Joseph J. Snyder has more than a passing interest in railroading and especially the venerable Baltimore & Ohio, whose storied passenger service is the subject of his recently published book.
The B&O invented the passenger train. On Jan. 7, 1830, a horse pulling four coaches carrying passengers who had plunked down 9 cents for one way, or three tickets for 25 cents, inaugurated passenger service on the B&O as Old Dobbin clip-clopped along at a leisurely pace from Mount Clare to the Carrollton Viaduct in Southwest Baltimore.
While the horse-powered train would eventually get patrons to their destinations, it was the arrival of the diminutive steam locomotive Tom Thumb in 1830 — the brainchild of Peter Cooper, a wealthy New York merchant and tinkerer — that forever changed the complexion of motive power.
Steam — which lasted until the mid-1950s — would be the last motive power innovation until the arrival of diesels on the B&O in the 1930s.
According to Snyder's "Baltimore and Ohio: The Passenger Trains and Services of the First American Common-Carrier Railroad, 1827-1971," during the summer of 1831, the B&O put into service the York, its prototype steam locomotive, and the Columbus, which is considered the forerunner of the modern passenger coach.
In his book, Snyder catches the sweep and grandeur of the B&O's passenger service, whose royal blue, gold and gray cars were some of the most handsome and distinctive vehicles on eight or 12 wheels in the business.
Trains such as The Capitol Limited, The National Limited, The Royal Blue, The Diplomat, The Shenandoah, The Columbian, The Cincinnatian, The Ambassador, The Abraham Lincoln and The Cleveland Night Express — to name a few — transported passengers in extreme comfort between Jersey City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington over its far-flung tentacles to Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit.
Snyder's use of pictures of trains, stations, timetables, dining car menus (no railroad set a finer table or offered better cuisine than the B&O) and advertisements, many in dazzling color, along with descriptive copy, keeps things moving as fast as The Capitol Limited, a brand name that Amtrak resuscitated in 1982.
I particularly enjoyed his essays re-creating rides on the road's named trains, but I have to take exception with a very nicely written piece about a snowy winter's evening ride aboard The National Limited in 1926.
Snyder writes that after entering the dining car, "You place your order in writing with the waiter in white, and settle back to enjoy a cocktail, while you talk about business conditions with your dinner-table companions."
I think not. This was the heart of Prohibition, and for the B&O to have been serving cocktails then would have been in complete violation of the Volstead Act.
There are other minor problems — a caption accompanying a photograph of a locomotive he misidentifies as the Lord Baltimore, "one of four 4-6-4 Hudson types used for fast passenger trains."
The locomotive is actually an example of the famous President-class Pacific 4-6-2 types — in this case the President Cleveland — that were indeed on the head end of all of the B&O's premier trains. Its sister, the President Washington, the first in the class, can be seen at the B&O Museum.
On a picture spread on Page 209, he writes that the cars were manufactured by the "Buda Co." It is the Budd Co., which was once located in northeast Philadelphia.
This is mere nitpicking, I know.
The handwriting was on the wall after World War II, as the thrill of the open road meant traveling by car on broad interstates. With the competition from airlines and automobiles, the American passenger train was on life support.
In 1958, the B&O ended passenger service north of Baltimore; the company exited the business completely with the arrival of Amtrak in 1971.
But there was one more gesture from a railroad that had been a class act.
William F. Howes Jr., director of passenger service, re-created the eastbound Capitol Limited of old on its last run from Chicago to Baltimore on April 29, 1971.
Farewell dining car menus had been printed for the occasion and The Capitol paused on the Thomas Viaduct for a last portrait.
Snyder wrote that the company had enjoyed a long tradition of service "with a capital 'S.'"
No truer words were written about what railroaders call "The Best & The Only."