
Each Wednesday, Mr. Janssen arrived at the streetcar museum and joined a band of retirees who worked in its library organizing and cataloguing books, photographs and timetables.
He was also a member of the Maryland Rail Heritage Library since its founding in 1986. Other interests included bluegrass music and amusement parks. He especially liked riding roller coasters.
When asked in the 2000 interview if he had a favorite train ride, he told The Sun he’d like to again ride the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad to York, “or on the trains of the New York, Ontario and Western Railroad.”
He described the Ma & Pa as a down-to-earth operation where “everybody knew everybody else. The trains used to stop at rural stations to pick up and deliver milk cans and other goods.”
He also offered a piece of advice for rail travelers: On return trips, take a seat on the opposite side of the car.
“Why look at the same thing twice?” he said. “You will see entirely different scenery and new things.”
Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Level Volunteer Fire Co., 3633 Level Village Road, Havre de Grace.