2202 Westchester Avenue, Baltimore, Md. 21228
A visitor to Hagerstown, Md., up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains some 75 miles west of Baltimore, might suspect that he was in the Chicago suburb of Pullman, III. Spotted in sidings all around town are cars, which made the name Pullman synonomous with luxurious railroad travel in the United States. It would be even more perplexing to learn that the last passenger train drew into Hagerstown over five years ago. Investigation would show however, that the cars are tangible evidence of a booming new industry in town. They are the property of Reuben Upton Darby II, whose Darby Wood Products Co. is in the forefront of what is fast becoming a big business the renovating, remodeling, and refurbishing of old railroad cars. The work is not confined to Pullmans alone. Currently, passenger coaches, work cars, and even a caboose are in various stages of rejuvenation.
Darby got into the business more or less by accident. After World War II, in nearby Clear Spring, Md., he started in the lumbering business and built up extensive facilities for processing lumber from logs to finished millwork. This led to the construction of houses. While one of his crews was erecting a home in New York state, the foreman was asked to do some minor repair work to a railroad car in private hands. When this was completed, he was asked about the possibility of doing a complete renovation of another car. Darby decided that the job could be handled on a profitable basis, and thus was launched a phase of his operations which soon threatened to eclipse both the mill and house construction.
Sensing the potential, he began to acquire cars of his own, which, after they are reworked, can be put to various uses. Much of the work so far has been refurbishing. All of the cars are structurally sound when purchased. Any repairs necessary to the running gear are performed by the railroads before the cars are deadheaded to Hagerstown. Not much work is required on the exterior of the cars except a fresh paint job, which includes fancy striping on the trucks. The interiors are also completely repainted after any repairs necessary to restore them to the glory of their halcyon days are made.
These cars are then available for, besides the obvious excursion business, such purposes as restaurants. For this, they are set on parallel tracks, interconnected, and provide a unique eating establishment. Another unusual use is for traintels. These are similar to motels, except that they consist of from three to seven converted Pullman cars. A complete traintel can be set up for about $20,000, which would cover the cost of only about two units of a typical motel. The cars wouldn't be as spacious, but they would allow for much more reasonable rates. There is also the novelty aspect to consider. In addition to this, they have the advantage of being mobile. This would make it quite feasible to use them in, say, Maine during the summer months, then moving the operation to Florida for the winter season. Another rental use is to colleges where they serve as dormitories. Remodeling work is the portion of the activity stressed in the company's current advertising, slanted to 'a man and a business who desire status sales, economy, captive audience, and confidential meetings anywhere'. The decor of these business cars can cover the gamut from a Wall Street office effect to the rococco ornamentation which would have delighted the nabobs of half a century ago. At the moment the company is renovating an ex-B&O car, circa 1912. The initial procedure was to practically gut the interior, leaving only a few items such as washroom facilities, which were to be retained much as they originally were (Darby has acquired a varied stock of antique accessories to draw from). The remainder of the car is being rebuilt to suit its business purposes with modern trappings. Also included are a bedroom with built-in four-poster bed; air conditioning (with the machinery hidden away off the rear vestibule); and a handsome mahogany bar, which hides such necessary accoutrements as sink and refrigerator.
How this car will appear when finished is illustrated by an earlier Darby production, the private car the 'Green Castle' now awaiting disposition. This car, sitting on a private track in Hagerstown, is a fine example of the car rebuilder's art, its former standard Pullman furnishings having been removed, and with few exceptions, being replaced with modern, albeit, luxurious components. Among the incongruous reminders of olden days are two sinks which fold into the walls, their functional convenience being impossible to improve upon. An old ice chest has been converted to hold soiled clothes, and various lockers now serve for storage of office records and as filing cabinets. The car is modern in every way, being adaptable to either train operation or capable of being parked on a siding. For example, two refrigerators which work on electricity (from power lines) or bottled gas in transit. Heating is provided from steam lines or by batteries beneath the car. These batteries give some idea of the cost of the cars, being valued at $4,000. Rated for 15 years, they can hardly be classed as inexpensive. It becomes apparent why a car of this type is offered for around $50,000. Obviously not for the average man, the market for these cars is the business executive or companies capitalizing on their unusual capabilities. It can be argued that while the initial cost is high, maintenance is practically nil. They are said to be great for business purposes, with the pleasant surroundings being conducive to relaxed bargaining. At least one executive maintains that when you figure in the cost of hotels, private rail cars are more economical than a private plane.
Both the renovating and remodeling are fascinating operations, yet it is the refurbishing work which really tests the skill of the workmen. At the moment, the Darby company is working on a true gem that he rescued. This is a car of 1885 vintage that formerly served as the private car of the superintendent of the Delmarva division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Though its future is not certain, it almost undoubtedly will end up in a museum.
Rescued for the ignominy of having its running gear removed, and being jacked up on blocks while serving as a private residence, it is the only car that the company has worked on that had to be brought to Hagerstown on a flat car. Yet it retained enough indications of its former days of glory to give promise of becoming a real treasure when refurbishing is complete.
Above the rear platform, a golden frieze lends a rakish touch, offsetting a tawdry paint scheme of faded red, trimmed with black. The observation area still contains some of the wicker furnishings of Victorian days. At intervals, push bottons, set into the wood paneling, remain to recall memories of former days, when a porter was on hand to answer their call. Other signaling equipment still intact served a more businesslike purpose, that of communicating to the engineer commands to slow down, stop, back up, etc. Every nook and cranny abounds with reminders of a bygone day a small closet contains a commode, and a tiny heater; two overhead bunks make no effort to conceal their quaint chains and pulleys; there are green, pressed-glass windows in the clerestory roof, 14 karat gold Tiffany trim and mellowed walnut paneling.
Railroading is a changing business, yet it still gives one a strange feeling in this day of dome cars and Budd RDC's to come into a place where Pullman cars look as they did when they had just gone into service; where a car that to all outward appearances might be a Baltimore and Ohio diner (which it actually was) now serves as a swank office on wheels; and where you can step into an inspection car that still appears as it did in the days when steam ruled the rails, drummers carried their wares in huge suitcases, and cuspidors were standard equipment. But this is all possible at Darby's Frederick Street yard in Hagerstown, Md., where the poignant memories of yesteryear combine with the conveniences of today.