Choo Choo Train
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Last year I donated my dad’s papers and photos to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. My daughter Brittany was surprised by that transaction, and it occurred to me that our family’s rail roots and stories had not been fully shared with the next generation.
The cornerstone was my great grandfather, Israel Constance who was a train driver (engineer) on the London and North Western Railway. The 19th and early 20th Century equivalent of a commuter line, the South Wales branch of the LNWR was Israel’s route. Only one photo documents his career in our family albums. He is the bearded gent in the cab.
My dad was born in his grandmother Skillman’s house in Magnolia, Maryland. The house sits about 75 yards from the old Pennsylvania Railroad right of way and dad always said that probably the first sound he ever heard was a train whistle blowing as a steam engine pulled into Magnolia Station. The historic station is long gone, but the rail line is now part of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor and each time I take the train to New York City, I love to watch for Grandmother Skillman’s house. The station was the site of Gilmore’s Raid in the Civil War in which the Maryland Confederate Cavalry captured and burned two trains just outside the town of Magnolia.
My Magnolia memories include staying at my Aunt Blanche Fletcher’s house on Thanksgiving weekends when I was in my teens. I would go to make morning milk deliveries with Uncle Robert and then hunt rabbits on the Hedrick’s Farm. Blanche and Robert’s house sat just on the other side of Ft. Hoyle Road from Grandmother Skillman’s. Their old house had some structural oddities including step-downs from two upstairs hallways on opposite sides of the staircase…a unique danger in the dark. Robert raised beagles and trained them for field trials so hunting with the dogs and getting a 25-dog puppy fix was also part of the annual experience.
In addition to hearing the trains at night on those Thanksgiving visits, I would get to hang the mailbags (“catcher pouches”) on the train hooks with my Uncle Robert. He ran his sister’s general store, known simply as Brown’s, which sat just across the street from the station. He served as the postmaster of the village and hung the mailbags for the southbound train to take to Baltimore. One of the clearest memories of my youth was standing out in the dark with Robert and waiting for the mail train. We would watch until the bags were snatched at full speed from the hooks, to ensure all was well, and that the town mail wasn’t scattered down the tracks.
Robert was a man of few words and a wry sense of humor. I’ll never forget riding in the truck with him on my first hunting excursion, when out of the darkness I heard him ask, “Son, have you ever hunted with dogs before?”
“No sir,” I replied.
“Well, there’s only one rule that you have to remember. If the dogs get too close to the rabbit, don’t shoot, cause if you shoot one of my dogs then I’ll have to shoot you.”
I know he was kidding, but it was a quiet ride to the farm after that.
Hanging around that little village, it is not hard to see how my dad was bitten by the railroad bug. The sights, sounds, and smells of railroading was part of his everyday life.
Fred Kisor, was the first husband of Aunt Blanche’s sister Idella Skillman. A dashing guy who everyone loved, he was one of my dad’s favorites and became my godfather. Fred was one of the track superintendents for the B&O Railroad and had his own private train car to ride the rails and inspect a section of the line from Baltimore to New York.
My dad’s sister, Aunt Jean worked for the B&O when she graduated from High School in Baltimore. My mom’s father John Loeber worked his way through law school as a telegrapher on the B&O Railroad at Ilchester Tower just outside Ellicott City, MD. To say we were a railroad family would be an understatement.
As an adult, dad was active in the National Railway Historical Society, a life member and one-time President of the Baltimore Society of Model Engineers (BSME),and one of five founding members of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. The BSME had a long-term lease on the second floor of an old shoe store in Baltimore on Saratoga Street and had built two huge model train layouts, one in O Gauge and one in HO. I probably walked a hundred miles under those big train gardens in my youth. The Society also had an annual beauty contest for Miss Model Railroader, and I clearly recall having a huge crush on at least one of the 8-10 year old winners. ‘Twas a different time.
