The sun rises over the B&O freight depot at Florida and New York avenues, burnishing the steel in the yard, firing warehouse brick blood red. Edward Hopper could have painted this.
The sun spreads its heat. Big diesels start moving, shoving boxcars around, putting trains together. The smallest they make, this and every day, is a train called the Georgetown Local. An engine, a caboose and maybe a load or two of coal, it travels the city in a little-known arc, rambling out through Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Bethesda, swinging back around to follow the Canal into Georgetown under the Whitehurst Freeway.
This train travels as much through the mind as it does over land. Once it pulled 50, 75 cars a day: sand, gravel, oil, cinderblock, coal and wheat for the factories that hugged its track. Now it has shrunk as the city has grown. Industries have moved out to more and cheaper land, land girdled by truck-plied highways.
The Georgetown Local has only two significant customers left. One is a lumberyard, the other a GSA heating plant that warms such federal fixtures as the White House, State Department and Treasury. Perhaps political persuasions keeps this train on track.
Not so, says Ray Lichty, B&O General Manager for Operations Planning "We treat them (GSA) like any other customer. If the line wasn't profitable, if there was no great potential for new business, we would seek abandonment [of the line]." Ken Ward, who oversees the plant for the GSA, concurs: "In the 10 years I've been here I've never heard the railroad make any sort of a fuss."
If anything, this line's fate is geopolitical, not political. In 1972 the GSA began converting its five coal-fired boilers to oil and natural gas. Then came the oil embargo of 1973, reversing the process.Oil often travels by truck, coal by rail. So for now, the Georgetown Local lives.
The train -- one engine, one caboose and one freight this day -- pulls out of the yard a few minutes after nine, swaying up the main track, building speed. It burrows through the pastiche of the urban landscape: printing plants, water towers, old gabled frame homes sheltered by oaks, new pastel houses just dropped on treeless ground. It rambles by a subway platform. Someonw waves tentatively, wistfully. He is going to work; we are going the other way.
The engineer's name is Jesse Pilkerton, a laconic old soul who has been "on the railroad" 39 years. Trains to him are pretty much alike; this is just a job. Still, there's a little variety here. "I saw a red fox along here last week and a wild turkey down by the canal."
For now, though, most of the wildlife he sees is kids -- playing hooky, up to no good. Kids down along the track, "all potted up," and scrawling graffiti on any free surface they can find. Pilkerton shakes his head. Brakeman Rudy Monroe nods in assent: "It's amazing what people will put on the track -- bicycles, grocery carts, sometimes piled-up two-by-fours." Anything, he says, to cripple this old train.
Pilkerton continues: "Last Wednesday somebody drove an automobile from Georgetown up the track to the Canal Bridge. We hit it coming around the bend and shoved it 100 feet. This guy came along and said, 'Don't hit my car.' I told him I already had."
As Pilkerton speaks, the train slides through what feels like a time warp, cutting across a golf course and then deep for a moment into woods. Up ahead looms a Bethesda skyscraper. The train goes right under it, surprising three teenagers there in the darkness who draw back like wary curs and try to hide. "Monday," says Pilkerton, "play-hooky day." Resurfacing, we pass a Mercedes dealership.
Pilkerton parks the train at Bethesda Avenue and everyone jumps off for the daily coffee break at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant. Bethesda was once quite a railraod hub. Freight came in; local businesses sent their trucks around to pick it up. Outside the Wagon Wheel stretches of rail lie half buried in the pavement. Down the street stands a stolid brick building, now vacant: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Freight Station.
Nick Read, a retired film maker, and his wife, Dallas, look out over the train tracks that run through their backyard. "That's a friendly train," says Dallas appreciatively. "We've gotten to know it well over the years." When the Reads, who have lived here 27 years, bought the house, it had a swimming hole of sorts in the backyard. They threw it open to the neighborhood kids. The rush of activity eroded its downward slope. One day the Georgetown Local made an unscheduled stop at the Reads', unloading some old ties that Nick and his neighbors used to shore up the swimming hole.
Another time, "our South American daughter," one of four exchange students they've taken in, was married under a backyard elm. Dallas recalls: "Nick asked them if when they came by that afternoon they wouldn't mind sounding the horn. Well, they waited until the ceremony was over, and then the train came. It had white streamers flying from the engine, the horn was blowing, the bell was clanging."
"The faces [on the train] are more of a blur now," says Nick, noting that the Local runs far less often. "We got to know them," echoes Dallas, "we waved, they waved back." She speaks in the past tense.
Up and down this track, if you ask about the Georgetown Local you are likely to be met by ignorance. If not ignorance, then memory -- the past tense. The image is of a train disappearing down the tracks of time.
Irving Miller, 59, is the owner of Talbert's Ice and Beverage Service, where River Road and train track intersect. His memory is keen and full. "I used to ride it [the train] to school. I'd sit in the caboose with the crew around a pot-bellied stove." Miller hopped off down in Georgetown next to a plant that rendered animal fat into soap. "That place used to stink like hell."
Miller's father, now in his 90s, had a general store here -- and the only gas pump between the District line and Potomac. "In the morning the train always stopped here and the crew came in for coffee." They tromped in over a sawdust-strewn floor, leaving the train parked smack in the middle of River Road. There wasn't much traffic then, in the '30s. The road was two lanes of dirt, and a truck came by once a week, spreading oil to keep the dust down.
"We were the only white family in the neighborhood," recalls Miller. "It was a black neighborhood then." Nearby stood the development of Kenwood. "It was restricted. They had a sign out front that said: 'No Catholics, No Jews.'"
Miller is a Lithuanian Jew whose real name is Gerson Kadisavichuis. He took the name Irving on his second day in an American school when the teacher said everyone had to have an American name. She listed 20 names and then asked the students to approach the blackboard and point to one. "Whatever looked good . . ."
George Owns, 42, a mechanic who works in a small garage down the hill from Miller's, grew up there too: "I used to hop that train and ride it down to Chain Bridge to go fishing," when the Potomac ran clean and full of fish.
Now, as Owns looks out the door of the garage, at high-rise condominiums in the distance, at dumpsters closer by filled with empty antifreeze jugs, he grimaces: "This used to be a little country town." Owns' father had a couple of acres, pigs and chickens.
Memories fade, and so does the landscape. Owns says that most anyone can tell you about the train "is either dead or moved away." As for the place, he just says this: "All this progress is ruining us."
The crew finishes their coffee and steps out into a bright bath of morning sun. Pilkerton starts the engine and then decides to eat lunch, cutting a thick slice of tomato to wedge into a meat loaf sandwich. It is quarter of 11. He has been up since five.
On the train rumbles, crossing Bradley Boulevard, Little Falls Parkway, moving into woods through which townhouses advance like armies. Then down it goes, dropping to the river, passing a reservoir with ducks lifting off it, cutting under the perfect keystone arch of a tunnel dug in 1910, according to the brickwork on its face.
On the train goes at its customary 10 miles an hour, an easy reminder of the days when people drank straight from the Potomac, when Miller's father couldn't live in Kenwood, when Owns' family could live on only one side of the tracks.
Progress is good, progress is bad. Ripe with ambiguity, life goes on. So too, at least for now, does the Georgetown Local.