- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003


More than a million people had been expected to begin arriving in the Baltimore area this weekend for a weeklong celebration marking the B&O Railroad Museum’s 50th anniversary.

Instead, the museum’s staff has been working to raise the $10 million they will need to reopen the Baltimore landmark next year.

“Maybe by the fall of 2004,” said Courtney Wilson, executive director of the museum.

The railroad museum closed after heavy snowfall Feb. 17 collapsed a large section of its roof and damaged the museum’s collection of vintage locomotives and rail cars.

Insurance payments will be used to mend the roof, but the museum must raise $10 million to repair the exhibits, Mr. Wilson said.

The museum recently applied for a $1 million grant from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, the largest grant request in the program’s history, according to park service officials.

“I know $1 million is a lot to ask,” Mr. Wilson said. “But I think we’re deserving. We went through the most catastrophic event in American museum history.”

Fund-raising experts say that finding $10 million to reopen the museum won’t be easy.

“This is a very hard time to raise dollars,” said Amy Coates Madsen, program director for the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “With the economic downturn, there’s more competition for fewer dollars.”

Mr. Wilson said the museum is counting on help from Maryland’s congressional delegation.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen recently sent letters to park service officials lobbying for the B&O museum. But the extent of their influence is not clear: None of the three Democrats sits on committees with oversight of the park service.

“Who is writing letters is always taken into consideration,” said Beth Newburger, spokeswoman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which administers the grants. “But the decisions are always made on the importance of the site to the nation as a whole.”

The B&O Railroad Museum was founded in 1953 and is one of the country’s prominent venues in railroad history, standing at the site where American railroading began in 1827. It houses some of the nation’s oldest and most extensive collections of engines, railroad tools, photographs and other artifacts.

About 450 nonprofit groups applied for Save America’s Treasures grants this year, a 15 percent increase over 2002, grant coordinator David Banks said. The program funded 66 projects last year.

The $1 million grant would be used to repair the museum’s locomotives and rail cars. Mr. Wilson said private funds would have to keep the museum operating after Feb. 17, when an insurance policy that covers operating costs runs out.

“Operating funds are the toughest,” Mr. Wilson said. “There aren’t any grants I know of for that sort of thing. Keeping the lights on and the staff paid is the hardest money to come by.”

The $10 million needed to reopen the museum accounts for nearly half its $25.3 million in assets, according to 2001 tax returns. The museum’s outlook seemed bright before the roof collapse: Tax records show that the B&O took in $3.1 million in 2001, while spending $2.6 million.

Mr. Wilson said the staff spent three years preparing for the Fair of the Iron Horse, the 50th anniversary jubilee that was set to start Friday at the museum’s 40-acre complex and neighboring 100-acre Carroll Park.

“We were going to have locomotives from all over the world,” Mr. Wilson said. “We expected a million people over six days.”

But the trains were silent Friday. Museum staff worked in their offices as a crew of 15 construction workers toiled at repairing the roof of the 119-year-old building.

“We wanted to have the fair,” Mr. Wilson said. “But we knew we had other work to do first.”

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