Wednesday, November 4, 2020

 

Meet the Tender of Locomotives

by John Geist

Herman “Obie” Oberender was born in Baltimore in March 1895 to German immigrant parents Anna Strauber and Richard Oberender. The family lived on Port Street in East Baltimore, some blocks east of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The 1910 US census reports him living or working at a home for boys as an errand boy in the electric shop.

World War I found him as a Navy Fireman on the USS Delaware, a battleship that traveled to England but never saw active combat during the war. After his honorable discharge in November 1918, joining the ranks of B&O Railroad employees set Obie on a lifetime path. Following a start as a machinist’s helper at the B&O Riverside Yards in South Baltimore in 1922, Railroad personnel records show a promotion to machinist.

Now, the B&O Railroad, rather unique among its contemporaries, had saved an extensive and extraordinarily valuable collection of old locomotives, cars and other railroad equipment tracing back to the American Civil War, as well as reproductions from much earlier days. The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 included early exhibitions of these historic pieces. Becoming the centerpiece at the upcoming 100th anniversary of the founding of the B&O in 1927 was their next destination.

Back to Obie. A double page spread in the Baltimore Sun Metrogravure Magazine on June 28, 1953 reported extensively about his unique career. No longer just a machinist, in 1925

“he was assigned to the job of helping whip them (the old locomotives) into shape for the “Fair of the Iron Horse” in 1927, and was also told at the time to learn to run all of them”.

That opportunity catapulted Herman Oberender into a demanding but exciting role with full responsibility for overseeing and operating all the antique engines for the remainder of his railroad career. He was still a machinist at Riverside Yards, but repeated lengthy transfers to the Public Relations Department for his locomotive duties now defined Obie’s life.

Perhaps because of the phenomenal success of its 100th birthday extravaganza, the 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse, the B&O started receiving requests to loan its antique equipment to movie companies. This meant Obie was often on the road to movie or other events at widely separated locations across the U.S. In 1937, that meant taking the replica of the 1837 engine No. 13, Lafayette, to Chino, CA for the filming of Paramount Pictures’ “Wells Fargo.” Later film trips included “Stand Up and Fight” (1939), again to California, “Rock Island Trail” (1950), “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956) with the William Mason to Georgia and North Carolina (1956); and “Raintree Country” (1957) with the William Mason, to Kentucky. Non-movie events included the Chicago World’s Fair – A Century of Progress (1933), Chicago Railroad Fair (1948), Western Maryland Railway’s “Lincoln Goes to Gettysburg” with the Thatcher Perkins (1952), and appearance on television episodes of “Omnibus,” the “Today Show,” and “The Gray Ghost” with the William Mason. On July 23, 1954, NBC produced the first color telecast from Baltimore featuring Obie at the throttle of the Tom Thumb from the B&O’s Mt. Winan’s yard. The pinnacle of his television appearances undoubtedly was the March 30, 1958 nation-wide telecast of a segment of NBC’s “Wide, Wide World”. This 90-minute tribute to American railroading, “Flagstop at Malta Bend,” provided Obie, a man of extraordinary self-confidence and not bashful about self-promotion, with the opportunity to be featured in the cab of the William Mason for live shots from Baltimore and conversation with then nationally known TV personality Dave Garroway, moderator of the documentary.

Over many years, the B&O’s beautiful and unique collection had been gathered and preserved in the B&O‘s old south Baltimore roundhouse at Bailey’s. The 1953 Baltimore Sun Metrogravure Magazine article quoted above later described a big move from Bailey’s with these words:

“One of the neatest pieces of engineering in a decade, they’re saying down around Bailey’s Roundhouse, has been the persuading of Herman Oberender to let the movers take his babies away without first wrapping them carefully in cotton wool. Oberender’ s babies are a dozen or so locomotives, freight cars, and passenger cars which, with hundreds of smaller pieces of railroad equipment, have just been transferred from Bailey’s Roundhouse to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s new transportation museum in the roundhouse at Mount Clare Station.”

With this move, “Obie” left his machining duties at Riverside and joined the brand-new Museum staff.



Obie was soon off to his next movie or television gig after first settling into his museum office with business cards naming him as full-time Custodian of his “babies”.  From then until the Museum was later temporarily closed in June 1958, Obie was the “tender of the locomotives”. He rounded out his B&O career in 1960 and retired to his home in Middle River.

John Geist, Archives Volunteer, October 2020


References

Family records

Baltimore Sun, Pictorial Review, October 12, 1952

Baltimore Sun Metrogravure Magazine, June 28, 1953

B&O Railroad Magazine, September 1954

NBC, script for “Wide Wide World” program, March 30, 1958

Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1960

 

Image Citation

 B&O Railroad Magazine, June 1955

1 comment:

Mike said...

Thanks for doing this story on my great-uncle. It's nice to know about his TV stardom back in the 50s.