- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

BALTIMORE — A century or so ago, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare yards were busy with the din of a working railroad’s shops, the sound of one small voice would easily have gone unnoticed. Today, as the directors of the B&O; Railroad Museum take stock of a multimillion dollar renovation, it’s often the little voices that matter most.

“Do you know how long it’s been since we heard a child’s voice in this building?” says Executive Director Courtney Wilson. “It’s been 22 months since our last opening day.”

After the devastating snowstorm of Presidents Day 2003, which dumped more than two feet of snow on the 1884 roundhouse roof, causing its collapse and destroying millions of dollars’ worth of rolling stock and the 60-foot turntable, the museum is poised to reopen to the public this weekend.

What has risen from the debris of the great storm is a museum that is bigger and better than ever. You don’t have to be a rail fan to enjoy the 40-acre site, which includes an 1851 station and the first mile of commercial track in the United States, in addition to the roundhouse.

The museum today covers 75,000 square feet. By May that will grow to 120,000 square feet. Three galleries of expanded exhibition space, 975 square feet of it, means that there is something here for just about everyone; history buffs, lovers of fine china, and folks who just like to have a gander at the way things work.

“This is not just a museum of machinery,” says Mr. Wilson. “We want this to be a museum about people.”

Costs for the renovation topped out at $30 million. Of this, $20 million was covered by insurance, leaving the museum to raise an additional $10 million. Thus far, private donors have given $7 million. The city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland, and the U.S. government have also contributed significant funds.

What did the money bring? The turntable has been rebuilt and the museum’s much acclaimed rolling stock is here, of course. Nineteenth century locomotives, voluptuous Pullmans, and the once ubiquitous red caboose take pride of place in the newly renovated national historic landmark, the perfect setting for some of the jewels of the glory years of railroading.

What first strikes the visitor as he makes his way through the brand-new entrance gate is a larger-than-life photograph - enlarged for the new exhibit - of railroad workers making their own way through the gates of the Mount Clare yards. Their racial mix is particularly noteworthy, says Deputy Director and Chief Curator Ed Williams.

“The B&O; was integrated by race from the very beginning,” he says. “Baltimore had one of the highest percentages of free black people on the East Coast.”

The story of Baltimore is as much tied up with the birth of railroading as Washington’s is bound up with politics.

In Baltimore, the railroad got started early, when the state granted the B&O; a charter in 1827. Three years later, things were humming as Peter Cooper’s engine, Tom Thumb, made the run to Ellicott City in a little more than an hour. A month earlier, Cooper’s train had raced a horse and lost, thanks to a leaky boiler. But the run to Ellicott City, called Ellicott’s Mills in those days, ensured that the railroad would be here to stay.

Some of those early trains can be seen in miniature at the museum, where they form part of the collection of models that trace the development of railroad science from George Stephenson’s 1829 Rocket to behemoths like Big Boy, the world’s largest steam locomotive.

Washingtonians may recognize the set; these were once part of the Smithsonian’s collection, displayed in the Transportation Hall at the Museum of American History, and they are all new to the B&O; Museum. The space that features them is one of the three new exhibition galleries.

“It’s possible to trace the development of railroad technology all the way up just by looking at what’s here in this hall,” Mr. Williams says.

But these are no ordinary toy trains.

“These are exact scale models, exact representations of the real thing,” Mr. Williams says. “Everything is in proportion.”

Don’t expect to see these models running around your Christmas tree. The precisely made pieces are rendered in painstaking detail by craftsmen such as the late William J. “Bill” Clouser, a legendary model railroader, author and graphic artist. Although the exact scale used may differ from piece to piece, each one is designed to show the intricacies of railroad engineering.

Of course, before you ran the trains, you had to get the land. So in addition to trains large and small, the museum also displays an old piece of workmanship that was not designed to move - the cornerstone laid by Charles Carroll of Carrollton on July 4, 1828.

“This is one of the icons of American railroading,” Mr. Wilson says of the cornerstone.

Today, museum visitors can catch a glimpse of Mount Clare, former home of Carroll’s cousin, Charles Carroll, Barrister, if they get on board one of the museum’s train rides out along the “most historic right of way in America.”

In fact, the free, 35-minute ride along the first track ever laid and used for commercial rail use - a round trip of two miles out to a new building where all the trains damaged in the storm will be restored - is another new wrinkle: In the past, such runs were for special occasions only; now they’re standard with museum admission. On opening weekend the train will run at least every hour and possibly more often.

“That’s the thing I missed the most,” says Chris France, of Laurel, a volunteer with the museum and a qualified engineer. “I really enjoyed pulling the passenger trains.”

