- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

BALTIMORE (AP) Pushing hard, Edward Williams turns the 60-foot wide turntable, and the nation's oldest operating steam locomotive rotates slowly inside the great stable of the iron horse.
"This is why we don't belong to athletic clubs," the deputy director of the B&O; Railroad Museum joked, after moving the 62,000-pound William Mason about 90 degrees.
The 1856 locomotive was transferred last month from its open bay in the Baltimore & Ohio's historic roundhouse for tests to make sure it would be ready for the Fair of the Iron Horse, a celebration of 175 years of American railroading.
"This is sort of the world's fair of railroading," said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the museum. "Basically, railroading in America was created here."
Organizers say the celebration will culminate in a 10-day festival to display the most impressive collection of locomotives in the Western Hemisphere. It will run from June 27 to July 6.
"We have locomotives coming from all over the country, and we believe even the 'Rocket' is coming from England the very first locomotive in the world to participate in this fair," Mr. Williams said.
The Rocket was built in 1829.
The festival will include pavilions and arenas showcasing the railroad industry, toys, technology, entertainment and food.
Mr. Wilson said it will be an international event. Rail companies in France, Canada, Germany and Spain have been invited to participate.
"This will probably be the last time in this century that this many locomotives will be assembled in one spot, and it'll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Mr. Wilson said.
The B&O; held a similar event in 1927 in nearby Halethorpe that attracted more than 1.25 million visitors over three weeks.
Libby Younglove of Towson, a visitor who watched a tractor pull the William Mason onto the turntable, said she wouldn't have missed it. Her family has worked in the railroad industry for generations.
"It's such a piece of history that I said, 'We have to go see it,'" said Mrs. Younglove, as 2-year-old grandson Joshua Conlon clambered onto a red caboose nearby.
Museum officials said they hope the festival will help foster enjoyment and appreciation of trains.
"It's such an intricate part of our whole social fabric, but we don't pay any attention to it until there's an accident or derailment of some kind," Mr. Williams said.
"It's just an incredible engine, excuse the pun, for the country."
The museum's 22-sided roundhouse will be a focal point in the months leading up to the festival. The building was completed in 1884 and building rises 135 feet into a huge cupola and covers nearly an acre of ground. The roundhouse, which has been in continuous use since its construction, was designed as a passenger car shop.
Inside is the most significant collection of railroad artifacts in the nation, including a replica built in 1926 of the Tom Thumb, the first American-built locomotive (1830), and the St. Elizabeth, one of the last steam engines built in the United States (1950).
In the middle is the turntable. Mr. Wilson describes the wooden circle as being a lot like "a plate on a stick." A single center pin supports it. When a locomotive is properly balanced on the turntable, one person can move more than 30 tons.
The museum, which sits on about 40 acres in west Baltimore, holds locomotives, freight and passenger cars, and other rolling stock including cars from the nation's first trains, which were pulled by horses.
The grounds also contain cavernous buildings with special tools for restoring old locomotives.
"It's a really remarkable resource to have here to bring these engines back to life," said Jeff Truemen, director of marketing for the museum.
The first 50 years of railroading are illustrated in the museum, thanks to the B&O;'s preservation of early locomotives. The museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, has nearly 250 full-size pieces in its collection.
You may have seen some of them in movies, where some of the museum's pieces have been popping up since the 1937 film "Wells Fargo."
The William Mason still wears a pair of elk antlers from its appearance in the 1999 Will Smith film "Wild, Wild West." That was one of the rare occasions in which a locomotive was allowed to leave Baltimore for a film.
Museum officials describe the grounds as the birthplace of American railroading. That's because the first stone of the nation's first commercial, long-distance railroad was laid on the site July Fourth, 1828, by Charles Carroll of Baltimore, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence.
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, Baltimore merchants looked for ways to remain competitive in trade with the West. They decided to borrow the English railroading concept, and the Maryland General Assembly issued the first government charter for a railroad Feb. 27, 1827.
It was the beginning of the nation's railroad system, which would fuel the Industrial Revolution. As the technology caught on, the network that started with the B&O; reached 13 states, all the way to St. Louis.
A complex of shops, yards and laboratories were built around the site where the museum now stands. The railroad opened a transportation museum 50 years ago in the roundhouse to reach out to the public.
"Nobody puts an airport under their Christmas tree," Mr. Williams said. "They put trains under it. There is this love affair with trains. America grew up on trains, and it's a real special part of our social fabric."

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