- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Bowie Railroad Station and Huntington Museum in Old Town Bowie offers one of the area’s premier train-spotting perches. The site, which includes a visitors center, station, train operators tower and restored 1920s caboose, is just a few yards from the Northeast Corridor’s main tracks — there are three sets — used by MARC and Amtrak trains dozens, sometimes hundreds, of times a day.

“A lot of kids, that’s their favorite thing to do — just watch the trains go by,” says Ruth Murphy, a museum guide. However, she adds, children are not the only train enthusiasts who engage in train-spotting.

“The biggest train-spotting time is around the Thanksgiving holidays. Hundreds of people of all ages show up to look at all the different trains that pass through,” Ms. Murphy says.

To accommodate the big holiday crowds, Amtrak uses trains — sometimes older and unusual models — that aren’t normally used, Ms. Murphy says, “which is a real treat for train lovers.”

Don’t worry; there is no need to wait until November. During a recent morning, at least 10 trains passed within an hour.

“Oh, that was the 10:12 northbounder,” Ms. Murphy says excitedly as an Amtrak rumbles past. “I’ve been waving at [the driver] for a year. Now he’s finally waving back.”

Aside from train-spotting, the site offers a look at local history, in which train history plays an important part.

“The city really grew around the railroad,” Ms. Murphy says. “It was a big employer.”

The town (formerly known as Huntington) got a railway station in the late 1800s. It was a large, ornate wooden Victorian that lasted just a few decades before burning down. The replacement station also burned down. The station currently on the site has lasted about 100 years. It shows how a waiting room would have looked, including the ticket counter, benches and a wood-fired stove for heat.

In an adjacent room, Ms. Murphy shows visitors what kind of tools train operators would have used 100 years ago. They include large tongs to switch tracks and a portable heater that would be used in winter, when the tracks — particularly the switches — were frozen tight. The heater would help thaw the ice so the operators could make the switch.

Ms. Murphy also shows the lanterns of different colors that would be used to signal different things to the driver, such as stop and go.

Visitors can take a 45-minute tour of the entire site with a guide, such as Ms. Murphy, or tour it by themselves.

The next building of interest is the interlocking tower (the railroad industry’s equivalent of the airline industry’s control tower). In the mid-20th century, various radios and walkie-talkies (on display) were used to communicate between towers — there were five between Washington and Baltimore — about scheduling and possible security issues of oncoming trains.

Ms. Murphy has set up a radio that transmits the frequencies train operators use today. Visitors can listen to Amtrak and MARC train operators out of Union Station, for example, in real time.

It used to be, several decades ago, that the train operators working the towers would look at a large panel (which looks a bit like a blackboard) that showed the tracks and switching tracks at and around the station. If a train had to switch tracks, the train operators no longer had to use the manual giant tongs but were able to use a hand crank in the interlocking tower that would switch the tracks for the oncoming train. That maneuver is even easier today.

“It’s all computerized nowadays,” Ms. Murphy says.

The last — and for many the biggest and best — attraction is the restored 1920s red caboose. It doesn’t move, which disappoints some children, Ms. Murphy says, but it does allow visitors onboard. It no longer has the stove, toilet or bunks that it had when in operation, but visitors can see how it used to look by viewing the original floor plan on display.

The caboose was the end train car and served as a place for train employees to rest, eat and sleep. It also provided, through its cupola — a raised part of the roof that has windows — a way for the employees to get an overview of the entire train.

The restored caboose also features information on other area history, such as the founding of Bowie State University and Bowie Race Track.

“And this is, of course, a kids’ favorite,” Ms. Murphy says, pointing to the train table, complete with miniature wooden tracks and trains, also located in the caboose. There’s also a puppet-show stage with puppets that visitors are welcome to use and play with.

Ms. Murphy says she hopes the site soon will acquire an outdoor play set, hopefully a train-related one.

Speaking of the outdoors, the site has a large lawn in front of the tracks and picnic tables.

“We invite people to bring their own picnic lunches — if it ever warms up — and just enjoy some good old train-spotting,” Ms. Murphy says.

When you go:

What: Bowie Railroad Station and Huntington Museum

Where: 8614 Chestnut Ave., Bowie.

Directions: Take U.S. Route 50 east to Interstate 495. Take I-495 north to exit 20A (Lanham). Get off at 20A, which puts you on Maryland Route 450. Once on Route 450, take Maryland Route 564 east. Stay on Route 564 for about 5.5 miles and then turn right onto 11th Street. The museum and station will be on the right.

Admission: Free.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays.

Parking: Free parking lot.

Information: Click on www.cityof bowie.org/comserv/museums.asp or call 301/575-2488.

Miscellaneous:

• The museum and railroad station do not offer food service, but there are several restaurants in the vicinity, including a grill next door. Old Town Bowie also features a half-dozen antiques stores. Other offerings include five additional museums, including the Belair Mansion and the Radio and Television Museum.

• The museum and railroad station host frequent events such as the Kids’ Caboose program, which takes place from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on the last Thursday of every month and features tours and train-related stories plus arts and crafts.


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