Farewell, Locust Point

Posted by John Hankey
on Friday, May 04, 2018

 

The recent Newswire piece reporting on CSX’s decision to close the former B&O yard at Locust Point in Baltimore was of no surprise. Industry had been deserting the area for decades, and CSX has three other substantial yards in its Baltimore Terminal.

Still, it is painful to see the yard shut down and likely redeveloped as residential/industrial land. There are a few rail customers in the area. But the demise of Locust Point as a railroad facility is merely part of a 50-year trend. It probably ought to go away.

Baltimore, like so many East Coast cities, was shaped by its waterfront. In the 18th Century, the heart of the city developed around the “Inner Harbor,” the upper reaches of the Patapsco River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. At that point, there was enough fresh water in the harbor to kill the salt-water shipworms that infested the wood hulls of ocean going sailing ships crossing the Atlantic. Even then, logistics were complicated.

By the early 1840s, the new B&O Railroad had outgrown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and begun building coal, grain, and merchandise piers on a large spit of land known as “Locust Point,” to the southeast of Baltimore’s core harbor area.

That was where it built its first export coal piers, followed by export grain piers. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that even in the 1830s and 1840s, American railroads were part of sophisticated world commodity markets. In the 1840s, coal from the Alleghenies and grains from the Midwest were helping to feed and fuel booming industrial cities in Europe.

A hundred years later, much of that traffic had wound down or moved elsewhere. When I was out on the railroad, Locust Point handled a fraction of the business it had in the 1940s and 1950s. Chessie still shipped a substantial tonnage from the massive former B&O Locust Point Grain Elevator, but the most of the rest of the Point’s industry and marine commerce had evaporated.

Still, there was business to be done. There were piers to be switched, warehouses to be served, and a few stalwart industrial customers, like Domino Sugar and the grain elevator. That created interesting situations for train and engine crews.

Folks of a certain age might recall something called a “Rock Cornish Game Hen.” In my household growing up, they were a delicacy served on special occasions. I didn’t think much of them and greatly preferred more basic Maryland fried chicken.

Then there was something locally called “Locust Point Game Hen,” which was nothing more than grain fed rock pigeons generally caught by local African American folks. South Baltimore had a substantial African American population, and both poor Blacks and poor whites exploited the local wildlife.

On the railroad, you had to be alert to people fishing and crabbing from railroad bridges, and to (mostly) kids catching grain-fattened pigeons in Locust Point Yard. You made a lot of noise.

I never sampled Locust Point Game Hen. But squab (baby pigeon) is considered a delicacy among foodies. No one I was on a crew with ever questioned why local folks were going after the slow, obviously delicious, grain pier birds. We just had to worry about people being in a railroad yard we were trying to switch. And Locust Point Yard was a hard place, with curving tracks, lots of idiosyncracies, and a complex layout. And plenty of birds.

The rats were another story.

Where there is a port, and where there is a grain elevator, there will be rats. Little ones, big ones, cute ones, evil ones. At Locust Point in the old days, there were men who wouldn’t work third trick because that is when most of the rats came out to graze on the grain knocked loose from the hopper cars.

They would run across your boots as you stood in the ballast. You might step on one as you dropped off a car or locomotive. I heard many stories of rats running up pant legs and scaring the Hell out of Yard men and Brakemen.

They were always there after dark, shadows moving around in certain parts of the yard. I vividly recall traps and poison around shanties and certain tracks. It was a futile contest. Their forebears had probably come over on sailing ships in the 19th century. It was their territory.

Baltimore’s railroad-maritime work has since moved to the outer harbor. Locust Point has been changing dramatically, much like old railroad districts elsewhere (such as Toronto).

It is sad to see Locust Point go away as a working railroad facility—my Grandfather worked there in the 1920s. It is equally difficult to see how Locust Point might survive as a working railroad yard—there just isn’t much to do there. Harbor-view condos and light industry might be the highest and best use of that real estate.

I am certain that the B&O management of the 1840s would agree

 

 

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