Three rail-related museums were also passions of my father over the years. The B&O Transportation Museum in Baltimore, built on the site of Mt. Clare Station, the terminus of the first railway in America (Ellicott City was the other terminus), it houses a priceless collection of railway rolling stock and is now associated with the Smithsonian as one of their partner sites. Dad was a close friend and confidant of Larry Sagle, a railway historian and one-time director of the Museum.
Dad’s second love was the other terminus of that first rail line, The Ellicott City Train Station. The Station had fallen into disrepair over the years and Dad was one of a group of Friends of the Museum that secured the funding and oversaw the restoration of the building. On opening day in the late 1970’s, dad hooked horns with a local TV reporter named Oprah Winfrey who had a contrary opinion of how the shoot should be conducted. Their encounter has become one of our favorite family tales. Dad survived the day and was very proud of his title of Curator of the newly opened Station.
Finally, the Baltimore Streetcar Museum stands today in large measure due to the ingenuity and political acumen of Allan Constance. Dad was one of five founding members of the museum. While Dad’s pal, the late George Nixon has gotten much of the credit over the years, dad saved the collection of antique streetcars and maneuvered the acquisition of the present site on Falls Road. The cars were being stored at Lake Roland in Baltimore and suffering from their unsheltered location. Weather and vandalism were combining to destroy this wonderful slice of Baltimore history.
After telephone and correspondence pleas to Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin were unsuccessful in attracting his attention, dad went to a Board of Public Works meeting at City Hall. He was the last person sitting in the audience when Hyman Pressman, City Comptroller twice asked, “does anyone else have any business for the Board?” Dad sat silent. When the gavel came down for adjournment, Mayor McKeldin asked, “OK, Allan, what do you want?” Dad’s father, Reverend Bert Constance was a longtime friend of the Mayor through his many legislative sojourns for the Lord’s Day Alliance in Baltimore.
Dad said that he wanted to take the Mayor on a little ride and that he had already checked with Mrs. Momberger, the Mayor’s secretary, and he was free for the afternoon. The Mayor laughed and shook his head, but called for his car and they indeed spent the afternoon together. Dad was able to show McKeldin the decay of this important historic resource, rotting away at Lake Roland. That was the day that things turned around.
My Dad not only loved rail history, but always wanted me to be a part of his hobby as well. Some days I was more willing than others, but one stands out in my mind and is related to my recent donation to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.
Early on the morning of November 3, 1963 (like 3am early), my dad awakened me for a special “opportunity”. Completely unappreciative, I got dressed, brushed my teeth, stumbled to the car and rode with him to the Catonsville Junction. The Junction was the little village on Edmondson Avenue that was the terminus of the Catonsville #8 Streetcar. The other #8 originated in Towson and both lines terminated at the Car Barn in Irvington.
November 3, 1963 was the last day that the streetcars would ride the tracks of Baltimore. General Motors, the world’s principle manufacturer of buses at the time had driven one line after another out of business with sweetheart deals to America’s cities. Baltimore was one of the last holdouts along with Philadelphia.
Dad had been involved with Special Streetcar Runs on November2 and tickets were sold for folks to ride these chartered excursions through the streets of Baltimore. However, to dad, the big ride would be the last scheduled ride from Catonsville to Irvington and he wanted me to be a part of it. My memory of the trip is a little blurry, but one thing I will never forget. As the streetcar passed Mt. St. Joe High School on Frederick Rd. and started down the hill toward Irvington, several my fellow passengers pulled out screw drivers, pliers, and other tools to extract souvenirs from the interior of the car. Not wanting to be outdone, I grabbed the Trolley Cards (advertisements) from overhead, two window shades, and the red cloth conductor’s flag as my booty.
The photo in the Baltimore Morning Sun that documented the last day of service showed my dad, clad in his London Fog raincoat and ever-present fedora, standing at the car barn in Irvington as the last car (the one I rode) pulled in. You see, dad wanted to be sure that I had the ride, not him.
That very car is in the collection of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, which stands on Falls Road because of Allan Constance. This memory and this story are largely because of him as well.