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When light rail’s acolytes sing the praises of their concept—small-scale train lines linking city to suburb via electric trams—the idea rings so true that surely someone ought to have had it before this.
Someone did. They called it the interurban railway. Beginning in the late 1800s, interurbans flourished around the country, especially in regions dotted by big and midsize cities and small towns. The trains made it possible to commute, carry small loads, and transport tourists to and from urban centers and bedroom communities. But the light rail phenomenon, which peaked in the 1920s, was short-lived. The internal combustion engine, the interstate highway, and the stigma of antiquity undid them. Like clotheslines, nickel-plated coin changers, and other implements of a simpler time in America, the interurbans acquired iconic status.
For a few buffs, the interurbans were icons even before they went out of business. As early as World War II, a prescient cadre of enthusiasts realized that the electric cars had an emotional pull to match their freight-hauling capacity. One of these, Carroll James, grew up in the ’40s on a line of the Hagerstown & Frederick Railway, whose 88 miles of track linked those Maryland cities and smaller towns like Williamsport and Point of Rocks. Even as a child, James never took the rickety, rackety ride for granted. He rode the trains whenever he could. He collected pictures of the tracks and cars, carefully arranging them in albums. And in 1954, as a 17-year-old cub radio reporter for radio station WJEJ, James tape-recorded the comments and reminiscences of those who traveled on the railway’s last run.
Shortly after that, college and romance and career and adulthood began to distract James from his railway hobby. In the early ’60s, he parlayed a series of lesser radio jobs into a spotlight turn. He became a popular D.C. disc jockey, occupying the afternoon slot at WWDC-AM. In December 1963, James ensured his place in pop music history by being the first American DJ to play the Beatles’ single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (Capitol Records wasn’t planning to release a U.S. 45 of the British hit until the group appeared in February 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show; the resourceful James had his girlfriend, a flight attendant with British Overseas Airways Corp., bring a copy across the pond. When the Beatles played their first American concert at Washington Coliseum, James introduced them).
James left radio in 1969 to become a free-lance film narrator and actor, and in the ensuing years his fascination with theH&F resumed. The result is a moving valentine to the vanished line: a 30-minute video that uses his 1954 radio tape, still photos and drawings, and a few seconds of motion picture footage to illustrate why the interurbans exerted such appeal—and why they continue to do so.
Though it cost only $14,000 to produce, The H&F Railway: Trolleys Through the Heart of Maryland has the feel of a costlier film, thanks to a high-quality soundtrack and state-of-the-art animation cameras that were used to inject motion into the old still pictures.
The video grew out of a less-sophisticated presentation James had assembled in the early ’80s. “I said to myself, “I’ve got those voices and all these pictures to do with the H&F—I ought to make a slide show,’ ” he explains. The 30-minute production melded still pictures, sound effects, and pre-recorded music.
However, the H&F cried out for something more than the bump-and-flash of projected slides. James started collecting motion picture footage of the line from fellow fans. Artist William Hinnant rendered scenes not chronicled on film—such as a terrifying episode when a car rated for 48 persons but carrying 110 went off the rails. Pianist Charles Sayre, formerly of the Navy Band, contributed a soundtrack that features Scott Joplin and Glenn Miller.
At first, James attempted to subsidize his project out of his own pocket, but costs mounted. He realized he needed some latter-day Medicis to underwrite his artistic vision. “I got corporate support—but not as much as my wife would have wanted me to,” he says. “I spent extra on the animation technology; that equipment can make the elements of an 11-by-14 photograph seem to move, the way Ken Burns does in his films.”
The video came out in December 1994. Marketing to trolley buffs and customers of rail-related retail outlets, James has sold more than 1,300 copies of the $19.95 video, running right into the black. It’s easy to see why his show sells. Compared with the amateurishness of many trolley and train vids, he has delivered the genre’s equivalent of The Civil War. The individual pictures are galvanizing in their simplicity and naiveté, yet rendered crisply dramatic with Burnsian camera pans and dissolves. Sayres’ soundtrack subtly enhances the narration, written and recorded by the producer. This engaging combination of compelling historical detail and deeply felt emotion induces in a viewer an overpowering urge to visit the National Capital Trolley Museum. The film, hailed by Railfan & Railroad as “excellent” for its quality not only of production value but content, could only have been put together by someone who was not only a seasoned media veteran but had spent his life holding the subject close to his heart.
Which makes it rather difficult for Carroll James to contemplate the notion of producing another trolley video. “This one was 40 years in the making; it was the one I had resources on,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll do another.” But he is not saying never, and one obvious topic would be the streetcars of Washington, D.C., which make a brief appearance in H&F and with which James had personal experience, courtesy of college-era summer jobs at D.C. radio stations and regular visits to the city as a child.
“When I was a kid, my family would come to Washington to see my grandparents, who lived near the zoo. An aunt lived at Dupont Circle. And I remember driving to Mount Pleasant and seeing the last streetcar to roll, but I didn’t ride it,” he says, warming to the notion of a D.C. streetcar history. “But it would be fun to get some of the newsreels and look at them. We’d have to get the film and the stills. These things are around; it’s a matter of finding the material and getting permission to use it.”
The H&F Railway: Trolleys Through the Heart of Maryland is available from C.J. Trolleys, P.O. Box 8686, Silver Spring, MD 20907; (301) 588- 8324.