A 77-Mile Masterpiece

By Lawrence Biemiller

York, Pa. -- You are threading your way through downtown York, guided only by a nine-square-inch map in your road atlas and by the instructions George Hilton gave you in the cab in Washington the day before: Look on the east side of town, two blocks south of the main east-west street -- Mr. Hilton couldn't remember its name. You're on the east side, all right, but the street you're on is getting narrower and narrower, and you suspect you are lost. The street dead-ends against a wall of row houses. You're about to give up when you spot them, over on the right. Railroad tracks.

You go east a block, eagerly, then south. The tracks themselves run on the diagonal, walled in by old industrial buildings. You cross Market, cross King, come to Princess. All you see is a scrap-metal yard. But further along you find the sign on a chain-link fence: MARYLAND & PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD -- OPERATING OFFICES. Another sign displays the old logo with its familiar, five-pointed star -- familiar, in fact, from years of leafing through Mr. Hilton's 1963 history of the railroad. But now the logo carries a banner it didn't used to have: "The Famous Ma & Pa."

You look around, excited to have found a place you read about so often. There's a plain cinderblock building, and beside it a modern locomotive crisply painted in yellow and blue. The curve of the tracks in the tiny yard matches the 1960 plan in Mr. Hilton's book, but scrap metal is piled where the turntable and engine house used to be. There are none of the sagging Railway Post Office cars pictured in black and white in the book, none of the ancient coaches that your mother remembers running past her childhood home in Baltimore, and worst of all none of the steam locomotives that survived here well into the 50's -- no 1901 Richmond Americans, no Baldwin 10-wheelers, no heavy, handsome Consolidations from the years before World War I. Frankly, what's left of the Ma & Pa is about as famous-looking as an old muffler.

To whatever extent this railroad really is famous, it's largely the doing of Mr. Hilton, a retired economics professor from the University of California at Los Angeles. In The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, he described the 77-mile line as less a railroad than a work of art, one that carried slate and milk and passengers between here and Baltimore at 20 miles an hour. Visitors, he wrote, might easily conclude "that the whole thing came from the mind of some Velasquez or Rembrandt among model railroaders, who, having exhausted his art in HO and O gauges, came finally to the hills north of Baltimore to create his masterpiece at a scale of 12 inches to the foot." Not many short-line railroads get mentioned in the same sentence as Velasquez and Rembrandt.

"A book has a life of its own in the author's mind," says Mr. Hilton, who at 69 has completed 11 books and has two more in the works. "You see how you could have done it better. But this book about the Ma & Pa doesn't have that. At present I'm happier with The Ma & Pa than with anything else I've written."

Many of Mr. Hilton's books are about one form or another of rail transportation, including what he calls his "grand trilogy on unsuccessful transportation innovations": The Electric Interurban Railways in America, which he wrote with John F. Due; The Cable Car in America; and American Narrow Gauge Railroads. To say he treats his topics definitively understates the case. The book on narrow-gauge railroads gives a brief history of each and every one, state by state, as well as an examination of the economic trends that doomed them. The book on cable cars describes every American line -- of which only the three in San Francisco survive -- and then goes on, astonishingly, to catalogue every point at which two of the lines crossed.

The crossings matter, at least to the most devoted aficionados, because cable cars are towed by miles-long cables rattling along in conduits just beneath the street surface. The cars rely on the slow-moving cable both to pull them up hills and to hold them back while descending. Where two lines cross, however, the cars on one line have to let go of their cable so it can drop below the cable for the other line. The cars pick the cable up again on the far side of the crossing, but this can be tricky. At California and Powell Streets in San Francisco, Mr. Hilton says, "The Powell cars drop because the California cars are senior. It's very dangerous -- the Powell cars have to pick up immediately. If they don't, they don't have enough brakes to get down that hill without a disaster."

Mr. Hilton's passion for details is broad. One of the two books now in production at the Stanford University Press identifies all the people on whom Ring Lardner based characters in his baseball stories; Stanford plans to release the volume on the opening day of the 1995 baseball season. The second book is a re-examination of the 1915 capsizing of the steamer Eastland at its dock in Chicago. Mr. Hilton attributes 844 deaths to the disaster, which occurred as the steamer was getting ready for a one-day excursion. In the book, Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic, Mr. Hilton says the "Boats For All" movement that began after the sinking of the Titanic forced the Eastland's owners to add additional lifeboats that made the vessel top-heavy. The refitting was completed July 2; the excursion was July 24.

"I'm still a very loyal Chicagoan," says Mr. Hilton, who was born there, "and I'm eager for a posthumous reputation in Chicago." He says he thinks the Eastland book is just the ticket, although one suspects he would have written the book even if he didn't think his local reputation depended on it. "The great happiness I've found in life," he says, "is in writing books."

Registered at Dartmouth College at age 2 -- Dartmouth is a family tradition, Mr. Hilton says -- he went to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D. In the early 1960's he was hired away from Stanford by UCLA; shortly afterward, he was named chairman of President Johnson's transportation-policy task force. He argued in favor of abolishing the Interstate Commerce Commission and deregulating the railroads, and later he opposed the creation of Amtrak. But after suffering a heart attack in the early 1980's, he decided to give up economic policy and devote himself to history.

Mr. Hilton has been a rail fan since he was a youth, when he spent hours watching trains at Englewood Station on Chicago's South Side -- "the greatest single site for train watching in the U.S.," he says over lunch. Unexpectedly he goes on to say that an enthusiasm for trains "is symptomatic of people whose parents interfered with their transition to their peer group -- they're attracted by the sexual symbolism of railroads."

"But I don't regret that I ever got mixed up in it," he adds. "It gave me a body of knowledge that I could transfer to the academic market. Other things might have served better, but it served well as an organizing principle for academic life." He says he enjoyed teaching, although he regrets that students' reviews of his lectures were never quite as good as critics' reviews of his books. After retiring from UCLA, he moved to Columbia, Md., to be close to the Smithsonian Institution, where he has the title of researcher at the National Museum of American History. He also serves as a director of the Steamship Historical Society of America and as vice-president of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. ("Iolanthe is the greatest Greek comedy ever written," he says as soon as he hears the show is about to open in Washington, " -- and I'm not excepting the Greeks. Ida's entry at the beginning of the second act is Sullivan's greatest aria. If he'd composed like that every time out, he'd have been another Mozart.")

As for the Ma & Pa, it abandoned its Maryland trackage in 1958 -- which happens to be the year in which Mr. Hilton's lunch companion was born. Except for the York yard, the original Pennsylvania trackage has also been abandoned, but the railroad's new owners have acquired instead a former Pennsylvania Railroad line between York and Hanover, Pa. "The line to Hanover I think does quite well," Mr. Hilton says. "It's a viable short line of the modern type, cheaper to operate than large railroads because of relaxed union requirements." Its failure to be anything like the work of art he once wrote about is the kind of disappointment Mr. Hilton has become inured to. "By 1958," he says, with no sign of regret, "the stuff that my generation was enthusiastic about -- interurbans, streetcars, steam locomotives -- had all passed into history."

Copyright © 1994 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published June 15, 1994.