June 17, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Railroad Workers as Heroes: Building Mountains and Going to War


Running a "Railroad Workers" Museum is a bit tricky. Sure, we knew that James Feeley, man of the house at 918 Lemmon Street, worked at the B & O Railroad as a laborer and a boilermaker; and one of our Museum founders put in a stint working in the B & O yards in West Baltimore, and was from an important railroading family. There were other stories here and there, but what did it take to really develop our understanding of those men and their accomplishments?

It took friends, relationships and time, for which we are thankful. Many have walked in the front door over the years, telling stories of their ancestors and offering photos and objects to remember them by. We have been amazed, and our displays and the stories we tell are a direct result of these relationships we have developed.

Today's story includes a photo of little Les Town, Museum friend; a treasured family photo of John P. McGowan and crew (thanks to Terri Menefee); and a photo of a massive gathering of workers in the Mount Clare Shops, courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum; thanks to archivist Anna Kresmer and her capable volunteers.

A "Little Shaver", basking in the glory of it all

Little Les Town (above) knew about heroes. Like a lot of boys circa 1943-44, he counted cowboys, baseball players, soldiers and railroad men as bigger than life, and was thrilled when the photographer hit his 100 block South Arlington Street with horse and props. Like many young children of the time, Les went to see his cowboy heroes on Saturday mornings, and in his case, at the Lord Baltimore Theatre on West Baltimore St., just a few blocks from his home. Mounting a horse just a few doors down from his home was a dream come true!

This photo is a delight, but also tells us about other heroes. Buddy and Bobbie Kratz lived on the block as well, and their family honored their service in World War II with stars in the window and a banner that spoke of the air forces that fought in Europe and the Pacific.

Thousands of other heroes walked right past Les Town's house each morning, in the flesh. The photo below shows the entrance gate at W. Pratt and S. Arlington Sts. where determined railroad workers entered the Mount Clare Shops every morning. These men and women had a gargantuan task to accomplish: winning a war from the home front. Railroads during the war were challenged to bring munitions and materiel around the nation, and military and civilian personnel to their destinations in numbers that were hard to fathom. Freight business in the United States via rail doubled between 1940-1945, while passenger travel tripled. Railroads, like all American industry, were on a war footing, and meeting the challenge was the patriotic duty of each essential worker who walked into the Mount Clare complex; some 3,000 per day at its height.

Mighty Men

Accomplishing this was no simple matter. Prior to 1937 most passenger trains were powered by Pacific-type locomotives, and were often double-headed to get long trains over the mountainous areas of Western Maryland and the Appalachians. Mechanical officers at the B & O sought a solution to the problem, and believed that heavier, more powerful locomotives could be developed and built in the B & O shops.

The B & O's T-3 "Mountain" locomotives were the result. These were practically new locomotives, built on site, that used larger boilers (built elsewhere) to generate more power. The first of this type had been built prior to the war, beginning with the "Lord Baltimore" (numbered 5500 when it was built in 1925). The "Phillip E. Thomas" was built just thereafter; you can see it in action on Youtube's Fair of the Iron Horse, at 25:19.

These formidable locomotives weighed 400,000 lbs. and carried 20 tons of coal.

Once the war hit, railroads considered remodeling smaller 4-6-2 "Pacific" type locomotives to drive massive numbers of passenger and freight trains, but it was determined that the huge 4-8-2 "Mountain" locomotives were the best solution. The B & O ordered 23 of them from other manufacturers, but only received nine. It was decided that their own railroad workers could do the miraculous themselves, and in 1942 they planned to build 40 Mountain locomotives in their own shops. Thirty were built between 1943-1946. Tenders that held 25 tons of coal and 20,000 gallons of water were built elsewhere by the B & O, and transported to Baltimore to be linked with the Mountains. These enabled the locomotives to run at high speeds, with fewer stops needed for resupplying.

These monster locomotives were very effective at their task, and production continued at the Mount Clare shops into the post-war years. The photo below, supplied by the family of General Foreman John P. McGowan (8th from the right), shows him and his colleagues posing in front of two locomotives, including the T-3c numbered 5589 at the right, built in 1947.

Their Massive Accomplishment

The workmen of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were remarkable. How many railroads could decide, in the middle of a war, to built 40 massive locomotives themselves, while running passengers and freight into 13 states? It is hard to fathom how the railroad workers of West Baltimore and beyond could accomplish such a massive task. They each made a huge contribution to the war effort, and are worthy of honor even today. It is no wonder that many still refer to the B & O as "Railroad University".

They celebrated en masse along the tracks that bordered their workshops. No. 5594, the 40th and final T-3 series "Mountain" locomotive, was dedicated by thousands in October, 1948 with considerable fanfare. Railroad leaders congratulated the working men heartily, and the event was culminated by the giving of a certificate of completion by head machinist John E. Frey to J. H. Snyder, the oldest yard engineer at the time. Snyder had begun his career with the B & O in 1898, and was fitfully chosen to drive the locomotive out of the shop.

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