Ma & Pa roundhouse is a tarnished gem

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, November 21, 2019

Fireman Norman Spicer turns No. 29 on the armstrong turntable in front of the Baltimore roundhouse in March 1952. James P. Gallagher photo
A family trip to Baltimore last weekend afforded me a chance to take a brief detour and check up on the most prominent relic of one of the East’s most famous fairy tale railroads, the Maryland & Pennsylvania.

I never saw the “Ma & Pa,” as everyone referred to it, but years ago I stumbled upon its sturdy old roundhouse, which still exists on the northeast side of town, tucked into a hillside on Falls Road just north of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. I vowed to go back.

For those who need an introduction, the Ma & Pa was one of those railroads that became famous all out of proportion to its economic justification. Think of it as the Virginia & Truckee of the East — impossibly charming and impossibly forlorn. Like the V&T and its relationship with author Lucius Beebe, the Ma & Pa also had an illustrious biographer.

The Ma & Pa as we know it was formed in 1901 via the merger of two former narrow-gauge railroads, roughly serving the territory between Baltimore and York, Pa., a hilly, sylvan countryside without much business for a railroad. Its mainline was 77 miles long, a much greater distance than the roughly parallel Northern Central, a PRR subsidiary that managed to connect the same two cities within only 56 track miles.

Gas electric motorcar No. 62 goes for a ride on the Baltimore turntable. H.A. McBride photo
During the steam era, the railroad got by with a modest roster of classy-looking engines, notably some stout Baldwin 2-8-0s, but what really set it apart was a nifty pair of gas-electrics delivered in 1927 and ’28 and intended to stem losses on passenger service. The railroad limped through the 1950s and was largely sold off piecemeal by the late 1970s. A few pieces survive today, some in short-line service and another short section of original track operated by the Maryland & Pennsylvania Preservation Society.

That Ma & Pa biographer I mentioned was the late George W. Hilton (1924-2014), the celebrated UCLA economist and railroad historian. One of his best books is The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, originally published by Howell-North in 1963 and still available in a 2000 edition from Johns Hopkins University Press. It’s classic Hilton: as highly readable and entertaining as it is scholarly. 

Hilton became interested in the Ma & Pa after reading William Moedinger’s notable profile of the railroad in the December 1941 issue of Trains. Entranced by Moedinger’s photographs, Hilton wanted to go see it someday. He got the chance a few years later when he took an academic position at the University of Maryland.

“I found it all that Moedinger’s article had led me to expect,” Hilton wrote in his Preface to his book. “Graceful antique equipment, marvelous scenery, formidable operating problems, and an overall charm that would have been difficult to equal on any railroad. If one fancies the wooded mountains of the East, and rolling hill country, the Ma & Pa offers a beauty hard to match.”

The Ma & Pa Baltimore roundhouse as it appears in late 2019. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The same might be said about the Baltimore roundhouse, though my visit last week proved it has seen better days. The structure was built in 1910 as part of a major expansion of Ma & Pa’s southern terminal and boasted not only a formidable stone exterior but also a tall, gracefully curved clerestory. Alas, a portion of the roof has collapsed, the clerestory windows are blanked out, and the current owner, the city of Baltimore’s Public Works Department, is apparently in no hurry to fix it. The place is used to store trucks and other equipment, as well as road salt.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the old building seems to be a very active place, with employees and trucks coming and going, and as near as I can tell, no plan to tear it down. I tried to contact a media rep with the Department of Public Works for an update, but he neglected to get back to me.

Maybe the best response was from a flatbed driver who arrived during my visit, backing his truck into a spot along the roundhouse wall. “Hey, pal, you have a lot of money?” he asked. “You should buy this place and fix it up!”

Sorry, pal, “no” on both counts.

I also checked in with Johns Hopkins (I like the spelling of his first name), executive director of Baltimore Heritage, an organization dedicated to saving historic buildings and improving neighborhoods. His organization’s website has an excellent section on the Ma & Pa roundhouse, but Hopkins told me they know of no plans to change its current use. 

So, for now, I guess there is some comfort in knowing this magnificent old structure is relatively stable.

When I got back from Baltimore, I headed right for the Kalmbach library and the folder marked “Ma & Pa.” There I turned up some gems, including these two shots taken at the roundhouse late in its career. One by James P. Gallagher shows fireman Norman Spicer putting his shoulder into the armstrong turntable as he repositions 0-6-0 No. 29 in March 1952. The other, earlier image, by H.A. McBride, shows gas-electric No. 62, being readied for the afternoon train to York, this time with two guys pushing the table.

Both photos offer a glimpse not only of the charm of the Ma & Pa, but also the appeal of a small roundhouse doing what it was built to do. This kind of short-line steam facility is rare — you can probably count the survivors across the U.S. on two hands. I hope the city of Baltimore has the good sense to either preserve this landmark when the time comes, or convey it to someone who can.

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