George W. Hilton, professor and author of history of ‘Ma & Pa’ railroad, dies at 89

August 13

George W. Hilton, a retired college professor, author and transportation economist whose works on railroads and shipping included the seminal history of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, known as the “Ma & Pa,” died Aug. 4 at an assisted-living community in Columbia, Md. He was 89.

The cause was a heart ailment, said a stepdaughter, Amy Stefhon.

“George was a great historian for lost causes and great failures like narrow-gauge railroads and the Ma & Pa,” said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive and a nationally known railroad historian and author. “That resulted in the definitive histories of the American narrow-gauge railroads, the electric interurban railway industry, cable-powered street railways, overnight steamships along the coasts and in the Great Lakes.

“In all of these, he was obsessive about detail but then could summarize everything into a big picture explained simply, directly — usually with a few memorable bon mots along the way,” he said. “He described the hilly, ever-curving Ma & Pa, for example, as ‘the route of the screaming flanges.’ ”

Dr. Hilton spent most of his academic career at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he taught economics and transportation regulation until retiring in 1992. He was the author of 15 books, mainly on transportation.


George W. Hilton (Baltimore Sun)

His first book, “Cable Railways of Chicago,” was published in 1954. It was followed by “The Truck System, Including a History of the British Truck Acts, 1465-1960” and “The Electric Interurban Railways of America,” written with John F. Due. Both came out in 1960.

In 1962, his book “The Great Lakes Car Ferries” was published, and “The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad” followed the next year. The Ma & Pa was a single-track railroad that shambled 77.2 miles across Maryland, and whose trains chugged 20 mph between Baltimore and York, Pa. It stopped operating in 1958.

“The book had much merit as economic history,” said Robert J. Brugger, a Baltimore author and historian, who is an editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press, which reprinted the book in the 1990s. “It sold quite well, so the Ma & Pa after its death achieved success after all.”

“George Hilton’s book also was the likely single most important thing that got both the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society and the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Preservation Society started or formed in 1985,” said Rudy Fischer, the archivist for the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society.

Another of Dr. Hilton’s books was “The Night Boat” (1968), which chronicled the era of overnight packet boats that once steamed on the nation’s rivers and bays. The Old Bay Line’s City of Norfolk commenced its last voyage April 13, 1962, sailing from Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore.

He also wrote “Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic” (1995), which explored the 1915 capsizing of the excursion boat Eastland in the Chicago River while still tied to the dock. The disaster killed 841 passengers by the most reliable count — more passengers than were on the Titanic. Because of rain, most passengers were crammed on the lower decks and could not escape when the ship suddenly flipped.

The Eastland disaster was one of the worst maritime tragedies of the century but an event almost forgotten today.

A native Chicagoan, Dr. Hilton told the Chicago Tribune that he remembered “the chill that went up and down my back when I was 10 and my father pointed out the Eastland, riding anchor among the yachts across from Buckingham Fountain.”

George Woodman Hilton was born Jan. 18, 1925. As a child, he became transfixed by trains and ships. He reveled in smoky railroad yards with their panting steam engines and long lines of freight and passenger cars, and the sights and sounds of Great Lakes steamers as they whistled away from their piers.

He graduated summa cum laude in 1946 from Dartmouth College. At the University of Chicago, he received a master’s degree in 1950 and a doctorate in 1956, both in economics.

Dr. Hilton’s first article in Trains magazine on the Tennessee Central Railroad was published in 1946, and in the intervening years, he wrote more than 25 articles for the magazine.

Dr. Hilton, who contributed more than 25 articles to Trains magazine over the decades, also wrote widely on topics that included British soccer, Gilbert & Sullivan, Sherlock Holmes and theater organs. He also had edited a newsletter for collectors of breweriana.

He was considered an expert on major league baseball — the Chicago White Sox was his favorite team — and was the author of “The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner.” For years, his car’s license plate was “Sox ’06.”

After he retired, Dr. Hilton moved to Columbia in 1992.

His first marriage, to the former Phyllis Bartlett, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Constance Slater, died in 2005 after 22 years of marriage.

Survivors include two stepsons, Eric Gabler of Silver Spring, Md., and Grant Gabler of Littlestown, Pa.; and four stepdaughters, Amy Stefhon of Columbia, Carol Kelly of Westfield, N.J., Karen Smith-Adams of San Diego and Ebony L. Smith of Colorado.

— Baltimore Sun

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