As train technology developed from the Tom Thumb to high flying engines like Big Boy, so too did the services offered by the railroad. In the glory days of railroading, eating on the train meant a bit more than a meal warmed up in a microwave. Back then, dining was an experience, prepared by first class chefs and delivered by first class servers on linen tablecloths.

So it’s no surprise that another icon of American railroading, railroad china, is given its own exhibition space here, in the second of the new galleries at the museum.

“This was a real opportunity to present something in exhibit,” says Mr. Wilson. “We had a good collection of railroad china and silver and now we get to showcase them.”

Among other examples, the B&O; is represented here by a special pattern, “Centenary,” designed by a woman executive, Olive Dennis, for its 1927 centennial. Other railroads’ china is represented here as well.

“Sometimes railroads used a stock pattern with their own logo,” Mr. Wilson says. “And sometimes they went to great expense to have china designed to certain specifications.”

By the time the B&O; celebrated its centennial in 1927, the railroad had already been through receivership as well as boom periods. The Mount Clare yards, however, continued as one of Baltimore City’s larger employers, with more than 1,000 workers during its peak periods. Surrounding neighborhoods grew along with the work force, while the furnaces of ancillary industries, like machine works and foundries, were fired up well into the night.

Shift work has a lot to do with another railroad innovation [-] time. And time is given its own space in the Clocks, Pocket Watches, and Railroad Time gallery, the third of the museum’s three new exhibition galleries.

“It’s because of the railroad that we tell time the way we do,” says Mr. Williams. “Most people associate the pocket watch with the railroad, but it’s actually clocks of all kinds.”

Keeping things to a standard time, railroad time, was essential to make the trains run efficiently. Now, a new interactive map of the United States makes it possible to gauge the time differences across the country. Clocks of many varieties are also newly on display, including the master clock from Washington’s own Union Station, which hung in its administrative offices.

The restored roundhouse building is itself an object lesson in building construction and the development of workhouse space. The circular structure, actually a 22-sided polygon, is considered the largest circular industrial building in the world. For the project, museum planners took the structure back to its original appearance, with soaring ceilings, natural light from clerestory windows, and a shiny new floor that uses the original tongue-and-groove construction.

“We’ve basically put a dance floor on it,” says Mr. Williams.

Modern technology is used to echo the structure’s original construction. So instead of wrought iron and forest lumber, you now have structured steel and laminated wood. After the roof fell in, museum officials discovered that the original architect had designed the interior trusses with wrought-iron rolling pins where they joined the walls. These prevented the collapsing roof from bringing the walls down as well. Now, they’ve been replicated with Teflon plates.

Despite the changes, the place is clearly a paean to the original 1884 construction. Gone are 20th-century touches, like the 1976 slate from an earlier renovation. The paint is white, as it would have been in the days before electricity to reflect the available light source [-] daylight. The black band toward the bottom is there for the workers, who were likely to rest their boots against the wall.

“It looks a lot more like it did after it was first built,” Mr. Wilson says.

Sequestered in one corner are some of the pieces that were damaged by the snowstorm and its consequence, a massive flood caused when the roof collapse triggered the museum’s sprinkler system. They include the oldest extant baggage car in the United States, and an icon of American railroading history - B&O; #600, a steam engine designed by “master of machinery” J.C. Davis in 1875 that was the largest and most powerful locomotive of its day.

“This was the heart of the B&O; Railroad,” says Mr. Wilson of #600 “At the time, it was the most modern piece of equipment in America. It was even exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.”

Outside, new sheds allow museum visitors to get up close to some rolling stock. The C&O; #725 passenger car will house a brand-new model HO railroad layout, while a theater car will carry interactive displays about the railroad and its history. And it will all be accessible for both the person in a wheelchair or a parent with a stroller.

A stone’s throw away, a new G-scale layout will allow visitors to feast their eyes on something a bit smaller than the theater car.

“We’ve designed things for lots of photo opportunities,” Mr. Williams says. “We’ve got something going on at just about any angle.”

Meanwhile, the 1851 Mount Clare railroad station on the museum grounds, considered the first station ever built in the United States, is being readied to a house a collection of items related to the mid-19th century, and by May 2005 will be staffed by living history interpreters

While the station itself is largely a reproduction of the 1851 original, the “feel” of an old-time railroad station is genuine. (Because of its small size, Mount Clare was used only briefly, until the much larger Camden Station was built down the road in 1857.)

“It allows us for the first time to talk about what a small railroad depot was like,” Mr. Wilson says.

About three-quarters of the museum will be ready and running in time for the November opening. The rest is expected to be operational by May.

“It’s very heartening to see it again,” says Mr. France, who will be back pulling the passenger trains this coming Sunday. “It’s just stunning. It’s seems so much more grand than it was.”

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