By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
5:16 PM EDT, April 29, 2013
Charles T. Mahan Jr., who spent 75 years painstakingly documenting the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad — better known as the Ma & Pa — that zig-zagged across Maryland from Baltimore to York, Pa., died Friday of kidney failure at Oak Crest Village. He was 88.
"Every fan of the Ma & Pa will be eternally indebted to Charlie. He was a treasure," said Rudy Fischer, archivist of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society.
"He documented its rolling stock, narrow- and later standard-gauge days. He had timetables, annual reports and other documents such as track and grade maps," said Mr. Fischer. "He took the time to put it all down and had the knowledge to do it."
The son of a paper company executive and a homemaker, Charles Thomas Mahan Jr. was born in Baltimore and raised in Anneslie.
"He loved trains, especially steam engines," said his son, Richard Lawrence Mahan of Burke, Va. "He started photographing steam engines when he was still a teenager and continued taking pictures of these beautiful and powerful trains the rest of his life."
"Charlie used to walk to Towson High School and before class, he'd go to the station in Towson and see the morning freight and passenger train coming from Baltimore," said Mr. Fischer.
Mr. Mahan graduated from high school in 1943 and then enlisted in the Army, serving with the infantry in France.
After being discharged, Mr. Mahan worked for Pennsylvania Water & Power Co., where he inspected power lines.
In 1957, he went to work for Baltimore County public schools as the system's site acquisition chief. At the time of his 1985 retirement, he was working in property management for county schools.
The Ma & Pa Railroad was Mr. Mahan's passion. The 77.2-mile single-track railroad wandered across the bucolic countryside and hills of Maryland at 20 mph on its way to York, while crossing 114 bridges and traversing 476 curves. The Ma & Pa ended passenger service in 1954, and freight service was terminated four years later.
Mr. Mahan photographed and collected anything to do with it.
"The thing that always amazed me was when steam went away, Charlie continued taking pictures of its diesels. If he heard they painted an engine or new cars, he'd go to York and take pictures," said Mr. Fischer.
"He drew up long lists documenting the history of cars and locomotives. He carefully labeled and dated boxes of slides," he said. "It is incredibly invaluable."
Richard Mahan estimated that his father's collection of railroad images totals more than 50,000 slides, pictures and movies.
To this he added station signs, lanterns and other Ma & Pa memorabilia and artifacts that filled the basement of his Stone Barn Road home in Towson, where he also built and operated the HO-gauge Maryland Central Railroad.
"His basement collections were the cathedral to the Ma & Pa," said Mr. Fischer, who added that Mr. Mahan donated his railroad archive to the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society.
Among rail fans, Mr. Mahan earned a reputation for generosity when it came to answering inquiries and sharing material and pictures.
"He was extremely generous and helpful to me. He was always open and generous, and I was a beneficiary of his generosity," said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad historian and author.
"And with his photographs, he was very conscientious of the railroad and its surroundings and pictured trains in their natural habitat rather than just at roundhouses and yards," he said.
"Charlie was the consummate rail fan and he shared anything he had," said Martin Van Horn, a Pennsylvania Railroad historian and author who became a friend of Mr. Mahan's in the 1950s.
Mr. Fischer described Mr. Mahan as "totally unassuming."
"Even though I would ask him a naive question, he treated me as if I was as important as anyone else. He never talked down to you," he said. "He was a wonderful friend and didn't have an enemy in the world. It was a treat to know him."
Mr. Mahan was also interested in the B&O, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Northern Central Division that operated between Baltimore and York, and the Pennsylvania Railroad.
"He loved every railroad he could get his camera next to," said his son, who added that his father's other photographic interests included lighthouses and covered bridges.
"My mother convinced him to do that," he said.
Mr. Mahan's wife of 56 years, the former Veta Arelyn Thomas, a retired Baltimore County public school principal, died in 2004.
Mr. Mahan, who had moved to the Parkville retirement community in 1999, was a member of Towson United Methodist Church.
Services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.
In addition to his son, Mr. Mahan is survived by two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
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